On Wednesday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump will arrive in Poland, where he will meet with Central and Eastern European leaders on Thursday at a summit of the Three Seas Initiative. Also on Thursday, before heading to the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Trump will address the Polish people.
Trump’s decision to visit Warsaw is no accident, and it could have far-reaching consequences for the European Union, and for Poland’s place in it. Polish foreign policy today is torn between two competing visions. One is based on a right-wing fantasy about resurrecting the pre-World War II Intermarium project, which would give Poland an important leadership role in the region. The other, affirmed by the opposition, envisions closer cooperation within the Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, and Poland).
Still, both sides are united in their belief that Poland should have a strong alliance with the United States, and should support Ukrainian independence (though the right does harbor some grievances against Ukraine for various historical transgressions).
The Three Seas Initiative encompasses 12 countries from Estonia to Croatia, in an effort to improve regional energy and communications cooperation. By creating a counterweight to the German-Russian Nord Stream project, which bolsters Russia’s energy monopoly in Europe at the expense of European solidarity, Poland’s initiative also represents the country’s own bid for regional leadership. And, of course, the Three Seas participants constitute NATO’s eastern flank, where the U.S. is deploying forces in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
So, what is the impetus for Trump’s visit? For starters, he and Poland’s de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński both want to demonstrate that they are beloved leaders with many allies, and not isolated, deeply unpopular figures. It is telling that Trump has postponed indefinitely his initial plan to visit the United Kingdom, where he would have drawn large protests. In Poland, he can expect to be met by cheering crowds.
That, too, is no accident. Kaczyński is providing buses for the PiS’s nearly 300 MPs, who will shuttle in supporters from their various constituencies. Kaczynski clearly sees an opportunity to put on a show for domestic consumption, by using Trump’s visit to demonstrate that Poland is a regional leader, rather than a black sheep.
As for Trump, who still fancies himself more of a businessman than a politician, natural gas provides opportunities for deal making and job creation. But, for Europe, gas is much more than that. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it’s a political weapon; for Poland, it’s a means of security; and for Germany, it’s all of these.
Germany is regarded by the Trump administration as an economic rival, and by Poland as a potential security threat, owing to its energy alliance with Russia. If the U.S. Congress approves new sanctions prohibiting cooperation with companies involved with Russian energy suppliers, the future of Nord Stream will be called into question. That would undermine German economic interests and create an opportunity for the U.S. to sell gas to Europe.
As it happens, the first delivery of American liquefied natural gas recently arrived at a new gas terminal in Świnoujście. To achieve economic and political autonomy from Russia, and to establish a North-South axis as an alternative to the dominant East-West axis, it is crucial for Poland that such deliveries continue.
A third factor in Trump’s visit is his longstanding disdain for the EU. By visiting Poland before Germany, Trump may be trying to create a split within the EU, similar to when newly admitted member states drew criticism from “Old Europe” for supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Still, it would be naive for Poland to trust Trump. The American president is not known for keeping his promises, and he is clearly fascinated with Putin.
Indeed, one final motivation for Trump’s Poland trip is to defuse the ongoing investigations at home of the ties between his election campaign and Russia. By speaking in Poland, which has traditionally been seen as a vocal critic of Russia in the region, Trump may be hoping to remove suspicion. Early indications suggest that his speech in Warsaw will laud Poland’s historical contributions to Europe and the world. And he may endorse the principle of collective defense under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, or announce a large arms deal with Poland, as he did when he visited Saudi Arabia.
Either way, the Polish government will tout Trump’s visit as a great success, and a sign that Poland is “rising from its knees.” Never mind that the visit could threaten Poland’s relationships with its closest allies: France and Germany. Moreover, Trump’s visit could even undermine the Three Seas Initiative, given that the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have no wish to confront such an important economic partner as Germany.
At the same time, it is extremely unlikely that Russian-German cooperation on the Nord Stream project would collapse. The European Commission, once a strong proponent of Poland in its bid for energy independence, has no interest in opposing Germany, and is now at odds with the PiS government on many issues. Poland does not use the euro, and it is currently violating the rule of law and other EU norms, while refusing to participate in the EU’s refugee response.
At this point, the last chance of integrating Poland into a European defense framework may have been lost already. Trump and Kaczynski have prepared quite a show. But fictions can have very real consequences. - Project Syndicate