Pence visit to Warsaw on solemn occasion is important to close ally
U.S. leaders often do their best to avoid visiting countries entering an election cycle. But just weeks before Polish parliamentary elections in October, only three months after hosting Polish President Andrzej Duda at the White House, and days after returning from the G-7 Summit in France, President Trump dispatched Vice President Mike Pence to represent him in Warsaw today to observe the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II. The president planned to attend himself, until forecasters predicted Hurricane Dorian could make landfall in Florida as a category 4 storm.
It is appropriate for the vice president to visit this warm and close ally on the occasion of such an important anniversary. In September 1939, Nazi Germany and, two weeks later, Soviet Russia attacked and partitioned Poland, thereby starting World War II and leading to the Cold War and a half-century of the brutal division of Europe.
Poland’s fate to be left on the wrong side of what was known as the Iron Curtain is sometimes laid at the doorstep of the United States and its Western allies, stemming from the conferences that took place during the latter period of the war, especially Yalta. But most Poles would agree in 2019 that their country has not had a better friend in recent decades than the United States.
There is a certain irony about the closeness of Trump’s trips to the G-7 in France and Pence’s trip to Poland. At the G-7 meeting, Trump found himself somewhat the odd man out in trying to get Russia back in the club and returning it to the G-8. In Warsaw, Pence will celebrate the administration’s efforts that have included new sales of high-performance aircraft and deployments of U.S. troops for the purpose of keeping Russia out of Poland.
Cooperating with Poland on security issues did not begin with the Trump administration. Every U.S. administration since the end of Soviet rule in 1989, from George H.W. Bush’s presidency to Barack Obama’s, has made a stronger Polish relationship a priority. Often, the Trump administration prides itself in doing things differently, but this is one area where the Trump administration can take a bow for continuing the efforts of its predecessors.
Since joining the NATO alliance in 1999, Poland has been an active and substantial member, modernizing and westernizing its forces, including making major purchases of latest-generation U.S. F-16s, only four years after becoming a member. Poland also has contributed forces to NATO deployments including in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and in Iraq under U.S. command. Poland has been one of only eight members to meet fully its obligation to spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on its military.
As enthused as Poland has been to be in NATO, it has sought to have clearer signs that NATO is in it. Poles have been asking for U.S. troops to be stationed on its territory since Lech Walesa, the Solidarity trade union leader who became Poland’s president, first made the request when he came to Washington in November 1989, just months after Poland had thrown off the Soviet yoke and retaken its place among the free countries of Europe.
Trump may have Polish history on his mind. Perhaps, too, he has Polish elections his mind, as certainly his hosts do. But more likely he has his own election — 14 months away — on his mind. There are about 10 million Polish-Americans in the U.S., and many live in the all-important-to-campaigns upper Midwest.
But Polish-Americans, wherever they live in the United States, have tended not to support one party over the other in considering relations with Poland. Polish-Americans vote for different U.S. candidates in elections for different reasons, many of which have little to do with support for the old country. But to the extent that they keep an eye on Poland, they understood it is best for Poland that support for its future and its friendship not be a political issue in the United States, or a part of the U.S. political divide.
Poland always warmly welcomes U.S. leaders, and Pence will be no exception. Poland’s road to democracy and a market economy has not always been easy — and it is not easy now. The vice president would do well to encourage this bilateral relationship and, perhaps if asked, offer the Poles advice about their situation. Above all, the Trump administration should make sure this special and enduring relationship continues into the future.
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to Poland in 2000-04. He also served in Poland in the mid-1980s as a junior Foreign Service officer in the U.S. Embassy. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.
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