US President Donald J. Trump is expected to visit Poland on July 6, shortly before heading for the G-20 summit in Hamburg. This visit deserves to be closely monitored for it will reveal Trump Administration’s foreign policy agenda to a greater degree than his previous actions.
Trump’s options in Poland boil down to two alternatives: compel Poland to become a good EU citizen or, conversely, attempt to drive a wedge between it and Germany. The US does have several levers of influence to achieve the former objective, starting with public criticism of the Law and Justice (L&J) government (criticism that would have tremendous effect given Poles’ deference to the opinions of US presidents), or presenting Poland with a “bill” for US military presence. If Trump takes this approach, it would signal an improvement in the US-EU (or, more specifically, US-Germany) relations, since the EU, at the apparent behest of Merkel and Macron is moving to sanction Poland and other countries of Central Europe for refusing to participate in the refugee resettlement program which is extremely unpopular across most of Poland’s political spectrum. At this time it appears unlikely Trump will adopt this approach as there are no indicators that US-EU relations are improving in any way. Instead, the threat of peeling Poland off the EU can be useful to Washington as a means of applying pressure on the EU, so it is rather more likely Trump will seek to woo Poland while at the same time seeking to exploit Poland’s need for an extra-EU sponsor to further US economic interests.
The one carrot Trump’s visit will deliver is the sheer symbolism of it. If he does not criticize Poland’s government and instead praises Poland for being a “steadfast US ally”, it will greatly embolden L&J in its standoff with the EU and, conversely, demoralize the pro-EU liberal parties who simply are unused to the idea of opposing US presidents.
When it comes to more substantive carrots, they may include a pledge for continued US troop rotations and possibly even permanent presence in Poland, though such commitments will most likely come with a hefty price tag for the Poles in the form of demands to procure US weapons (Poland is currently on the market for, among others, air defense systems, attack helicopters, transport helicopters, all of which US firms hope to fill) and, more importantly, US liquefied natural gas (LNG).
LNG exports happen to occupy an important niche in Trump’s economic agenda, and his apparent approval for Saudi Arabia’s political assault on Qatar was at least in part motivated by the desire to drive this particular competitor out of some markets, one of which just happens to be Poland which recently completed an LNG terminal in Swinoujscie. That LNG issue will come up during Trump’s visit is also suggested by his declared willingness to attend the Three Seas Initiative summit in Poland which aims to establish a common energy infrastructure within Central and Southern Europe (the three seas being Baltic, Black Sea, and Adriatic) that would not be reliant on supplies of natural gas from Russia.
Trump’s apparent endorsement of the Three Seas Initiative is also a big symbolic boost for Poland, since its elites are covertly pursuing the idea of Intermarium, or a Polish-dominated confederation that would include the Baltic States, Ukraine, and possibly also Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and others, to serve as a “sanitary cordon” against Russia and a counterweight to the power of Germany and the EU.
The final substantive carrot Trump could offer Poland would be visa-free travel for Polish citizens, which was a “priority” for the Obama Administration but which never materialized. If Trump delivers where Obama failed, it will guarantee enthusiastic Polish-American support for Trump in 2020 elections, give L&J a tangible policy success to present before Polish voters, and represent an alternative economic migration “safety valve” that would reduce the effect of EU sanctions on Poland.
The Russia Dimension
It is rather self-evident that Poland seeks Trump’s visit and associated benefits in order to bolster its military and economic power chiefly in order to re-establish itself as the dominant power in Central Europe and ultimately reassert control over the western-most former Soviet republics that, several centuries ago, were parts of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. Poland’s current foreign policy is merely a return to its policies of 1920s and 1930s which similarly sought to align the country with any foreign power willing to sponsor its eastward expansion.
From the US perspective, bolstering Poland in this fashion and giving free rein to its great power ambitions could be useful by establishing a “cordon sanitaire” against Russia and, by extension, also against China, in order to interdict their economic and political connections to the EU. For example, while the EU and Russia are collaborating on the North Stream 2 and other gas projects that will ultimately eliminate Ukraine as an energy transit country, Poland is pursuing the Three Seas Initiative and other concepts that would bring in hydrocarbons from the North Sea, the Middle East, and the US.
But it is the EU that would suffer the most in the event of the “maximum agenda” outlined above being implemented because, in addition to separating EU from its main overland trading partners in the form of China and Russia, it would directly undermine EU’s institutions and political cohesion. Rather ironically, the increase of US influence in Central Europe would be a tremendous blow specifically to Germany which has staked its own economic future on the dominance of the same region, up to and including the support of the Maidan coup in Ukraine.
US overt support of a de-facto “Polexit in Place” would also encourage other countries to similarly defy Brussels, Berlin, and Paris and render the EU essentially toothless–which also appears to be part of Trump’s agenda. Rather than continuing negotiating TTIP in which the US had to confront the aggregate power of the EU, Trump is showing a preference for bilateral dealings with individual countries which give US a considerable advantage due to its superior power. That is the dark side of Trump’s America First message: the cannibalization of America’s own allies.
Follow the Money
Given all of the above, the single most important indicator of US intentions in this region will be the extent of the US willingness to subsidize Poland on the scale of billions of dollars a year. The biggest obstacle facing the “maximum agenda” is Poland’s financial inability to be a major buyer of US LNG or weapons, especially in the face of reduced EU financing. If the Trump Administration proves willing to provide Poland with weapons and LNG for free or at heavily subsidized prices, it will be an indicator it is entering a very serious geopolitical game aimed at isolating Russia and breaking up the EU. If these subsidies fail to materialize, the visit will amount to nothing beyond Trump’s attempt to milk Poland for what it’s worth, in return for an image boost to the ruling party.