Obama in Poland: The start of a new practical relationship?
Barack Obama’s visit to Poland on May 27-28 was markedly different from earlier U.S. presidential visits to the country. There was no major policy speech, no overarching agenda item to drive the headlines, and only small groups of onlookers in the streets. But the visit—which elicited a mixed response from the Polish media—was nonetheless an important step forward in bilateral U.S.-Polish relations, laying the ground for more cooperation in years to come.
Since 1989, the pendulum of U.S.-Polish relations has swung from optimism – Poland’s reliance on American support for its entry into NATO, and Warsaw’s strong commitment to back Washington on Afghanistan and Iraq – to unease -- when the Obama administration cancelled the Bush-era missile shield and announced the “reset” of relations with Russia. The decline in the United States’ popularity in Poland can also be attributed to disappointment concerning Iraq (where Poland’s involvement was accompanied by high expectations of political and economic gain) and the refocusing of U.S. priorities away from a seemingly more secure Central Europe.
Poland’s own political orientation and social evolution have also been responsible for the present state of bilateral relations, especially the generational shift toward young Polish elites who have few memories of communism and the Cold War. Since Poland joined the European Union, there has also been a progressive “Europeanization” of its foreign policy optics. Although Poland remains one of the most pro-American countries in continental Europe, the emergence of a new generation that lives in an increasingly European environment – travelling, studying and working in the European Union – has begun to shape new attitudes that place less emphasis on the relationship with the United States. Although the foundations of the relationship remain strong, today there is less intimacy between Warsaw and Washington and more focus on specific issues, giving popular perceptions of U.S.-Poland relations an almost transactional quality at times.
Against this backdrop, and considering the evolving tenor of U.S.-European relations, Obama’s visit to Warsaw at the end of his European tour was welcome, even in the absence of a major speech and a warm public response. Some of the agenda items discussed during the visit were familiar, such as the perennial problem of including Poland in the United States’ Visa Waiver Program, an issue Obama promised to bring up with Congress, and deeper security cooperation in the form of a negotiated agreement on periodic training and stationing of U.S. F-16s and transport aircraft on Polish soil.
However, Obama’s visit also provided glimpses of a path forward for Poland and the United States over the coming years. The United States and Poland hope to find ways to leverage Poland’s experience of democracy promotion in order to encourage democratic transitions in Eastern Europe (especially in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova), and in North Africa. But arguably the most important aspect of the visit was discussion on the potential for greater economic cooperation in the energy sector, particularly on extracting shale gas. Four U.S. energy companies are already involved in exploratory drilling in Poland, and there is anticipation that U.S. technological expertise in unconventional gas will be of immense value. In the coming months, the focal point for both Washington and Warsaw will be the actual yields generated from existing wells, as well as the regulatory and tax regime the Polish government is going to establish if and when the country moves from exploration to production.
It is significant that the issues that had the most traction were practical ones. Although any U.S. presidential visit carries considerable symbolism – in this case, Poland’s importance as a regional partner for the United States – issue-oriented cooperation was prominently displayed, reflecting the emerging “normalization” of Poland’s relations with the United States.Andrew A. Michta, German Marshall Fund