While most European capitals met the election of U.S. President Joe Biden with a sigh of relief, the ruling elite in Warsaw are holding their breath. Poland is the largest NATO member bordering Russia, and it is a key U.S. security partner. The country’s ruling Law and Justice party is politically and ideologically aligned with Donald Trump, which could spell trouble given the change in the Oval Office. Yet despite the ideological differences, Biden’s administration creates greater opportunity for Poland than Trump’s ever did.
The prevailing view in Warsaw is that the four years of Trump were good for bilateral relations. In addition to closer security ties, the Trump administration made progress in key areas, from economic relations to a visa waiver program. Energy cooperation included the recent launch of a nuclear power project. But perhaps the most important asset for the Polish government was its close political relationship with the former president himself. It gave Poland space to maneuver in its often fraught relations with other EU member-states, and it boosted Law and Justice domestically. The mood right now in Warsaw is that the good times are over.
The Polish government does understand that the security and defense relationship will continue. After all, Americans are here not out of love for Poland, but due to a shrewd calculation of their own national interest. A recent phone call between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Pawel Soloch, Polish President Andrzej Duda's security policy adviser, seemed to signal exactly that. But the expectation is that the Biden administration will de-emphasize the political relationship. So far, neither Biden nor U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have reached out to their Polish counterparts. The key factor driving this dynamic is not so much the Trump-Polish ties of recent years, but the general decline of democratic institutions and norms in Poland.
During Trump’s tenure, the condition of Polish democracy all but disappeared from the agenda of U.S.-Polish relations. The U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, would sometimes criticize the Polish government on rule of law, freedom of the media, or human rights such as those of LGBT community. However, these topics were rarely talking points at high-level meetings. The expectation in Warsaw is that this situation will now change. In his first major foreign policy speech in office, Biden repeatedly pointed to the importance of democratic values and institutions for America’s foreign policy. But how will this change actually play out in a country like Poland?
Few in Warsaw expect that the U.S. administration will link the all-important security relationship with concerns over the quality of Polish democracy. While this debate is still alive in Washington, most voices in and around the new administration argue against such a linkage. The tool more likely to be deployed is good-old political pressure -- in private, and perhaps in public, with high-level U.S. officials speaking openly about their concerns. The United States may also restart long-abandoned civil-society support measures in Poland and throughout Central Europe. The new U.S. administration probably won’t push Warsaw to reverse all the domestic changes Law and Justice has introduced. But it is likely to react strongly to any new moves, for example measures to limit media freedoms or minority rights.
The Polish government’s biggest goal vis-a-vis Biden's administration is to preserve the gains of the last four years, and to maintain or even strengthen the close security relationship with Washington. But the focus on maintaining the status quo, combined with worries over potential repercussions for its domestic policies, are blocking more ambitious and open thinking in Warsaw when it comes to strengthening and diversifying Polish-American ties. Disagreements over values should not overshadow potential opportunities that come with the new U.S. administration.
Two areas of policy opportunity concern Europe’s Eastern Partnership countries and climate change. It makes perfect sense for Warsaw and Washington to work out common actions in Eastern Partnership countries. This is an area where Poland takes the lead among European countries in talking with Americans. And while Poland is not yet a leader on climate change issues, it is beginning to clearly understand the need for energy transformation. This new area of bilateral relations would build on already well-developed Polish-American cooperation. It could expand beyond liquid natural gas to include renewable energy projects and perhaps the cooperation in civilian nuclear applications that the Trump administration initiated.
America in the Biden era wants to engage, but it also wants to do so on the basis of democratic values, and not only interests. The cooperation agenda can and should be diversified and include new policy areas like the Eastern Partnership or climate. To succeed, though, Poland’s dedication to democratic institutions will be crucial. Warsaw should abandon its wait-and-see approach and engage Washington with new, forward-leaning agenda.
Michał Baranowski is the director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, where he provides overall strategic direction and leadership for the organization’s work in Poland, the Baltic states, and the V4 countries. The views expressed are the author's own.