From the fringes of US foreign policy into the spotlight, Poland was moved due to the war in Ukraine. At the same time, Washington has become even more indispensable for Warsaw as a guarantor of security.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters a second month, there’s still considerable consternation in large parts of Europe. The United States also felt obliged to emphasize several times it would defend “every inch” of NATO territory, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed when he visited Warsaw in early March.
On Friday, US President Joe Biden arrived in Poland and is expected to pledge his country’s support to Warsaw as well during talks on Saturday with Polish leaders and the public.
New chapter in US-Polish relationship
Biden’s trip to Poland could leave an imprint on his presidency, former US Ambassador to Poland Daniel Fried recently told channel TVN24.
“The whole thing brings to mind Roosevelt and Churchill, who met before the US entered the Second World War. They defined their approach and discussed how they’d fight and win the war,” Fried said, adding that Poland and the US now find themselves also facing war in Europe.
That situation means security issues eclipse other bilateral issues: “Poland will assume the role of the Federal Republic of Germany during the Cold War,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund (GMF). He said a “new chapter” started following the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency, which, as far as Poland was concerned, was characterized by “ups and downs,” with the “downs,” as Baranowski told DW, clearly outnumbering the “ups.”
Severe deterioration in relations
Washington did not fail to notice that Polish President Andrzej Duda took his time before congratulating Biden on his election victory. While many other heads of state already sent their congratulations following forecasts published by leading US media outlets, Poland’s president, who had sought to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, at this point sent Biden his best regards for running a “successful presidential campaign.” Official congratulations from Warsaw’s presidential palace only came after the vote of the US Electoral College.
“The condition of the world’s democracies is a subject close to Biden’s heart, and that also includes, in addition to the rule of law, freedom of the press,” Baranowski said. Relations between Warsaw and Washington had severely deteriorated late last year after Poland’s parliament, the Sejm, passed a media law targeting US-owned channel TVN24. Many in Poland were surprised when Duda then vetoed the law.
By this point, US-Polish relations had already been strained by an agreement between Germany and the US on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, settled in July 2021. At the time, the US had accepted the pipeline’s commissioning. The Polish government stated it was “surprised,” which, translated from diplomatic speech, meant “outraged.”
During the Trump era, Poland seemed to have graduated and become the most important US partner in continental Europe. Warsaw and Washington were ideologically and politically close, irrespective of Trump’s statements concerning NATO, which he deemed “obsolete,” or his ambiguous stance on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
In 2018, Poland’s president said he would welcome a permanent US military presence in Poland that he was ready to call “Fort Trump.” Two years later, both sides signed an “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.”
Personal benevolence vs. strategy
“Donald Trump was at loggerheads with Germany and with all of the EU. That’s one of the reasons why he gave Poland some attention,” former diplomat Janusz Reiter told DW. “Warsaw was overjoyed, which was understandable in a way. But it was also a bit deceptive or even dangerous because Trump’s benevolence was a rather unreliable thing, simply because it was just benevolence, as opposed to a strategy. Biden, on the other hand, has a strategy.”
Reiter was Polish ambassador to the US between 2005 and 2007, during an era in which Poland supported the US-led war in Iraq that Germany and France rejected. Relations with Washington were close at the time, Reiter says.