The Message Trump Should Deliver to our Polish Ally Tomorrow, But Won’t: Protect your democracy to protect your security
June 11, 2019
Donald Trump’s predilection for fellow nationalist politicians has become a major hallmark of his presidency: Concerns over his meeting with Hungary’s Viktor Orban last month went so far as to prompt a congressional resolution criticizing that country’s direction. Now Trump is set to meet his Polish counterpart President Andrzej Duda on Wednesday.
Since it took power in 2015, the Polish leader’s ruling Law and Justice Party has been systematically dismantling the independence of institutions that helped make Poland a model of democratization and free-market reform in Europe and a stalwart American ally. Nevertheless, the country’s democracy remains more robust than Hungary’s and even Duda’s critics back the main aim of his visit to Washington: signing a new military cooperation agreement.
But it will be vital for Washington’s foreign policy establishment to pressure the White House not to sign any such deal without assurances from the Polish government that it will respect shared democratic values and stop backsliding on the country’s post-communist gains.
Poland is an important ally for the United States. The formal motive for Duda’s meeting with Trump is "to reaffirm the longstanding historical and cultural ties between the United States and Poland. 2019 is an important year to commemorate for both our nations: the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II, the 20th anniversary of Poland’s membership in NATO, and the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
But the Polish foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, gave the real purpose at a security conference in Slovakia last week: “Poland expects the signing of a new defense agreement.” Elevating its relationship with Washington by increasing the number of US forces in the country from the current 4,500 and establishing a sophisticated joint training facility would constitute a major foreign policy coup for Warsaw. Poland also wants to advance its goal of obtaining a waiver for U.S. visas for its citizens.
Unlike its neighbor Hungary—which has actively been courting Russia and copying President Vladimir Putin’s illiberal methods—Poland is firmly committed to fending off the threat from Moscow in coordination with the United States. Although reaching an enhanced defense agreement is squarely in US interests, however, increasing the number of troops in Poland would probably mean having to decrease troops elsewhere, most likely in the Baltic states, which share a border Russia.
NATO already can’t successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, a recent Rand Corporation study determined. “Russia could overrun the Baltic states as quickly as in 60 hours,” it warns. Since bolstering Poland would surely mean reducing security elsewhere, any such arrangement must be weighed against trade-offs in the region.
The United States must also use its leverage in the relationship to seek the best deal for American interests by asking Poland to strengthen its capacity to be a reliable ally. We should expect Poland not only to provide a physical barrier to Russian interference but also a values-based one.
The authorities have orchestrated an assault on independent media and the rule of law while using their control over institutions to cover up acts of corruption. They have also engaged in serious historical revisionism, threatening to prosecute anyone who criticizes Poland for any complicity in the Holocaust. Those actions present serious security threats to Western interests.
Pressuring Poland to adhere to values to the transatlantic alliance isn’t just a matter of principle, but security. The post-World War II US-led democratic world order sprang from a drive to prevent the horrors of that war from happening ever again. As members of the bipartisan Transatlantic Democracy Working Group, we believe the best way to honor and sustain the spirit of our alliance with Poland is to clearly and unequivocally communicate that our security relationship is strongest when grounded in a mutual respect for the democratic institutions and principles that undergird the US-led values-based system of collective security.
President Duda will also be coming to Washington to discuss plans for a follow-up visit by President Trump to Warsaw in the fall. We urge that a presidential visit to Poland be used to project the message that Poland must act as a reciprocal ally.
Combining hard security needs with the protection of shared values has kept us safe for 70 years. Defending against Russian efforts to undermine transatlantic unity and weaken democratic governments—which poses a growing challenge to the security of the United States and its NATO allies—requires America to lead the liberal world order in a way that protects our values along with our people. That’s the message the administration members, legislators and other officials must convey to President Duda this week.
Susan Corke, Senior Resident Fellow, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, Director, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group,
Gregory Feifer, Executive Director, Institute of Current World Affairs, Steering Committee, Transatlantic Democracy Working Group