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The real reason Trump went to Poland

Trump went to Poland to sell gas to its nationalist right wing government - and other big EU countries were not impressed.

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Polish President Andrzej Duda attend a joint press conference in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017. PAimages/Xinhua/Chen Xu. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump attended the G20 summit in Hamburg last week where he had his first face-to-face meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Given the likely scrutiny and commotion the event would receive, Trump needed a sure foreign policy 'win'. Hence the short preceding stopover in Warsaw where Poland's ruling Law and Justice (PiS) establishment was only too happy to cater to the US president's needs.

The visit was somewhat unconventional. Framed as a work meeting with Poland's president Andrzej Duda, it was supposed to have the allure of a major geopolitical event underlining Poland's status as a US ally and project American support for the Three Seas Initiative (TSI) summit taking place in Warsaw.

No sooner had Trump left Warsaw for Hamburg than FOX News blasted eulogies of a 'Reaganesque performance' and Polish government-controlled media were hailing Trump's visit as an event of historic magnitude. In reality, the tangible outcomes of Trump's visit are somewhat less remarkable.

A presidential propaganda stunt

Trump's visit was meant to carry symbolic weight. Daniel Tilles, editor of the Notes from Poland social media news group, commented prior to the visit that Trump and PiS "share a distain for the conventional rules and practices of democracy" and will try to "capitalize on their agreement on major issues like migration, defense and a distrust of institutions such as the media and the judiciary".

Both sides did not fail to deliver. On 6 June, on Warsaw's Krasińki Square, Trump gave his first major public speech on foreign soil to an exalted crowd of thousands of specially bussed-in PiS supporters. The footage from the speech was reminiscent of Trump's campaign rallies with all the adulation his pharaonic Ego craved.

For his part, Trump declared America's love for Poland, credited Polish-Americans for voting for him, and heaped praise on the PiS establishment. His speech left PiS delirious. Prime Minister Beata Szydło immediately stated that the speech demonstrated that now "Poland was an important country" and even a "guarantor of world peace".

There were few genuinely critical voices in the press, but only Greenpeace, the Razem (Together) party and other leftist groups staged small protests. Poland is a middle-sized country in Europe, but too often its elites suffer from the inferiority complex of a small country. The parliamentary opposition, still struggling to mount a credible electoral challenge to PiS, dared not criticise Trump's speech seeing it as a 'success for Poland'. PiS could not have wished for a better propaganda coup.

Peddling a clash of civilisations

Trump's speech, with its stress on 'sovereignty' and 'freedom' ('democracy' was not mentioned), was carefully tailored to reverberate PiS' own rhetoric. There was a nationalist undertone throughout the flattery with historical references meant to appease PiS-style patriotism - a tale of martyrdom in the face of oppression, heroic feats, and acts of resistance all driven by an unwavering national spirit based on traditional Catholic values.

Even before Trump's arrival, reports emerged that a controversial historian, Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, from the Institute of World Politics (which employs another infamous Trump advisor, Sebastian Gorka), had a hand in writing the speech. According to Rafał Pankowski, a member of the anti-racist Never Again Association, this "raised eyebrows because of Chodakiewicz’s long record of far-right links. He is mostly known as a denier of Polish responsibility for acts of antisemitism".

Trump's speech seemed to downplay the Holocaust in comparison to the calamities that Poles had suffered and to the dismay of Poland's Jewish community he was the first US president not to stop at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. In this light, Trump's conjuring up of a 'western civilisation under threat' was most disquieting. It was grist to the mill of PiS' own anti-refugee rhetoric in defence of 'Christian' civilisation. Even Trump's fleeting invitation to Russia to join this 'civilisational' struggle did not seem to unsettle Polish nationalist sentiments.

'America First' energy politics

Did the visit wield any results beyond photo-ops and ideological support for both sides' populist policies? Trump reneged on promises of visa-free travel for Poles and refrained from any explicit security guarantees. A memorandum of intent was signed for the purchase of next-generation Patriot missiles, but it is doubtful whether this will be a sale successfully concluded.

The key to understanding the visit lies in the TSI summit, taking place while Trump visited. The TSI is a reincarnation of the interwar 'Intermarium' concept - a Polish-promoted alliance of small states in between Russia and Germany. It was rehashed by Poland and Croatia with a pragmatic goal of more inter-regional co-operation and improving energy infrastructure. Trump attended the summit's inauguration ceremony and urged the countries present to buy US Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG).

The United States has recently become a gas exporter. Entering the Polish market means competing with Qatari LNG as well as Russian gas delivered via pipelines. The recent blockade of Qatar – which shares its gas field with Iran – could provide opportunities for the US in this regard.

Simultaneously, it puts the US at odds with Russia which is eyeing building two new pipelines - Nord Stream II to Germany and TurkStream through Turkey and the Balkans. While Germany and Turkey remain Russia's two biggest markets, "establishing Turkey and Southeast Europe as a new transit corridor for Russian gas remains a long shot", according to Dimitar Bechev, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council specialised in Balkans-Russia relations.

For this reason, Trump's visit was mainly seen by PiS as a snub to the EU (to show US support amid EU criticism of PiS' illiberal policies) and Germany in particular which is hoping to be a gas hub for the region (if the Nord Stream II pipeline gets the go-ahead). This is where the LNG terminal in the Polish port of Świnoujście comes in.

Recently opened and named after the late president Lech Kaczyński, it is a longstanding PiS pet project. Through Świnoujście PiS hopes not only to become less dependent on Russian gas, but challenge German hegemony by becoming a regional gas hub itself. In order to realise this, Poland needs US investment. In other words, if Trump is selling, Poland will be buying and hoping to attract enough interest for the US to invest in its ambitions. 

Yet, Trump's backing of PiS could lead to an increased politicisation of the TSI. Far right ideologues like Chodakiewicz are proponents of such a course seeing it as "culturally and ideologically compatible with American national interests".

Matthew Kott, a researcher at Uppsala University who has studied Intermarium's appeal among the region's populists, sees it as PiS' attempt to create a 'Poland First' foreign policy offering the possibility of being "the big fish in a small pond". Time will tell if the Trump administration is interested in more than just selling gas but also willing to invest in a PiS-led project that could potentially destabilise the EU.

The art of the deal

Following the G20 summit, Trump's meeting with Putin captured the headlines in the US, but he was able to tweet photos of an adoring crowd in Warsaw.

Ultimately, Trump was in Poland to sell gas. Otherwise, the immediate impact of the visit will be limited to Poland as the big EU countries were not impressed. While surveys show that only a minority of Poles support PiS and an even smaller number are positively inclined towards Trump, PiS is still polling higher than the opposition and Poles are traditionally sympathetic to America.

Trump's visit, owing to the opposition's approval, will most likely bolster PiS' image and consolidate its hardcore base. Nationalists are already trying to capitalise on Trump's speech by referring to his 'civilisational' endorsement of Poland's conservative values to attack the LGBT movement.

Meanwhile, the government-controlled media will keep spinning Trump's visit for political gain making it harder for the opposition to present itself as a successful electoral alternative to PiS' illiberal policies. 

About the author

Tom Junes is a historian and post-doctoral researcher focusing on protest movements in eastern Europe. He is a member of the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia and currently a visiting fellow at European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is the author of Student Politics in Communist Poland: Generations of Consent and Dissent.


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