Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s trip to Washington DC last week acted as a symbolic counterpoint to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to Beijing.
While Macron dusted off his idea of the EU’s “strategic autonomy” during his April 5-8 visit by saying Europe’s best path forward would be to “unfollow” America, particularly as regards policy towards China, Morawiecki told his American hosts the very opposite during his visit the following week.
Morawiecki reasserted Europe’s need for US leadership, whilst also drawing a direct link between Russia’s war in Ukraine and the looming conflict between China and Taiwan.
“You need to support Ukraine if you want Taiwan to stay as it is … if Ukraine gets conquered, the next day, China can attack Taiwan,” Morawiecki said.
Criticising Macron's China trip and the French president's earlier phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin also served Morawiecki’s overarching mission: to underscore the strength of the Polish-American alliance.
Those relations are perhaps at their closest ever. After Russia attacked Ukraine nearly 14 months ago, Poland became Nato’s strategic outpost literally overnight – on top of welcoming more than million Ukrainian refugees. Poland consequently quickly moved up the ladder of importance in the White House’s foreign policy briefings.
Morawiecki reinforced the message about Poland’s new clout in his meeting with Vice-President Kamala Harris (President Joe Biden was in Ireland celebrating 25 years since the Good Friday Agreements).
“Old Europe believed in an agreement with Russia, and old Europe failed,” Morawiecki told a joint news conference with Harris in Washington DC.
“But there is a new Europe — Europe that remembers what Russian communism was. And Poland is the leader of this new Europe,” Morawiecki claimed, referencing former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld’s remark about how “old Europe” – the established democracies and strong economies of France or Germany – lacked the dynamism of “new Europe,” the then-new members of the EU.
Poland and most other nations of Central and Eastern Europe – with the notable exception of Hungary – have been Ukraine’s iron-firm supporters against Russia, and the champions of Kyiv’s ambitions of joining the EU one day.
From their perspective, the approach Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have adopted has been symptomatic of Western Europe's ambivalent resolve to the Russian threat.
The US response – with its packages of military help that dwarf those of Europe’s combined – only confirmed to Warsaw that when it comes to security, no other ally comes even close.
“America is Poland's indispensable partner, but Poland is also an indispensable link in Washington's transatlantic policy. Today, Europe needs Polish-American cooperation like never before,” Morawiecki said while in the US.
Unsurprisingly, Poland has bet mostly on the US companies to bulk up its armed forces in line with a plan to make it the EU’s biggest. The list is long: from F-16 and F-35 fighter jets to air defence Patriot systems and from Abrams tanks to Himars missile launchers, as well as lighter equipment such as Humvees or Javelins. The costs have run into tens of billions of dollars since the early 2000s.
“The expansion of our defence potential, for which we allocate 4% of GDP in 2023, is based on equipping our soldiers with Polish-made equipment, but also with the latest technologies produced in the United States of America. We buy American equipment and at the same time support American defence investments in our country, which will directly translate into Poland's security,” Morawiecki said.
Europe's centre moves east
But it’s not just security and defence. The US has long been the biggest foreign investor in Poland, with $26bn put in to date, 12% of all foreign investment in Poland since the fall of its communist regime 34 years ago.
This commitment will only get larger in the future with the involvement of the US nuclear technology company Westinghouse Electric in the project to build Poland’s first-ever nuclear power plant.
Now that it no longer buys gas from Russia, much of that commodity is also now coming in from the US.
As the war in Ukraine redefined the standing of Poland in the US and the EU, it has worsened Hungary’s. Prior to the Russian invasion, Warsaw and Budapest were the EU’s biggest troublemakers, something which even concerned the similarly-minded Donald Trump administration.
Yet after the war broke out, and despite the succession of Biden’s liberal administration, the same populist Polish government has now become America’s strategic partner, while Hungary has been shunned. Biden himself travelled to Poland twice in less than 12 months, delivering a message of allied support to a Nato country right on the frontline.
Poland felt so confident that when a US-owned broadcaster TVN aired a highly critical documentary about Pope John Paul II, suggesting he actively protected paedophiles when still a cardinal in his home city of Krakow, the foreign ministry “invited” the US Ambassador Mark Brzezinski to discuss the broadcaster’s “actions that threatened national security”.
Poland’s new geopolitical weight has not gone unnoticed in Europe. “The centre of Europe is moving eastward,” Scholz said in Prague last year.
“The voices of Central and Eastern Europeans are being listened to more and taken more seriously in the councils of Europe, and there is a big eastern enlargement agenda on the table,” historian Timothy Garton Ash told the New York Times earlier this year.
But some analysts are worried that Poland might let its newly gained importance go to waste, as it remains embroiled in controversies with the EU on several key issues from the rule of law to climate policy and the freedom of the media, while consistently slipping down the ranks on democratic governance.
“Warsaw will need to expand the boundaries of its influence and avoid some further pitfalls if it is to become a real leader,” Piotr Buras, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Warsaw office wrote in February.
“Poland’s newly discovered self-confidence in foreign policy rests largely on its vindication regarding Russia. This moral superiority is a source of strength. Yet, Polish leaders should take care not to overplay their hand. Admiration in Europe for Warsaw’s accomplishments could easily turn into irritation if moral leadership becomes conflated with self-righteousness,” Buras wrote.
Poland “should resist the temptation to define leadership in confrontational rather than integrative terms”, as this is something that might not necessarily find traction with other, smaller, countries of the CEE region, the analyst pointed out.