“The European Union may dislike us, but the most important thing is that America loves us,” shouted an enthusiastic man, draped in an American flag, welcoming Donald Trump to The Warsaw Uprising Monument last July. At about the same time, the communist bard Andrzej Rosiewicz jumped on the stage singing a paean in honour of the President of the United States, the song “From Warsaw with Love”.
Apart from this gauche symbolism of the Polish-American relationship, there have been other signs of commitment. First, the Trump administration did not depart from the assurances promised by President Obama and carried out the planned increase the American military presence in Poland and in the Baltic States. The first liquefied gas transport arrived at the new gas port in Świnoujście from the American supplier, Cheniere. Right-wing columnists agreed that Poland under PiS and Hungary under Orbán’s rule is closer to Trump’s America than liberal-leftist France or Germany under Merkel.
Soon it will be a year since Trump’s visit to Warsaw; in that time, the gestures from the American President towards Poland have either been cool or non-existent. This is despite the fact that the Polish President Andrzej Duda has repeatedly circulated around Washington – even signalling his presence in the US on twitter, Trump’s favourite media platform – with the hope of being invited to the White House; sadly, he’s been left standing outside in the rain.
What’s worse, Trump does not hide his friendship or even his affection for the liberal leftist President of France, whom he hosted with full pomp and honour in spite of Marcon’s elegant but openly critical speech against US foreign policy in front of the combined chambers of Congress. Regarding Chancellor Merkel, Trump obviously lacks chemistry though he did present her with a worthy reception at the White House.
Reading the room
So, something is probably wrong with the Polish-American special relationship, which the Polish right-wing media has been trumpeting. The previous Polish Presidents were given special honours in the USA: Lech Walesa spoke in front of the joint chambers of the Congress, and Aleksander Kwaśniewski was given a rare (for the early George-W.-Bush-era) official state visit.
Andrzej Duda, on the other hand, is not a recognisable figure in Washington, and the situation has been exacerbated by the opinions in the American media about Poland and Hungary, which are almost exclusively negative.
Hungary is portrayed as a country following Russia’s lead (both regarding international policies as well as the similar domestic control their leaders enjoy). Poland’s recent appearances in the US media are mainly due to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance (INR), highlighting the potential limitations placed on discussions surrounding the Holocaust. The official reactions of the State Department and Congress on these issues confirm that this is not just a media discussion but a real matter of contention between Washington, Warsaw and Budapest.
Clearly, expectations for the creation of an international populist movement led by Trump have not been fulfilled. It must be stated emphatically that these expectations have always been unrealistic and that they did not take into account the specifics of the American political system.
It is true that, like Kaczyński and Orbán, Trump does not tolerate the liberal media and has an instrumental attitude to justice, but from these ideological similarities, one cannot deduce that this will be the basis for cooperation between the US and populist leaders in Central and Eastern Europe.
First of all, Trump is known for his megalomania and likes to be considered “the star” when in the company of strong partners or even competitors. That is why he talks warmly about the President of China – “I like him and he likes me” – about Putin – “he is very intelligent” – or the “charming” President of France, whose suit Trump affectionately cleaned off in front of cameras.
Ideological differences do not play a role. What counts is global status and, above all, whether or not showing up in their company would attract media attention. These qualifications are sorely lacking by both Central European leaders who can neither boast about the global reach of their respective economies nor any particular geopolitical strength.
Let’s be honest, for natural reasons related to the relative strength and status of our states, Kaczyński (not to mention Duda) and Orbán simply are not on Trump’s radar. Even worse, to give Poland or Hungary even tertiary attention from the White House would require other government agencies (the State Department, the NSA, Congress) to breach the topic.
If Trump has no natural interest in a country (China, Russia or France), then the topic must be introduced by a coalition of administrators, lobbyists or possibly even members of Congress who have access to the President, and – to add a seemingly unnecessary complexity – the situation surrounding these countries (e.g. Poland or Hungary) must be so important that these officials are willing to use their rare 15 minutes with the President to address the issue.
Here, it must be said that the attitude in these US administration agencies towards the current governments in Poland and Hungary is at best moderate and often even unfriendly. The State Department is known for its liberal and often progressive attitude to the world. This is natural because those Americans who decide to pursue a career in diplomacy belong to a minority that are curious about the world, know foreign languages and are interested in other cultures.
Of course, the Secretary of State and his deputies are political appointees, but the strength of human resources and competences gathered in Foggy Bottom are so persuasive that traditionally the Secretaries of State are permeated with the spirit of the machine they manage and not vice versa.
During the Obama administration, Victoria Nuland – the former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs – devoted considerable time criticising Orbán’s government. A similar, although more restrained, line was adopted against the PiS government, which focused on Warsaw’s position towards the Constitutional Tribunal.
After the 2016 elections, the Secretary of State and his deputies changed. Nevertheless, briefings and positions for new department leaders are prepared by the same people whose views on the political reality in Warsaw and Budapest remain invariably critical. This was clearly expressed by the Department’s disparaging approach towards Orbán’s attack on the Central European University (founded by George Soros), and the two-fold criticism of the amendment to the INR, which is perceived in the US as anti-Semitic and a violation of the freedom of speech.
Where we stand
As far as Poland is concerned, the State Department is cautious but still generally supportive, while there is nothing positive to say about Orbán’s government. Hungary is considered not only as a country where democracy goes to die but also a state that is the de facto ally of Putin, complete with its own fear-mongering campaign against Ukraine.
The statements and most recent visit to Budapest by the new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are evidence that the White House is trying to bring Hungary to the “right” side of the fight. Americans can tolerate problems with democracy, but they will not accept geopolitical flirtations with Russia or other ideologically competitors. Poland is not yet viewed in this same light, thanks to the unambiguous stance of Warsaw towards Moscow.
The perception of Poland in Congress plays a fundamental role here. It should be positive because the members of Congress should want to count on the large Polish diaspora for support, and, more importantly, we are a valuable ally in Europe.
Poland is a country that fought against communism; it is the country of Lech Wałęsa and full of hard-working people. However, there is a growing rift between Washington and Warsaw over the rule of law and, above all, the perception of Polish anti-Semitism and the anti-emigration attitude adopted by the Polish government and society. While there is a huge potential for Polish-US relations, it is clearly not being adequately managed.
For Hungary, the situation is far more bleak. This is also a country known to Congress but for its intolerance, xenophobia and strange relationship with the congressionally-unpopular Putin.
Though the opinions surrounding Poland are more nuanced, general disapproval is still the dominating tone. One example, briefly mentioned above, shows how Poland’s reputation was tarnished by the INR, a law which forbids any fault for the Holocaust to be placed on the Polish nation.
As a result of its passing, a group of 50 members of Congress issued a call to criticize the Polish law and urged the State Department to ensure that the US is not supporting any governments or groups that promote anti-Semitism.
Of course, the opinion in Congress about the INR is exaggerated, but it should have been predicted by the Polish diplomats, who have remained inert during this entire episode.
The changing tides
The congressional attitude towards foreign affairs is often compared to a huge ferry ship: it takes a while to get going and even longer to change course. Before 1989, we were in the rip current of communism. After 1989, the ship was redirected towards an eventual membership in NATO and in recent years, the agreement to finance the US military presence in Poland.
Now, the ship is slowly steering towards open and dangerous waters for these Central European countries. Hungary already has the reputation of being an ungrateful and undemocratic country which will require years of hard work and well-placed funds to change this course. Poland still has some support stemming from their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the opinion about Polish anti-Semitism has been renewed.
Obviously, the deteriorating opinion of Poland in Congress will have a negative impact on the decisions to finance the American military presence. On the other hand, the Hungarians should not count on the support of Congress to promote strategies aimed at reducing the energy dependence of Hungary on Russia, especially those that would require financial support.
The Hungarians are also losing the fight for the rights of the Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Ukraine. Budapest’s demands on these issues are often perceived as revisionist and complicating the international reality as well as the security of the region, of which the US has invested heavily.
Poland and Hungary have not had a good streak in the US, and there are no prospects for a change in the near future. Strategic military cooperation between Poland and the US will continue, not least due to the fact that this is one of the few issues in which Poland’s foreign policy has remained unchanged since 1989 but also because Poland will buy American military equipment.
Continuation, good business and predictability are valued in the US. To invest in Polish security, the Americans want to be sure that no matter which Polish domestic policy is floated, Warsaw will remain in the pro-American camp. Americans have lost confidence in the Hungarians, the consequences of which Budapest will feel over the next few years or even decades.
Marcin Zaborowski is a Senior Associate at Visegrad/Insight.