Poland is fighting with the European Union. That’s a problem for the United States.
That’s the case that Ambassador Daniel Fried outlined for the New Statesman this week. Fried knows Washington, having been assistant secretary of state for Europe as well as State Department coordinator for sanctions policy in the Obama administration. And Fried, now at the Atlantic Council, knows Poland, having worked on issues relating to the country for decades, including as ambassador in Warsaw in the late Clinton era. It is his knowledge of the two that leads him to argue that they need each other.
On 7 October Poland’s highest court ruled that Polish law supersedes EU law. This is the latest in a series of tensions between Warsaw and Brussels. But why, I asked him, should Washington care?
“The United States wants a strong Europe. And we want Poland to be influential in that strong Europe,” he said. “Why? Because on key issues for the United States – and I’ll name some of them: relations with [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, support for Ukraine…, a strong Nato, strong European defence capabilities – Poland and the US tend to be on the same side.
“We want a strong Europe and a strong Polish voice in that Europe. That’s an American interest.”
US-Polish relations are not what they were, but then they haven’t been for some time. The narrative of the Obama era was of an administration that had checked out of central and eastern Europe. During Trump’s term, the US was checked in, but avoided mention of human rights and democratic values.
“There is some truth to the critique [of the Obama administration],” Fried said. “George W Bush loved central and eastern Europe, and there was a little bit of a reaction from the more partisan people around Obama to that strong support.
“However, in defence of the Obama administration, after Putin invaded Ukraine [in 2014], Obama didn’t sit back. He not only pushed sanctions – and, you know, I was the sanctions coordinator, so I did it – but the Obama administration led Nato to put combat forces… in Poland, and then added a US armoured brigade going into Poland on a rotational basis. That’s a big deal.”
“The narrative about the Trump administration is, frankly, too charitable toward Trump.” According to Fried, there were some capable people in the administration, who moderated the president’s position. But “the ideologues around Trump supported Hungary and Poland for the wrong reasons. They saw both of those governments as anti-European and [having] anti-democratic values.”
And with Poland, Fried said, that wasn’t exactly correct.
“Their policy towards a support for Belarusian democracy has been just exemplary… But the Trump ideologues thought that Poland and Hungary would be wedges against the EU. Now that was exaggerated with respect to Poland… I have heard that, for example, Polish president [Andrzej] Duda, when he visited, when he met with Trump… he tried to soften Trump’s opposition to the EU, saying, basically, ‘We’re home. We know what a divided Europe was like. It wasn’t good.’ For all the issues we have with the EU, it’s actually better now. I welcome that. That’s good.”
Which brings us back to the US need for a Poland that gets along with the European Union. What should the United States do to encourage that from Poland?
Fried acknowledged that there are some difficult issues to navigate. For one, there’s Nord Stream 2, the recently completed natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany – a project the United States had seemed ready to block, until the Biden administration waived key sanctions against it in May 2021. “That’s really now on the US, to show that the US and Germany have not abandoned Ukraine and Poland and the Baltic states. I have some understanding of why the Biden administration didn’t try to kill the pipeline with sanctions. The pipeline is a bad idea – OK. It is a weapon in Putin’s hands. The critics are right. But the Biden administration, I think, was not in a position where it could have killed it with sanctions at an acceptable price. So they chose to work with Germany.
“But now it’s the Biden administration and Germany’s responsibility to show – now that Putin’s threatening Ukraine again and playing games with gas… – that they’re going to take their responsibilities seriously to fix this.”
And Poland, for its part, recently patched over another major issue, by extending a broadcasting licence for TVN, a news channel which is critical of the government and also owned by Discovery, a US company.
Fried said he told the Poles that they shouldn’t be picking fights with Brussels and Berlin when Warsaw’s real issue was with Moscow. Working on areas in which Warsaw and Washington have common interests – such as regional security, democracy in Belarus and a firm stance against Russia and China – would, he argued, allow the United States to better remind Poland that its place is, or should be, in Europe. “You asked what we should do,” Fried said. “We should build on what’s good.”