At end of rocky Europe tour, Romney visits Poland

Mitt Romney hopes to capitalize on Polish disappointment with the Obama administration, after cancellation of missile shield plans in 2009. Will he capture the Polish-American vote?

Jason Reed/REUTERS
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R) meets with former Polish President Lech Walesa in Gdansk, Poland, July 30.

The last leg of Mitt Romney’s foreign trip has taken him to Poland today, one of America’s strongest allies in Europe. The Republican presidential candidate will try to capitalize on tensions caused by what Mr. Romney called the “abandonment of friends” by the Obama administration after its cancellation of missile shield plans in 2009.  

Romney has more to gain from his visit to Poland after his London debacle.

“Photo ops,” says Konstanty Gebert, a Warsaw-based Eastern Europe analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, are an easy win. “A picture with Walesa, who is seen by many in America as the face of liberty, will do Romney no harm. Neither will a picture of him at the monument for the uprising in the Jewish ghetto [in Warsaw].”

Not even a slip of tongue would be much of a problem. “No gaffe here would have the resonance his London gaffe had,” says Mr. Gebert. “Warsaw is a safe place for Romney.”

But others warn that his Cold War-style in addressing international politics might not be welcomed by Poles.

Romney surprised many Americans and foreign observers by calling Russia “America’s number one geopolitical foe” in a CNN interview in March. His rather undiplomatic choice of words has been received with unease in Warsaw despite the historically close relationship between Poland and the US.

“Given the difficult situation between Russia and Poland, I think this remark was not exactly helpful,” says Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, Poland. His remark indicates how volatile a recent improvement in the Polish-Russian relations, marred by decades of animosities, still is. 

Historical ties

After the end of the Cold War, Poland, along with other former Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe, was keen to join Western alliances like NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development against the wish of Russia. Poland has proved to be a loyal supporter of America’s foreign agenda, sending troops to the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and playing a part in the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. 

Romney’s schedule in Poland seems designed to stress historical ties: Visiting the Westerplatte peninsula in Gdansk, the site where the first battle of World War II was waged, and meeting former president and trade union leader Lech Walesa, the hero of the Polish anti-communist movement in the 1980s.

Polish frustrations

Romney hopes to tap into Polish frustrations with President Obama who scrapped the plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe in 2009 originally devised by the Bush administration. Mr. Obama’s attempt to “reset” US relations with Russia, a process initiated to ease mounting tensions over the defense shield, started “with the sudden abandonment of friends in Poland and the Czech Republic,” Romney said last week.

Indeed, the move led to a notable cooling down of Polish support for America’s leadership. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that confidence of Poles in Obama has dropped to 50 percent, down from 62 percent in 2009 – compared to approval rates for Obama of more than 80 percent in France and Germany.

When the scrapping of the missile shield plans was announced, Mr. Walesa told Poland’s news station TVN24 that he was deeply disappointed. “The Americans have always only taken care of their own interests, and they have used everyone else,” he said. “Poles should rethink their own view of America and start thinking about their own interests.”

European identity

Romney’s cool reception could be inspired by Walesa’s advice. In recent years there has been a thaw in Polish-Russian relations, ironically driven in part by Obama’s reset policy. “The reset led to more flexibility in Russian foreign policy,” says Mr. Zaborowski. “That allowed for a certain rapprochement between Poland and Russia. The relationship is still very ambivalent, but we are in a much better place than we were a few years ago.”

Poland has also developed into a model European nation. A member of the European Union since 2004, and of the borderless Schengen area since 2007, Poland is fully integrated into the European institutions. It is the only EU member whose economy has not gone into recession during the years of the Euro debt crisis, it has a solid financial system, and it is claiming a bigger part in the EU’s decision making process.

Poland has fully subscribed to those European values – such as government driven economic policies and health care – that Romney dismissed in a speech last year when he accused Obama of trying to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society.” “Europe isn’t even working in Europe,” Romney has said. Many Poles will agree with this view, according to Gebert. “But that does not mean they scorn European values, on the contrary, they’re keen to make them work,” says Gebert.

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