Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives in Poland today seeking to burnish his foreign policy standing and score points against President Barack Obama for his “abandonment” of eastern Europe.
While Polish relations with Obama have been bumpy, Romney’s attempts to play off Cold War fears in a former Soviet satellite and to connect with Americans of eastern European descent may not resonate in today’s Poland, analysts and scholars said.
Romney has called Russia, Poland’s historic foe, America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and accused Obama of the “sudden abandonment” of Poles because the president delayed -- and then revived -- plans for a missile defense system in eastern Europe.
“Romney’s description of Russia as the world’s No. 1 geostrategic problem, that’s out of step with most Americans, but Poles, as well, are coming to see the world and Russia in a more nuanced way,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington policy group.
Cold warrior rhetoric might even grate on Polish ears, said Fran Burwell, director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Atlantic Council, another Washington policy group.
“When Romney says this” about Russia, “the Poles, I think, are more concerned about him making the debate with Russia more prominent and more tense than it needs to be,” Burwell said in a telephone interview last week.
As Romney ends a six-day trip that also includes the U.K. and Israel and invites comparisons with Obama’s 2008 speech in Berlin that drew 200,000 spectators, the administration has been underscoring the relationships it already has with officials in those countries.
The Pentagon hosted Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak on July 25, the same day Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan was in Israel ahead of a visit this week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. British Defense Minister Philip Hammond visited the U.S. Defense Department last week.
U.S. relations with Poland warmed quickly after communism collapsed in 1989. With the Czech Republic and Hungary, Poland joined NATO in 1999, and Polish troops have fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in Afghanistan, and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Obama administration leaks about secret “black sites” the George W. Bush administration reportedly created in Poland and elsewhere in 2002 and 2003 to interrogate suspected terrorists have created tensions, though. On March 29, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Poland was a “political victim” of leaks about the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s covert rendition program.
Romney is trying to capitalize on those strains and other White House military decisions and verbal gaffes, as well as on concerns that the U.S. defense ‘tilt’’ toward Asia will reduce eastern Europe’s importance to Washington decision makers.
The talk of a shift toward Asia “prompted many Central Europeans to revisit the fundamental assumptions which have defined their relationship with the United States,” according to a July 23 report by the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington policy group.
Still, a June Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes toward the U.S. found Polish opinion of the U.S. remained steady from 2009, when 67 percent approved of the U.S., to 2012, when 69 percent approved. In 2008, the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration, 68 percent of Poles approved of the U.S.
The same survey also found that 50 percent of Poles have confidence in Obama’s leadership, whereas 41 percent said the same about Bush in 2008. The survey sampled 1,001 adults in Poland, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
Some Poles’ views of Obama did sour when the president delayed an eastern European missile defense system. The decision came as part of the so-called “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia, which strongly objects to the system. Ostensibly meant to protect against Iranian weapons, it also could have targeted Russian missiles.
Poles, who see missile defense as a bulwark against a possible return of Russian aggression, had invested great effort in agreeing to the plan proposed by Bush. The White House announcement that it wouldn’t move forward with the plan came on Sept. 17, 2009, 70 years to the day after the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland two weeks after Nazi Germany attacked from the west.
The Polish perception was that Obama “clearly favored pushing the restart button with Russia over the longer-term commitment that eastern Europe had made to the U.S.,” said Nida Gelazis, a senior associate at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan Washington research institute.
Former Polish President Lech Walesa told Poland’s news station TVN24 that he was deeply disappointed. “The Americans have always only taken care of their own interests, and they have used everyone else,” Walesa said, according to Der Spiegel. He said Poles must rethink their own view of America and start thinking about their own interests.
A month later, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would proceed with a smaller project in a new format, called the Phased Adaptive Approach, on the same basic schedule.
There’s still lingering concern about the missile system, though, because of uncertainty about U.S. defense budget cuts, Burwell said.
“There’s a lot of skepticism in Poland,” Burwell said, “because of the budget, they’re feeling a little bit like, ‘we’ll believe that it’s here when it’s here.’ ”
Verbal missteps also have chilled relations between the Obama White House and Poland. At a ceremony to issue Presidential Medals of Freedom in May, Obama referred to “Polish death camps” in telling the story of a Polish resistance fighter working against Nazis during World War II.
The White House expressed regret, explaining that the president misspoke and was referring to “Nazi death camps operated in Poland.” Prime Minister Tusk, not appeased, blasted Obama for “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions.”
The Obama administration has moved to reassure Poland in other ways, announcing the creation of a permanent U.S. military presence on Polish soil in May 2011. The U.S. air detachment, expected to be operational in 2013, will service F-16 fighters and C-130 transports that rotate through Poland, according to the White House.
Kupchan said the White House also went out of its way to rebuild ties to Europe, with Obama spending a week there in November 2010, emphasizing that the U.S. considers Europe its go-to partner in the world.
“That calmed a lot of nerves in Poland, but that doesn’t mean the Poles aren’t worried about a lot of things,” Kupchan said in a telephone interview.
Romney, though, could benefit from eastern Europeans’ cultural and historical proclivity for Republicans, Gelazis said. “There’s a long tradition in Poland and Baltic states to support the Republican Party because of Ronald Reagan,” the U.S. president credited with helping trigger the Soviet Union’s demise.
“Eastern Europeans love that very strong hand, that very strong rhetoric they get from Republican candidates,” Gelazis said.