Joe Biden’s inauguration opens up a new era in transatlantic relations. But Poles do not share their fellow Europeans’ liking for the new administration.
Among all 11 European countries surveyed for ECFR just after the presidential election, Poland (alongside Hungary) is the most favourably disposed towards Donald Trump – and is the least enthusiastic about Biden. For many Poles, there is nothing irrational about this: the former president’s term in office saw an intensification of military cooperation between the two countries, and the end of the visa regime for Poles entering the United States.
As the countries enter this new era, the strong affinity Poland has for the US could be an asset – should Warsaw seek to play a role in renewing the EU-US partnership. However, Polish perceptions of the US appear to be largely based on wishful thinking; and they show little comprehension of the doubts harboured by other Europeans.
When Europeans are asked to consider which other state their own country most needs a good relationship with, the vast majority point to Germany – but, in Poland, 45 per cent place the US top of their list, with Germany second, on only 29 per cent. What Poles think about this question correlates closely with whether one supports the ruling Law and Justice party or opposition parties. As many as 69 per cent of Law and Justice voters favour the US first, and then – not Germany, but the United Kingdom. Among opposition voters, Germany is the unquestioned leader, with the US in second place.
However, a divergence between voters of different parties is only part of the story. Supporters of the Polish opposition are also more focused on the US than most of their fellow Europeans are. For example, even if they rank Germany as the most important country to have good relations with, they usually place the US second. As a result, Poland is the country with the second largest share of the population ranking the US at least second on this issue (the UK has the largest share). In other words, in line with post-cold war tradition, many Poles continue to treat Europe and the transatlantic alliance as the two main anchors of Poland’s international security and identity.
Poland’s security interests clearly remain uppermost in its citizens’ minds. Seventy-seven per cent of Poles believe their country needs the American security guarantee – this is far ahead of the 57 per cent of all Europeans who believe this; only 48 per cent of Germans do. More strikingly still, 44 per cent of Poles say that their country needs the US security guarantee “a great deal”, while only 10 per cent of French and Germans share that belief.
However, across Europe in recent years there has been growing conviction that the EU must – and can – stand firmly on its own two feet. The EU’s collective response to the coronavirus pandemic, agreement on the recovery fund, and discussion about European sovereignty have made a strong impression on the viewpoints of Europeans, strengthening their sense of sharing a common fate.
There is, for the moment, limited understanding for this stance in Poland. Admittedly, the views of Poles are not greatly out of step with those of other Europeans regarding the need to increase the efforts made in Europe in the area of security and defence – the vast majority of Poles (69 per cent) believe that Europe cannot always count on the US and should thus develop its own defence capabilities. Furthermore, it is not only opposition supporters who think this, but Law and Justice voters too. However, in the latter’s case, it is highly likely that most interpret “own capabilities” as referring to Poland rather than Europe.
And Poles do differ from the rest of Europe in being much less ready to act assertively towards the US on major economic questions, such as over trade, how to tax multinational companies, and the regulation of digital platforms. This is true among both government and opposition voters. Only one in ten Poles believes that the EU should be tougher in defending its economic interests in relations with the US – contrast this with 35 per cent of all Europeans, including 38 per cent of Germans and as much as 48 per cent among the French. This matters because it will likely be incredibly difficult to ever restore full transatlantic harmony in the economic arena, especially given the growing rivalry between the US and China – to which the EU is still to develop its own coherent approach.
It would be easy to conclude that Poles want to believe in the possibility of turning back time, or at least that they somehow want to hold onto a beautiful moment: they have above-average faith in the stability of American democracy and America’s ability to return to its role of leader of the free world. This faith certainly expresses the perception of the country’s strategic interests, in which the US plays a central role. However, such opinions appear to betray carefully nurtured delusions and a resistance (or at least an ambivalence) to the need for EU-US relations to be set up according to new principles.
A Poland inclined to Atlanticism should be an important player in this process, to the benefit of the entire EU. However, Poland (especially when ruled by Law and Justice) will need to make an enormous effort to convince its partners that it can be a useful bridge-builder between the US and Europe, rather than the US’s Trojan Horse or (worse) an oddball unable to cope in the new post-Trump era of transatlantic relations. This effort should be accompanied by an increased openness to strengthening the EU itself – which currently appears to be the condition for a better partnership with the US. Otherwise, Poland’s unbending Atlanticism will become a rusting trophy in a European Union redefining its international position.
The Polish version of this commentary was published by the Rzeczpospolita daily on 27 January 2020.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.