Poland and the US elections: respect for an ally


Poland is less engaged with this American election than on previous occasions. But its people and elites are still viewing the contest and its candidates with a wary eye that reflects their domestic political concerns, says Adam J Chmielewski.

Adam J Chmielewski
5 November 2012

Poland is watching the 2012 presidential elections in the United States with markedly lower excitement than former editions of this spectacle. Since Poland enjoys the reputation of being the most pro-American country on the European continent, this change deserves some attention and calls for an explanation.

The change is due to several reversals which have occurred both in Poland's domestic politics and in its geopolitical situation. In the past, even without enjoying the benefits of a special relationship with the US, the Poles believed that the result of the American election will affect their lives in some significant way, though few knew how. That does not seem to be the case anymore.

The reversal relevant here may be expressed as follows. During the reign of the quasi-communist regime, the Polish government, following the line dictated by the no less quasi-communist regime in Moscow, was staunchly anti-American. At the same time the majority of Poles, precisely because of that, were enthusiastically pro-American, to the point of foolishness. Presently, however, the Polish political class is pro-American to the point of imprudence, whereas the majority of the population has obviously stopped caring about America altogether.

The Polish media are now full of a certain specialist in American matters who, claiming for himself an academic status, manages nevertheless to display a remarkable lack of impartiality in his opinions. One of the latter is that Barack Obama’s presidency has been catastrophic for Poland because he did not take any interest in our country. Another is that Mitt Romney will be better in this regard because he will take an active interest in our country. These opinions do not seem to be shared widely: nowadays the majority of Poles are more for Obama and his complete lack of interest, and against Romney and his declared interest in Poland.

There are several factors underlying this stance. One is that during the past two decades or so, the American interest in Poland turned out to be way too expensive for our country. Another and related reason why the Poles have come to see that very little in their lives depends on the tenant of the White House is their realisation that the US dollar has now become dependent on Chinese support. So now they care about more Europe (where for some time the euro has become more easily available to them than the dollar), even though the latter is printed in far greater volumes that the former.

There are, though, other reasons for the diminishing Polish interest in the US elections. They have to do with the character of the two candidates and their political record.

A president's bungles

Barack Obama has failed to ingratiate himself with politically minded people in Poland, largely because he scrapped the project of the anti-missile shield which (as planned by the predecessor administration) was to be partly located in Poland. This led to disappointment among the political class, which continues to embrace an anti-Russian attitude incurred during the struggle for the independence of Poland from Soviet influence. The fear and hatred of Russia, together with veneration for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, remain an indispensable part of this class's ideological identity.

Obama’s blunders when dealing with Polish matters also do not help his reputation among many Poles. For example, the date chosen to announce the abandonment of the anti-imissile shield was 17 September 2009, the seventieth anniversary of the Russian invasion of eastern Poland. Also, when he awarded the presidential Order of Merit to Jan Karski, who brought to America news of the Nazi concentration-camps situated in occupied Poland, Obama used the inappropriate expression "Polish extermination camps". (For both of these gaffes I criticised him: see "Warsaw and Washington: after illusion" [17 September 2009] and "Barack Obama and Poland: injurious ignorance" [31 May 2012]).

For other Poles, Obama has further evident drawbacks. One is the fact of his colour. On the news of the election of the first black US president in 2008, a Polish MP wrote that this heralded the end of Christian civilisation. Even though the unfortunate MP remained isolated in his pronouncement (as well as, subsequently, in virtue of it), the racist sentiment among Poles is rather rampant, so Obama will not fare well with this segment of the Polish nation.

A rival's balance-sheet

There might, then, be an expectation that Mitt Romney should be closer to the Polish heart than Barack Obama. Three factors could count in his favour. First, Romney actually visited Poland in late July 2012; it does not happen too often that a US presidential candidate pays a visit to our country. Second, during the third electoral debate on 22 October, it was Romney, not Obama, who mentioned Poland as an ally of America. Again, this served well to feed the insatiable vanity of the Polish political class. Third, Romney is, well, a Republican.

This party identification already wins him the support of a sizeable number of Poles, notably those who have fallen victim of the pro-American false consciousness inculcated by the politically correct Polish media (In Poland, a country of perennial paradoxes, political correctness means the opposite of the same term when it is used in Britain or in the US.) This segment of Polish society is xenophobic, blindly pro-American, as well as rabidly anti-Russian and anti-German. (They call it patriotism.) They owe their political sustenance to Jaroslaw Kaczyński, twin brother of the former Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, who died in the plane crash on 10 April 2010 in Smolensk.

Against these factors, however, three blemishes on Romney’s candidacy also capture the Poles' sensitive attention. First, during the above-mentioned debate Romney said: "We have to also stand by our allies. I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate. I think also that pulling our missile defence program out of Poland in the way we [did] was also unfortunate in terms of, if you will, disrupting the relationship in some ways that existed between us" (see "Transcript of the Third Presidential Debate", New York Times, 22 October 2012). The Polish media dwelt on this cursory mention to the point of tedium, if only for a day or two; and it was widely noted that Romney referred to Poland not as a genuine partner and ally but rather as a vassal to be used instrumentally when expedient.

Second, during his Polish trip, Romney followed stiffly an official and obsolete stereotype of Poland, which included patronisingly pushing free-market rhetoric as if believing that Poles have never heard of the global crisis caused by the free market. This approach was accepted well only by Lech Wałęsa, who said that his reasons for liking Romney very much included the number of Romney’s children ( five; Wałesa, also a family man, has eight) and the "the values which emanate from him".

Third, this rather moderate public-relations success was moderated even further by an odd incident involving Romney's staff. While the candidate was about to lay a wreath at a war memorial in Warsaw, the journalists flocking around him caused a row when their access to him was thwarted. In order to contain the unwieldy bunch, Rick Gorka, Romney’s campaign spokesman, first demanded that the journalists should kiss his ass. The demand was followed by an another: "This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect".

If I were Maureen Dowd, I would conclude this part of the story by her simple: "Indeed". Not being her, however, I would like to dwell a while on this incident, for which, interestingly, Mr Gorka has not been fired. The question that arises is: for whom was respect demanded in this unusual way - the fallen Polish soldiers, or Mr Romney? It was obvious that it was demanded for Romney for he evidently has not managed to command respect by his own virtues, and had to secure it in a vicarious way via association with the dead Polish heroes.

Going with the wind

Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the leader of Poland's largest opposition party, Law & Justice, has capitalised on his brother’s death in April 2010 by inventing all sorts of conspiracies about the tragedy. He also tirelessly (though futilely) calls upon the US authorities to take over the investigation of the crash from the hands of the Polish government, which he distrusts in the extreme. Recently, on the basis of a bogus interpretation of some vague evidence collected from the wreckage of the presidential plane, he more or less accused prime minister Donald Tusk of conspiring to plant explosives (TNT and nitroglycerine) on the plane and then, apparently in collusion with the Russians, of tampering with the evidence to that effect.

Law & Justice can still command a greater percentage of followers among Polish émigrés in America than in Poland itself; the latter are also Republican voters. At the same time, the number of Polish supporters of the GOP has been diminishing. On 3 November 2012, Nowy Dziennik, a Polish-language newspaper published in New York City, brought news which may reduce Polish-American support for Republicans even further.

Polish émigré organisations had sent a letter to Romney asking "what he would do in order to explain the Smolensk tragedy"; disappointingly to them, Romney has responded by saying he was impressed by Poland's ability to cope with the crisis that ensued and to ensure the continuation of democratically elected power. Romney added that the Polish government has conducted the investigation into the causes of the plane crash and it would be improper for him to comment upon an investigation carried out by a longstanding ally of the United States.

This reply, worthy of a statesman, has been received as a painful setback to the sentiments of the Polish extreme right. It also puts the unreasonable Polish hopes that had been attached to a future US Republican president (as to so many past ones) in their proper place.

Insofar as Romney here expresses a lack of interest in Polish matters that is not dissimilar from Obama’s, this exchange should teach Polish elites an important lesson: that America does not care about Poland in the way and to the extent they would like. The sooner Polish elites grasp this truth, the quicker they will find themselves in tune with the rest of Polish society.

They should also understand that they cannot "play the American card" among themselves anymore, nor they can play it as a trump in their dealings with European Union partners. Most of all, that they should not allow themselves to be used by the American ally in its global games at the expense of the Polish taxpayer. And that if they show greater respect to their voters and themselves, they will be more likely to win respect from the American ally as well.

This should be the chief lesson for Poland from the imminent US presidential elections, irrespective of their result.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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