Just three weeks after entering office, Polish President Andrzej Duda’s first official visit to Berlin on August 28 allayed concerns in some quarters that his presidency would resurrect the combative foreign policy his right-wing party, Law and Justice, practiced the last time it was in power from 2005 to 2007. Back then, prickly ties with Berlin, deep skepticism towards the European Union, and a clear preference for close security ties with the United States over engagement with the continent resulted in a common perception that Poland was an unreliable European partner.
Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk – now President of the European Commission – changed course after becoming prime minister in 2007 by revitalizing ties with Berlin and spearheading an era of constructive foreign policy that has raised Poland’s standing and influence in European affairs to unprecedented levels. Now that Law and Justice is projected to unseat the government in parliamentary elections scheduled for October 25th, many observers fear that Duda’s promise to recalibrate Polish foreign policy will include downgrading relations with Germany, a course that would be strategically catastrophic for Poland and paralyzing for the broader European community. If it returns to power this year, Law and Justice should unequivocally disown its failed foreign policy legacy and pledge to continue Poland’s unprecedentedly strong ties with its western neighbor.
Despite tough campaign rhetoric promising to stand up to Germany in defense of Polish interests, Duda’s visit to Berlin was generally well received, with one major German daily proclaiming him “a declared friend of Germany.” In meetings with officials, including his counterpart President Joachim Gauck and later Chancellor Angela Merkel, Duda praised Poland’s constructive ties with Germany and in particular Merkel’s leadership against Russian aggression in Ukraine. One of Duda’s aides remarked that visiting Germany early in his term was “an important signal that the president wants to continue the dynamism and intensity of Polish-German relations.” Indeed, Poland’s need for robust ties with Germany stems from the core of Polish security policy: fearful that Russia’s military gaze might extend to other eastern European states in the wake of its armed intervention in Ukraine, Duda’s top foreign policy priority in the short-term will be achieving what the current Polish government has thus far failed to, namely persuading Germany to consent to permanent NATO installations on Polish territory as a deterrent against Russian aggression. Germany and the United States have long rebuffed Poland’s request, fearing that such a radical change in NATO policy would needlessly provoke Russia. Despite differences on this and other issues, however, there were sighs of relief in both countries that Duda’s conciliatory remarks signaled, at least for now, the continuation of healthy bilateral ties.
The possibility that a future Law and Justice government will alter Polish foreign policy to the detriment of Polish-German ties nevertheless remains real. Before his visit to Berlin, Duda insisted that his party would merely “correct,” not “revolutionize” foreign policy, but many hardliners in the Law and Justice camp demand that the party, once in power, resurrect its skeptical stance towards Berlin. Duda’s friendly remarks in Berlin suggest that at least he understands Poland’s challenging security environment makes dysfunctional relations with its important western neighbor unworkable given the need to leverage a united European front, including strong German support, against Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, since the Polish presidency is largely ceremonial and there is no telling yet what role the party’s leader, former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, will have in domestic affairs after October, it is premature to declare that Polish-German relations will remain as strong as they are now in the coming years.
Given the complex situation NATO faces with Russia’s belligerent behavior and divergent views in Europe over the best approach to handling Moscow, the United States has a role to play in ensuring the continuation of friendly Warsaw-Berlin ties. The United States should make clear that it would oppose any attempt by Warsaw to create distance between itself, Berlin, and Brussels by stressing that Poland’s security, and by extension America’s regional interests, are best advanced by strengthening the continental ties Poland has impressively fostered since 2007. During the last decade when Law and Justice picked fights with Berlin and Brussels over issues ranging from energy policy to relations with Russia, Poland invested heavily in warm ties with the Bush administration, which enthusiastically courted “new Europe” as a source of international support for its foreign policy. This October, the United States should take the opportunity after congratulating the new Polish government to reaffirm their close relationship and Poland’s critical role at the heart of transatlantic relations, but also to stress that it would regard any new policy in Warsaw distinguishing Polish interests from constructive ties with Germany as contrary to the objective of achieving European security through unity and collaboration. This would dissuade policy makers in Warsaw from attempting to resurrect Law and Justice’s foreign policy playbook of the previous decade, when cooperation with European partners was downgraded in hopes that the United States would step in to bolster Poland’s security.
Polish-German reconciliation is one of the most significant stories of the postwar era. Hundreds of thousands of Poles still living today have personal memories of Nazi Germany’s brutal occupation, and despite the destruction wrought by that tragedy, the two neighbors have fostered economic, diplomatic, and security ties whose strength and comprehensiveness are a testament to the promise and potential of European integration. Presiding over a period of unprecedented economic growth and external engagement with the continent, Duda’s predecessor, Bronislaw Komorowski, as well as Donald Tusk and current Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz have recognized and capitalized on the economic and political opportunities of close Polish-German ties during the 8 remarkably fruitful years their party has been in power. If Poles choose to return Law and Justice to power this fall, the party should pledge to continue this vital prong of Civic Platform’s foreign policy, whose legacy has made Poland safer and more influential than at any other time in its recent history.
Image courtesy of DrabikPany