The Biden Administration: Opportunity or Stress for German-Polish Relations?
Germany and Poland have close and very particular ties with the United States, and both are interested in a strong transatlantic partnership. Their divergent approaches toward the country and particularly toward the Trump administration strained their own relationship. Even though they will continue to have differences, the start of the Biden administration offers opportunities for Germany and Poland to cooperate and form a hinge linking Europe and the United States—provided there is political will in both countries.
Much more than is the case with other European countries, the respective relationships of Germany and Poland with the United States are also a key determinant of their mutual relations. Therefore, if their approaches toward Washington differ, this has also consequences for the quality of their ties. This could be observed during the last four years, with Warsaw investing heavily in the relationship with Donald Trump and Berlin being increasingly frustrated about his behavior in international affairs in general and toward Germany in particular. Of course, German-Polish squabbles around transatlantic relations were not simply the result of a Trump effect. Deeply rooted dissimilarities, like differing threat perceptions, have caused trouble in the past. However, the last years have been a period of German-Polish alienation and divergence.
At first glance, the election of Joe Biden could also strain German-Polish ties. Germany hopes for new opportunities for transatlantic relations in areas like global warming, on which Poland so far has not been a staunch actor, whereas the Polish government fears that the new administration will reproach it on rule-of-law issues and minority rights, which would reinforce similar criticism from the EU and Germany. At the same time, there will be sobering experiences for Germany and Poland: Berlin knows that the Biden administration will try to contain Chinese and Russian influence, and thus that issues like Nord Stream 2 and defense burden sharing will remain on the agenda. The recently concluded EU-China Investment Agreement and the role of Germany as holder of the presidency of the EU Council in finishing the negotiations have dampened hopes about an easy improvement of German-U.S. relations in important areas. Meanwhile, Poland’s government is aware that, apart from issues concerning hard security and geopolitics, its relations with Washington could become less warm than in the last years.
Therefore, a closer look at the German-Polish-U.S. triangle reveals that the start of the Biden administration can be an opportunity for mutually beneficial relations—provided Berlin and Warsaw have a clear view of their interests, are able to establish a fruitful exchange on transatlantic relations, and embark on common action.
Closer Dialogue and Mutual Benefits
For Poland, working with Germany and the United States would be an opportunity to get involved in new areas of transatlantic cooperation that will be created by the Biden administration as well as to maintain and strengthen it in key areas like security and defense. It could also demonstrate that it tries to strengthen the Atlanticist caucus within the European Union, which is a key interest for itself and for Germany. Poland could create a trilateral channel to Washington in addition to existing bilateral relations and contacts through NATO and the EU. This could be beneficial especially given Biden’s probable inclination to prioritize rebuilding of U.S.-German ties. Trilateral Polish-German-U.S. cooperation would also create auxiliary benefits for Poland’s position within the European Union.
An intensified dialogue with Poland on transatlantic matters would also be beneficial for Germany. Given the divisive issues between them and Polish doubts about German reliability regarding hard security or the eastern neighborhood, the offer of a common commitment for renewing and bolstering transatlantic relations would send a strong signal about partnership to Poland. Given Polish fears that the joint article by the German and French foreign ministers indicated that Berlin wants to create European initiatives on transatlantic questions with Paris, Germany could show to Poland that it intends to include it in a prominent way.
At the same time, Germany could signal to the Biden administration that its efforts to restore transatlantic cooperation are not a predominantly Franco-German endeavor and include partners from the eastern part of the EU. This would give Germany more leeway to emphasize strengthening European integration and cooperation simultaneously as reinvigorating transatlantic contacts.
Interests are not sufficient for ensuring new German-Polish teamwork, though. Both countries have to develop ideas and activities, starting from defining common objectives given the numerous global and European challenges. Such an exercise should start with the search for a shared vision of how they want to see transatlantic relations evolve. It should be one of an effective Euro-Atlanticism.
This entails understanding three things. First, that security interactions between the United States and Europe are firmly built on NATO as the provider of last resort and that European capabilities have to develop in a way that is not disconnected from the transatlantic context. Second, the triangular relationship has to be comprehensive and multifaceted, with engagement on more in issues apart from security and trade than in the past. Third, strong bilateral ties between European countries and the United States are beneficial but should be exist within the transatlantic framework. Above all, transatlantic relations have to be effective: cooperation should be not only reaffirmed but also deliver added value.
Germany and Poland could think about common initiatives aiming at the stimulation of collaboration with the United States in four areas: the Eastern Partnership, climate policy, the Three Seas Initiative, and security and defense cooperation.
Eastern Europe is an area of shared interest for Germany, Poland, and the United States. The EU’s Eastern Partnership, which has put resilience at the center of its activities, and numerous U.S. assistance programs in the region could be better synchronized. Germany and Poland could try to develop resilience partnerships with the United States, bundling efforts in particular policy, societal, or economic areas, which aim at reducing vulnerabilities of Eastern Partnership countries.
Germany’s attempt to revitalize the transatlantic climate dialogue with the United States could be enriched by the involvement of Polish organizations, including research institutions, government agencies, municipalities and regions, or businesses. Climate-related research hubs—consisting of organizations and representatives from the three countries—on issues like smart grids, network and cyber security in the energy sector, or transformation toward a decarbonized economic and social model could be encouraged with funding and political support.
Poland, Germany, and the United States are, in different ways, part of the Three Seas Initiative (3SI)—a loose grouping of countries in the eastern part of the EU, aiming to connectivity in transport, energy and the digital sphere. Poland is an initiator of the 3SI; the United States is a strong supporter and has pledged up to $1 billion for the 3SI investment fund; and Germany is a partner of the initiative and has expressed its interest in joining it. At the core of the 3SI discussions is the economic and geopolitical relevance of infrastructure. Greater financial involvement by Germany could go hand in hand with the pledged U.S. contribution. Germany and the United States could be part of a 3SI advisory council that would look for synergies between infrastructure priorities and projects in the eastern part of the EU, the Eastern partnership, or the Western Balkans.
One of the key areas for Polish-German, and Polish-German-U.S. cooperation is security and defense. The United States will continue to look to European countries to take on a greater share of the burden for the defense of Europe as well as of its southern and eastern neighborhoods. Germany will want to revitalize its security relationship with the United States after four difficult years, including trying to reverse or at least minimize Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. 9,500 troops from the country. Poland will aim to maintain its close security relationship with Washington, strengthen NATO’s deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis Russia, and influence the debate over European strategic autonomy much more along the lines recently presented by Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer than those by France’s President Emanuel Macron.
Hence, it would be a win-win-win effort to establish new forms of trilateral security cooperation on NATO’s eastern flank. This would show the United States that Germany is getting serious about defense, if not yet in terms of military spending as percentage of GDP but in terms of commitment, capabilities, and contributions. It would give Germany a venue for a new opening on security policy with the Biden administration as well as a new area of cooperation with Poland. Finally, Poland would benefit from additional capabilities for the defense of NATO’s eastern flank and would get a European anchor of NATO’s presence there as well as the U.S. one. New formats of trilateral consultations between ministries of defense could be established. In the future, Germany could plug into the newly formed U.S. V Corps Headquarters in Poznan.
Strengthening transatlantic relations is not an exclusive German-Polish affair. Poland and Germany have cultivated their cooperation with the United States also with other partners as well as through NATO and the EU. But they could become a couple consolidating transatlantic bonds—not only between themselves and the United States but also within Europe. Therefore, in working for an effective Euro-Atlanticism, both countries might also involve other partners in their debates and efforts; for example, France in the Weimar Triangle or the Baltic and Northern Europeans states in future Baltic Sea security talks.
Looking to the future, Germany and Poland have to be realistic about the transatlantic future: The coming years will still see uncertainty and setbacks in the debates between Europe and the United States. For good reasons, the overarching mood in both countries is that there will be no return to a golden age of transatlantic relations. This means that their common efforts should be prudent and pragmatic.
Kai-Olaf Lang is a senior fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
The authors are members of the Polish-German Reflection-Group that brings together officials and experts under the leadership of Policy Planning departments at the respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs.