One of the more troubling tendencies of the Obama administration's foreign policy has been its inability to realize that policy choices made with regard to one part of the world have consequences for its policies toward other parts. It is a foreign policy that has failed to recognize the salient and unavoidable fact that the global geopolitical landscape is unalterably interconnected. One example of this is its seeming indifference towards the implications of the much vaunted 'Asia pivot’ for America's NATO allies, specifically those in Central Europe. From the outset, it has shown a conspicuous lack of concern for the largest and most important member of the Visegrad Group, and what policy it can be said to have had towards Poland has been characterized by stale thinking and a lack of a coherent vision for the future.
The U.S.-Polish relationship got off to a rocky start in 2009 and never seemed to regain its footing. The first sign that Poland was to be on the administration’s 'pay no mind' list was the announcement that the Bush-era agreement to place a missile defense 'third site' in Poland was to be replaced with a European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which put off placement of interceptors in Poland until 2018. Adding to the Poles' consternation was the fact that this was announced on September 17, the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Even more galling was the fact that the administration sent neither the president nor vice president to the anniversary’s commemoration, but sent instead and rather hastily at that, National Security Adviser Jim Jones. At the time, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk commented, "I can only have the satisfaction of being the first prime minister over the past 15 years who isn't so enchanted with our ally."
And so, the relationship has gone from one minor crisis to the next; even a cursory list of these would have to include President Obama's now-infamous 'Polish death camps' remark in May 2012 and the resignation of his ambassador the following month due, allegedly, to a feud between the ambassador, Lee Feinstein, and Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski. But aside from verbal miscues and diplomatic squabbles, the administration has continued to make strategic decisions that, perhaps unintentionally, send the message that when it comes to America's commitment to NATO, its Eastern partners may well be on their own.
For instance, this past January, when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made his farewell tour of Europe, he made stops in Portugal, Italy, Spain, and, naturally, the UK. Skipping over Poland was especially shortsighted for two reasons. The first has to do with perception. Besides being one of the few NATO allies that maintain defense spending at or around the required 2 percent of GDP, Poland, according to journalist Aleksandra Kulezuga, 'is one of America's few allies with troops in Afghanistan whose mission, without caveats, is to fight. Poland, unlike France and Germany, deploys its soldiers to the war with the full expectation that they will find and kill enemy combatants.' The second has to do with missing an opportunity to promote American business, for Poland had recently announced its intention to spend billions on force modernization with the intention of fielding its own integrated air- and missile-defense system (AMD), technology which American firms could readily provide. Another blow to the relationship came in March when newly installed defense secretary Chuck Hagel announced the cancellation of the 'fourth phase' of the EPAA which would have added SM-3 Block IIB interceptors into Poland.
All of the foregoing is unfortunate not just for what it says about the administration’s approach to Poland, but also for what it ignores; because if the United States is serious about a strategic 'pivot' to Asia, then it will have to come to more heavily rely on its European partners to address security concerns in both the Middle East and the former Soviet space. This is not to say that Poland hasn't already been making a contribution. Poland was one of the four principal coalition partners at the start of the ill-starred 2003 Iraq War, and joined the mission in Afghanistan, where it currently has 1,600 troops, in 2002. After the U.S. closed its embassy in Syria in February 2012, Poland established a U.S. Interests Section at its embassy in Damascus and took over consular responsibilities on America’s behalf until closing its own embassy.
More important than the wielding of its (still fairly limited) hard power is its potential to use its power of example throughout the politically awakening Arab world. In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose in March, Foreign Minister Sikorski noted that Poland, because of its own recent revolutionary experiences, is well-placed to advise and assist the emerging Arab democracies. While the fight was still on against Qaddafi in Libya, Sikorski himself visited Benghazi, where he saw that 'the challenges that these societies face are identical to what we in central Europe faced two decades ago.' Recognizing what neoconservatives and liberal internationalists here in the U.S. refuse to see, Sikorski perceived that '…some of these countries see us as role models. We are more comparable to them than the United States. And they are more willing to take lessons from us then from...countries with strong ties to their former dictators.' Poland is, through its international-assistance programs like the Polish Foundation for International Solidarity, evincing a desire to take the initiative and shoulder its share of global responsibilities. It is puzzling that a time of extreme malaise in the United States the Obama administration has not embraced and encouraged the Polish government's efforts more than it has.
As should be clear by now, neglecting Poland by taking for granted its past contributions to global security or by not capitalizing on its potential as NATO's eastern anchor is not in the interests of a United States that increasingly wants to shift its attention towards Asia. With that in mind, the Obama administration ought to embark upon a 'Fresh Start' policy with Poland, the aim of which would be to redress the poisonous atmosphere of the past several years with a combination of robust public diplomacy and revised security policies aimed at strengthening Polish defense capabilities.
On the public diplomacy front, the president should plan to travel to Warsaw next August to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Warsaw Rising and to use the occasion not only to pay long-overdue tribute to the singular contributions of the Polish Home Army in winning the Second World War, but also to thank the current Polish government for its contributions to NATO operations and its willingness to play a constructive role in the so-called Arab Spring. Further, if, as expected, U.S.-Russian relations continue to deteriorate, the president might consider making a stop at the U.S. Air Force detachment at Lask and reiterate America’s commitment to its central European NATO allies.
In the realm of concrete deliverables, the U.S. should, at the very minimum, end Poland's exclusion from the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, offer to assist the Poles in fielding an integrated air- and missile-defense capability, and offer financial support for the work it is doing through the aforementioned Polish Foundation for International Solidarity, as well as for the European Endowment for Democracy. As Foreign Minister Sikorski has said, 'Europe should do more to help shoulder America's global responsibilities at a time of strained defense budgets.'
The Obama administration would be daft not to take him up on the offer.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.