Republican presidents have been drawn to Poland ever since Ronald Reagan worked with Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity movement to help usher in the Eastern European country’s democratic political system. And President Donald Trump, who landed in Poland Wednesday night.
Poland’s affinity for the United States is rooted in Reagan’s actions to counter the USSR and truly blossomed when his successor, George H.W. Bush, helped orchestrate a soft landing for the country as it left the Soviet bloc. Despite welcoming Bill Clinton twice to great fanfare, the actions approved by Reagan and Bush created an affinity for the United States, in general, and specifically Republicans.
Ties to the United States dipped during President Barack Obama’s time in office. Obama’s close ties with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — and his view that Germany was the heart of a collective Europe — raised suspicions in Poland, where Germany’s power has long been viewed skeptically. Poland’s relationship with Obama grew so fraught in 2012 that Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney traveled there during the campaign to highlight, among other issues, the president’s relationship with an ally.
Obama’s record in regard to Poland was mixed. Obama initially scrapped Bush-era plans to deploy ground-based missile defense systems to Poland and the Czech Republic. He later approved an anti-missile platform in Poland and delivered American troops to the country near the end of his presidency.
But by the time those troops arrived to help NATO, the view of Obama as a pro-German leader was cemented. A Pew survey in 2014 found just 50% of Poles had confidence in Obama, one of his lowest ratings in Europe.
“Poland is the most pro-American country in the world — including the United States,” Michael Mandelbaum, a professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University, was quoted as saying after a 2003 trip to the country.
The sentiment in Poland is changing, though. With populist tides rising — as evidenced by the election of nationalist President Andrzej Duda — Poles are now looking inward for leadership, cautious of both Russia to its East and the European Union and Germany to the West.
Trump’s presidency, however, may turn that feeling on its head. Trump has so far done little to combat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meddling into the 2016 election in the United States and Trump’s own advisers are struggling to convince him that Russia still poses a threat, according to multiple senior administration officials.
Trump, who will meet with Putin Friday after visiting Poland, will deliver an address to the Polish people on Thursday, as well as meet with Duda and speak to the leaders at the Three Seas Initiative, a project that aims to unite Eastern Europe through energy infrastructure.
Trump may find a partner in his Polish counterpart, though. Duda rose to power in 2015 on the back of nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment, not dissimilar to Trump’s 2016 election win. Both Trump and Duda have been publicly skeptical of international organizations, with the Polish president worrying European Union diplomats with some fractures he is causing in Poland’s relationship with the union.
And local media have been reporting that Duda and his conservative Law and Justice Party promised people close to Trump sizable crowds for Trump’s visit, particularly for his speech to the Polish people at the Warsaw Uprising Monument, a memorial in honor of Poles who rose up to fight Nazis in 1944.
Even though relations with Poland have changed since Reagan, Republicans in particular have long viewed the former Soviet bloc nation as a pro-America haven in Europe, a country that has been welcoming to Republicans at times of relative unpopularity around the continent.
Top White House aides said ahead of Trump’s trip to Poland that the President plans to highlight the United States’ ties to the country.
“The main message is that America is with you, America understands that its interests align with the interests of the Polish people, and we are determined to do our best to work together on our common priorities and our common interests,” H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, said about his visit.
Polish leaders said ahead of Trump’s visit that now is the time for solidarity against Russia.
“President Donald Trump’s visit to Poland is in my opinion truly taking place at a crucial moment in history. The threat that Russia poses cannot be overstated,” said Polish Ambassador to the US Piotr Wilczek.
“Now is the time for allied solidarity and President Trump’s decision to visit Poland so early in his presidency underscores the importance of our region to the US administration and the transatlantic community as a whole,” he added.
Nixon to Romney
Every president since Richard Nixon — except for Reagan — has visited Poland, a feat not many European countries can boast.
Nixon became the first US president to visit Poland when he traveled to Warsaw in 1972. The two-day visit was extraordinary for the Polish people, who lined the streets of Warsaw with signs like “Nixon rescue Poland.” By traveling to the then-communist nation, Nixon became the first president since Franklin D. Roosevelt to visit a country behind the Iron Curtain.
It was Reagan’s support of Solidarity, the anti-bureaucratic labor union founded by Lech Walesa in 1980, that truly won early support for American Republicans in Poland.
George H.W. Bush’s trip in 1989, including a speech to the Polish National Assembly, was a seminal moment for US-Polish relations. Bush met with Walesa on the trip, but his greatest contribution may have been how he modeled a different style of politics to the Polish people. Poles were fascinated at the difference between Bush and their old Soviet leaders when photos emerged of the American president running through Łazienki Park in Warsaw.
President George W. Bush continued to foster a relationship with Poland during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, where Polish soldiers participated in both missions. Bush traveled to Poland three times in his eight years as president.
During a presidential debate against Democratic Sen. John Kerry, Bush even held Poland up as an example of his ability to build a coalition around the war in Iraq.
“Well, actually, he forgot Poland,” Bush said at one point.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited Poland during the 2012 presidential election.
“Our nations belong to the great fellowship of democracies. We speak the same language of freedom and justice,” Romney said during his visit. “I believe it’s critical to stand by those who have stood by America.”
Though Poland participated in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the conflicts grew unpopular over time. Only 58% of Poles polled in the Pew Research Global Attitudes and Trends survey released at the end of the Obama administration said they believed he would do the right thing regarding world affairs. Trump’s rating is a dismal 23%.
Apprehension toward the United States could also be associated with Duda’s nationalist rise. Duda has some refugee requirements imposed by the European Union, signaling he and his party will be skeptical of lawmakers in Brussels and more interested in their own success.
Wilczek, Poland’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters that the country remains committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, especially because of Article 5, the principle that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries.
“We would like to hear that every day from the President of the United States and from actually leaders of all other NATO countries,” he said. “As far as Russia is concerned, what is important for us in NATO deterrence.”
Trump, McMaster said, will highlight Poland’s historic ties to the United States and herald the country as one of America’s “staunchest allies.”
During his visit, the President is also expected to tout recent sales of liquified natural gas to Poland, highlighting the need for a Poland that is energy independent from Russia.
“It is a country that has partnered with us and had been a great ally during combat missions in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well,” McMaster said. “And so… the President will emphasize themes about the past, what Poland has gone through as a nation, what they’ve achieved to fight to be part of Europe.”