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The (New) Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

On the anniversary of elections that threw out the Communists, Poles greet Obama with high hopes.

by Martin Ehl 3 June 2014

In a year full of historically freighted European anniversaries, a particularly symbolic one will be celebrated this week. Poles voted 25 years ago on 4 June in the first semi-free parliamentary elections in the Eastern bloc. They voted under a (now) famous poster depicting a cowboy from an American Western, High Noon, who, instead of a gun, held a ballot and asked people to vote for Solidarnosc, the Solidarity movement. Thus, from the beginning Polish democracy had an American flavor.


This anniversary is especially meaningful for Poland, which is living in stability and prosperity without precedence in its history, according to a study by World Bank economist Marcin Piatkowski. There could be a lot of joy and celebration if it were not for the trouble next door in Ukraine, which is reminding not just the Poles, but all Europeans that freedom should not be taken for granted even in these prosperous times. The visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Warsaw, which begins today, will not be just a diplomatic and political gesture. Behind the scenes, weighty negotiations are under way about the enhanced U.S.-Poland security relationship that should – according to Polish politicians – result in a permanent U.S. military presence on Polish soil.


The government of Prime Minister Donald Tusk has even directly asked for 10,000 U.S. troops on the ground. There may be some kind of announcement in this respect during the visit, probably during the anniversary ceremonies on 4 June.


Simply put, a maturing Poland has decided to play a stronger European role while all other post-communist EU and NATO states are only emerging from the ashes of economic crisis and while anti-Americanism thrives in some Western European countries.


But Poles see their chance. George Friedman, director of the Stratfor analytical agency, recently offered a vision of Poland as a strong regional leader. Speaking at the Poland Transformed conference in Warsaw, he said the country has a balanced economy with a promising future and a historically strong and unprecedentedly positive relationship with Germany. Warsaw is active in the European Union, and the recent Ukraine crisis could be an opportunity for Poles to show leadership and to create a regional alliance, Friedman said.


Poles love such praise, and it was left to Friedman’s discussion partner, Economist international editor Edward Lucas, to bring them back to Earth. Known for his realistic views on the post-communist world, Lucas said the Poland-Germany relationship lacks a hard security component. He also noted that Warsaw has not been able to create a regional alliance based either on the Visegrad group – the four Central European countries of Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic – or a partnership with the Baltic countries. And the Poles have such high expectations from Obama's visit, and the U.S.-Poland relationship in general, that any promise from the White House could be seen as insufficient.


But this week we see a restart in Poland-U.S. relations, stuck in a surly mood after an unhappy phone call on the night of 17 September 2009 from Obama cancelling the joint missile defense project. That date is sensitive in Poland, because it was on that day in 1939, when the Poles had already been under heavy attack for two weeks from Nazi Germany, that the Soviet Union struck from the other side.


A stronger Poland could be a key European ally for Washington. Most Poles support not only a strong link with the United States, but also the presence of foreign, NATO troops. Obama will ask Warsaw to commit to spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, which shouldn’t be much of a problem, as it already spends 1.95 percent, unlike other allies in the region.


Poles want to boost their own defense industry and one way to do that would be the already discussed cooperation between Raytheon, an American company, and Polish state-controlled defense companies on the common development of the next generation of the Patriot anti-missile system. At this point – as the Friedman/Lucas debate shows – it will be crucial to see how committed the Obama administration is to the missile defense project.


Of course, this system would have limited use for Poland, since an unsinkable Russian aircraft carrier with Iskander missiles is just next door in the Kaliningrad enclave. But have the Poles asked, for example, for American JASSM stealth cruise missiles, which were recently purchased by Finland and which are a much more realistic defense and retaliatory option than the still-mysterious missile defense on which Poland wants to spend vast sums over the next 10 years? These missiles on Polish soil, fired from planes and able to attack deep into enemy territory, could be a stronger signal of U.S. engagement than one or two U.S. army brigades.


Undoubtedly, the word freedom – or Polish wolnosc – will be uttered thousands of times this week. Flags will be flapping and the iconic electoral poster will be recalled again and again – especially since Obama has very good speechwriters. But to give such words their real meaning is a skill in which he is not the best at home or abroad. Poles are aware of that. But they expect konkrety, real stuff. Considering events in Ukraine, the quality of Polish-American relations in contemporary Europe seems much more important than at any time in the past.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.

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