Donald Trump in Poland:  a tactical gesture or an announcement of a change of strategy?Quite unexpectedly, U.S. President Trump chose Poland for his first official visit to Europe, boosting the Polish authorities' self-esteem and triggering talks about the resuscitation of Washington's support to Eastern Europe's new democracies. We talked to Mr. Adam Reichardt, the Editor-in-Chief of New Eastern Europe, a Poland-based prominent geopolitical journal, about the geopolitical implications of this historic visit for the region and EU as a whole, as well as the trends in American foreign policy it has revealed.

 

Interviewer: Murad Muradov

 

Muradov: Why do you think President Trump chose Poland for his first official visit to Europe? Do you think it was an attempt to taunt the Western European leaders most of whom are rather critical of him?

Reichardt: I am not sure I would use the word “taunt” regarding Trump’s decision to speak in Poland, but definitely Poland was seen as a country in Europe where he would be positively received. As you rightly stated, there is not much enthusiasm for the new U.S. president in Western Europe. Poland is traditionally more pro-US than a lot of other EU states, no matter who is in the White House. So the decision to go to Warsaw was most likely based on that fact as well. I think we can say that the decision to give his first major European speech in Warsaw paid off for Trump. He was greeted by 15,000 Poles, according to one count, during his speech on Krasiński Square. This provided very good optics for the Trump Administration which is clearly in need of some positive PR after the continuing controversies back home. 

I would also add that we now see a clear change in U.S. foreign policy towards Europe. Previously under Obama, the emphasis was more on treating the EU as a unified bloc and backing away from bilateral relations with each individual EU state. Now with Trump, there is a return (similar to what we saw under George W Bush) to more bilateral relations, which naturally creates divisions inside the EU.

 

Mr. Trump is known for his unexpected and controversial decisions and gestures. Have there been any during his visit to Poland? Overall, do you think the outcomes of the visits exceeded the expectations of the Polish elite or not?

It may come as a surprise to some, but there were no major gaffes or controversial statements made during Trump’s visit to Poland. Perhaps the only time was during the press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda when Trump made an off-the-cuff remark about raising the price of LNG gas to Poland. No one was really certain if it was a joke or if he was considering charging Poland more for importing U.S. gas (which was one of the key issues discussed in the bilateral talks). However, other than that, there were no reportable controversies.

In terms of the outcomes, there is a general consensus that Trump’s visit was a success for Poland. This sentiment was shared by the ruling party and the opposition as well. The opening lines of his speech where he said: “America loves Poland, and America loves the Polish people” stirred a sense of pride in a lot of Poles watching and listening. Most importantly, however, was how he reassured the Polish people in terms of security. There were many worries in Poland, and elsewhere in this region, that Trump’s approach towards NATO was sceptical and his reassurance that the U.S. stands with Poland brought some relief to the security circles in Warsaw. Of course, they would like it to go even further. Before the visit, representatives of the government had signalled that one of their aims would be to negotiate a permanent presence of American troops on Polish soil. This did not happen, but other than that the results of the discussions were considered successful.

 

Poland is traditionally one of the major U.S. allies in Europe. Was there something in Trump's approach that differed him from the previous presidents' policies towards Warsaw?

Not particularly, in my opinion. Of course, in terms of ideology there is a lot in common between the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and Trump. So that fact made Warsaw a natural place for Trump to speak in Europe. Similar to Trump’s worldview, PiS has promoted a more sceptical view of Brussels, advocates for stronger EU borders to halt the unmanaged flow of migrants into Europe and is more conservative in its policies. 

However, since the end of the communist period, and even during, U.S. president have always made at least one major visit to Poland. President Bill Clinton’s call for NATO enlargement in Warsaw in 1994 was one of the most memorable visits in recent history. George W. Bush also came to Poland several times as did Barack Obama. So in some ways, this was a continuation of U.S. Presidential tradition. Poland is the largest and probably the most influential of the Central European states and that is another key reason for such a visit.

One last comment on Trump’s visit however. I would add that from my point of view, I believe that most of Trump’s foreign policy will be focused on business and trade deals with allies and other states – and this is where Poland fits as well. The day that Trump came to Warsaw, it was announced that Poland would be purchasing a new patriot missile defence system from the Americans, which could cost up to $US8 billion. Similar deals were announced with Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. So, we see his foreign visits often have a clear economic component – Poland was no exception.

 

President Trump is often accused of clandestine links with Russia, a country Poland has never enjoyed particularly good relations with. What do Polish experts and politicians think of it? Do they expect him to provide unambiguous support to Poland in case some serious contradiction with Russia arise?

There is a big question mark on how relations with Russia will develop with Trump in the White House. No one knows for certain. It was indeed a little worrying that the day after Trump gave this great speech of support to Poland and the Polish people he met with Vladimir Putin for over two hours. This is clearly a concern for the Polish government which worries that relations with Putin could undo any progress made earlier that week. Obviously for Poland and the region it was very important when Trump said that he urges“Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine” and Trump reiterated U.S. support for NATO’s Article 5 – which states that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all.

I believe that in a situation where there is a clear Russian provocation against Poland, the U.S. would provide support. Poland is a NATO ally and U.S. troops are in the region as well.  However, the bigger concern is when there is an ambiguous situation, such as some sort of popular front of Russian-speaking minority organizing in a Baltic state. In this scenario, there is support coming from Russia in terms of people, resources, equipment, etc. but it is all done in such a way that makes it difficult to directly tie to the Kremlin, such as we have in Donbas. The question then is how the U.S. and NATO would react. Certainly, Poland would be leading the call for greater military assistance and presence, but it is unclear how countries like the U.S., United Kingdom, France or Germany would be willing to engage beyond diplomacy and calls of concern…

 

Poland has been pursuing an ambitious foreign policy and is known as the leader of the Intermarium initiative. Did Trump's visit bolster enthusiasm about this program? How realistic is it to expect some tangible support from the U.S. on this direction?

In fact, the idea of Intermarium has evolved over the last year or so into a project called the “Three Seas Initiative”. In political terms I would describe it as Intermarium-lite. Generally, the aim is to improve infrastructure, energy and trade links between countries on the eastern side of the European Union: the states between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas. The initiative was launched in 2016 by Poland and Croatia. It is true that during the first decade of EU membership, these states focused almost entirely on their East-West integration and little was done in terms of North-South regional development. The Three Seas Initiative envisions greater integration between these states in hope of stimulating economic development. In fact, the group of 12 states were convening a summit when Donald Trump was visiting Warsaw, and he had the opportunity to meet and address the Three Seas summit.

Energy independence is a key component of the Three Seas Initiative. For many of these countries, Russian gas domination continues to be a major barrier. Poland recently opened a new LNG gas terminal in Świnoujście and Lithuania has its LNG terminal in Klaipėda active since 2014. Croatia is hoping to open its terminal in 2019. Hence, one main project in the Three Seas would be to create gas pipeline interconnectedness between these 12 states which could allow them to free themselves from Russian gas completely. Thanks to the shale gas revolution in the United States, the U.S. is looking to become the largest exporter of LNG in the world. This is where these two projects intersect – to shift from Russian gas to U.S. gas – ultimately supplied to the 12 TSI states via Poland, Lithuania and Croatia.

 

Given the open disgruntlement of the EU leaders about Trump, can the already problematic relationships between Warsaw and Brussels deteriorate further? Have there been any interesting comments both from the Polish and European politicians on that in the wake of the U.S. President's visit?

Sadly, there is a visible disconnection in the relations between Brussels and Warsaw. And you are right to note that Trump’s visit makes these relations even more challenging. Even before the visit, we heard some politicians in the ruling PiS party express their view that Trump coming to Warsaw was meant to show his support for a state contesting the policies of Berlin or Brussels. Certainly, that was implied with the visit. However, if you listen to Trump’s speech on Krasiński Square in Warsaw, he spoke of the Western unity and the community of nations. He spoke of the common dangers faced by Western states. One of these dangers, interestingly enough, was what he called “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people”. Clearly this was aimed at Brussels.

However, his visit had the potential to be much more divisive than it actually was. And this is good news. I do not believe that any greater rifts were created as a result of Trump’s visit – despite many predictions in the press before his visit. 

 

Is there any long-term strategy in Poland for consolidating its role as the leader in Central and Eastern Europe and what is the role of U.S. in it?

Certainly this has been Poland’s aim since the 1990s. We see that the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) is one platform for such a strategy. The Three Seas Initiative which I mentioned earlier is another platform. Currently, there is the temptation to brand the region in contrast to Western Europe and Brussels and this is where Poland sees an opportunity to consolidate its leadership role. However, it is less clear how much willingness there is to follow Poland in the smaller states in the region. Strengthening regional integration under Poland’s leadership is a policy that not many states will oppose. Yet, if Poland seeks to bolster the region as a whole in political conflict with Berlin, Paris and Brussels, there could be some resistance in states like the Czech Republic or the Baltic states. Personally I think it would be a mistake for Poland to drag the whole region into an open conflict with the other side of the EU and I do not believe anything like that will happen. I predict we will see further disagreements on certain issues like the rule of law in Poland, but this is also a part of the growing pains the EU is currently experiencing. 

In terms of the U.S. role under Trump – it is difficult to say. We should certainly keep our eye on American policy towards Russia, especially in the light of the ongoing investigation of the contacts between Kremlin officials and the Trump campaign. The question is how deep does it go and what impact will it have on our region? 

 

Share this post