Transatlantic Take

For Poland, More Dependency on the United States with Trump or a Change of Strategy with Biden

October 26, 2020
Photo Credit: Praszkiewicz / Shutterstock

Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election

President Donald Trump’s term in office has coincided with the rule of the Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland. The two sides have affirmed their mutual commitment to the rule of law, human rights, and individual freedom that has guided U.S.-Polish relations for decades. But in reality, other commonalities bind them: not simply traditional defense and economic interests, but also a posture that is anti-establishment and critical of the EU.

The U.S.-Polish relationship rests on the shared strategic military goal of countering Russian aggression. Under Trump the United States has strongly guaranteed Poland it would provide military protection from Russia, and Poland has returned the favor by standing up for Trump, including in EU forums. While the visiting U.S. president was greeted with protests in France and Germany, Poles applauded and praised him.

The most significant achievement of the recent governmental tandem has been the signing of the U.S.-Poland Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) earlier this year, which will increase the number of permanent U.S. troops and military installations in Poland. Others include the supply of energy resources, the inclusion of Poland in the U.S. visa-waiver program, and most recently, an agreement on developing Poland’s civil nuclear energy program.

These agreements are beneficial to Poland’s current national interests but the PiS government’s strategy of replacing broader interdependence with dependence on one ally has further strained relations with Western European countries and the EU institutions. Moreover, it is detrimental to Poland’s long-term interest of being a sovereign and resilient country.

The PiS government has put a lot of time, effort, and money into strengthening ties with the Trump administration, but it is unprepared for a Biden victory. It is now concerned about the extent to which Biden would link the U.S.-Polish security relationship to issues such as the rule of law, freedom of media, and rights of the LGBTQ community.

Regardless of who is elected president, U.S. defense and economic interests will not change, while, as long as Russia poses a challenge to its security and prosperity, Poland will need the help of the United States to deter Moscow from re-establishing a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. And, for the moment, European countries are not able to replace the United States in this regard, given their limited military capabilities. The transactional and strategic nature of the Polish-U.S. relationship will not be re-shaped by one administration or another. Trump would continue to see this as good business and Biden would have no interest in changing the military ties between the two countries.

Under a Biden administration, U.S. military intervention would most likely continue to be as selective as it has been under Trump. The major difference for Poland would be the United States’ interest in nearby conflicts in Ukraine, Belarus, and Nagorno-Karabakh. To its dismay, Trump would continue to take scarce notice of these. Biden would probably not be ready to deploy troops in the region either, but he would take a tougher stance on Russian meddling there.

Additionally, Biden has announced that he would review Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany. That decision is hugely detrimental to Poland because the planned increase in the number of U.S. soldiers and equipment in the country under the EDCA will not make up for the drop in overall U.S. troop numbers and the weakened European security architecture. The same is true for a NATO without the United States, which could be a consequence of a second Trump term.

Biden’s faith in multilateralism and willingness to enter into legally binding international agreements, perhaps even a renewed arms-control deal with Russia, would be another potential gain for Poland. So would U.S. participation in the EU’s defense projects, which are important for Poland or for more favorable financing of the Three Seas Initiative's projects.

Trump would most likely carry on with rhetoric and decisions that weaken multilateral dialogue and alienate the United States from France and Germany. This has created space for bilateral ties and left Trump looking for a faithful and docile ally in Europe. At the cost of pursuing an imbalanced foreign policy focused on the United States, and of a growing conflict with Germany, France and the EU institutions, Poland has gladly accepted this position and would continue to do so. In order to remain Trump’s tributary, the PiS government would have to comply with Washington’s anti-China policy, maintain high defense spending, and ease up on attacks on the freedom of media and the LGBTQ community (which have been criticized by the United States).

Biden, on the other hand, would work hard to repair the image of the United States as a trustworthy and credible international player. He would probably rescind support for countries—such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey—that have chosen illiberal paths if they fail to take concrete steps to restore confidence in the protection of human rights, the rule of law, and various freedoms. His support for the EU could force the PiS government to adapt to EU policy and rebuild its relations with Berlin and Paris. Another positive consequence would be the need to diversify Poland’s partnerships in the energy sphere and change its international narrative.

In short, Trump’s reelection would allow Poland to maintain the status quo of dependency on the United States in foreign relations, while Biden’s election could force it to reevaluate this strategy. The latter could ultimately bolster Poland’s sovereignty and resilience in the longer term.

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.