Polish President Andrzej Duda will visit the White House on Wednesday, a mere four days before the first round of Poland’s presidential election. While the United States and Poland are close allies, Trump’s meeting with Duda immediately before his re-election bid is problematic for both countries. It should be called for what it really is: two leaders putting their own political interests above national security.
Duda expects to return to Warsaw with the promise of U.S. military hardware -- reportedly the opening of the European headquarters of the 5th Army Corps in Poland, as well as 30 F-16s and five C-130 Hercules. These would add to the assets that already rotate through Poland under an existing aviation detachment, though as always the details and implementation remain to be seen. Duda hopes the visit will boost him in an election bid that he could conceivably lose in a second round in July.
Trump, in turn, hopes the gesture will keep one of Europe’s most pro-Trump heads of state in power, while helping the U.S. president make inroads with Polish-Americans, many of whom live in electorally critical swing states. The leaders risk harming the U.S.-Poland relationship with their meeting, even as they shortsightedly hope to gain from it politically.
The inappropriately timed visit also coincides with the Trump administration’s politically charged decision to move U.S. troops out of Germany without consulting Berlin or other allies, which risks undermining NATO’s cohesion. Simply put, the visit risks politicizing a close bilateral relationship that has long enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington.
Poland’s presidential election was fraught even before the prospects of a White House visit emerged. The election was originally scheduled for May 10 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The Law and Justice Party, or PiS, which is allied with Duda, pushed to keep the election in May despite the risk of spreading the virus among voters. They relented only at the last moment. PiS calculated that if it postponed the election over health concerns, Duda could dip in the polls later as the economy slowed. This calculation proved to be correct, and recent polls now show a competitive race. Civic Coalition candidate Rafal Trzaskowski, the mayor of Warsaw, is narrowly leading or tied with Duda in some polls that survey the second round of voting, which will take place in July if no candidate clears 50 percent in the first round.
The strength of the opposition’s showing defies PiS’s efforts since 2015 to consolidate its own power and standing -- efforts that have put Polish democracy on shaky ground. PiS has tried every trick in the book to weaken opposition parties, including by pressuring independent media and eroding the judiciary’s independence. PiS has supercharged these efforts amid Duda’s slippage in the polls, including by passing laws allowing Trzaskowski to spend half the amount other candidates can spend. They are also fully exploiting the media advantage afforded to an incumbent during a global pandemic.
Given the competitive election, PiS calculates that they need to bring home a win from Washington, and they hope to bring home U.S. military hardware. PiS is suffering at home as a result of increasing discontent with the ruling party’s management of the pandemic and the economic downturn, so it is not clear the promise of more U.S. military assets will salvage Duda’s electoral prospects. PiS hopes to overcome these domestic challenges by implementing a two-pronged strategy. For one, it is trying to firm up its hold over socially conservative voters, with Duda hugging the Catholic Church closely and provoking international outcry by claiming that “LGBT ideology” is worse than communism. Additionally, PiS is trying to win over moderate voters by exploiting national security issues and Poland’s alliance with the United States.
Specifically, Duda wants to secure the promise of bringing American troops to Poland. Past Polish presidents have long sought an increase in U.S. troops in Poland in order to establish a tripwire and deter Russia. However, the details, particularly the cost to Poland, remain to be seen and may in substance not be dramatically different from previous U.S. promises. Still, a photo op with Trump would allow Duda to present himself as a statesman in the final days of his campaign. This strategy also gives Trzaskowski little opportunity to respond. Trzaskowski’s own policy platform focuses on improving the readiness of the Polish armed forces and strengthening their position within NATO. He has promised to assess the state of the Polish military, in particular vowing to bring ex-Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz before the Constitutional Tribunal to answer for what Trzaskowski says was his mismanagement of the Polish armed forces.
Duda is embarking on a risky strategy, and it could well backfire. For one, spending more on U.S. military hardware may not prove to be as popular as he thinks it is with the Polish economy sputtering. After all, Trump has previously called for allies to pay the full cost of hosting U.S. troops, plus 50% more. A grave risk for Poland is that Duda and Trump’s announcement could weaken Polish long-term security by eroding NATO’s cohesion. Despite Prime Minister Morawiecki’s insistence that Poland does not seek to gain U.S. security investments at Germany’s expense, the appearance of pitting allies against each other even as Washington undermines Germany’s position within NATO is counterproductive to Poland’s long-term security. Russia is more thrilled than anyone about the prospect of a U.S. troop drawdown in Germany. The trust of many Europeans in their security relationship with America could further erode -- and that is not in Poland’s security interest.
This is, indeed, a gamble for Duda. But it is also a gamble for the Trump administration. The decision to invite President Duda to the White House, just four days in advance of his re-election bid, is yet another example of the Trump administration putting its own interests above national security interests and bolstering an anti-democratic and populist leader -- even as he goes out of his way to snub another important U.S. ally, Germany, and its leader, Angela Merkel. The stunt politicizes the U.S.-Polish relationship, and it may weaken Polish and U.S. security by pitting allies against one another and undermining NATO. Ultimately, Duda and Trump are gambling with NATO’s cohesion for their own re-election bids.
Adam Twardowski is a Washington-based foreign policy analyst who focuses on Europe and Russia. Carisa Nietsche is a Research Associate in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.