How will the Biden presidency affect Polish politics?
by Aleks Szczerbiak
Poland’s right-wing ruling party is hoping that ideological disagreements with the new US President do not prevent broader strategic co-operation. Whether these differences impact upon Polish domestic politics depends on if the Biden administration simply ‘turns up the volume’ on ‘rule of law’ and liberal moral-cultural issues, or adopts a more pro-active approach and places conditions upon future Polish-US relations.
The vanguard of an anti-liberal backlash
The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, enjoyed very good relations with outgoing US President Donald Trump. For sure, at the time of his election, many Polish conservatives had misgivings about Mr Trump’s vulgar political style and questionable personal morality. Moreover, given his transactional approach to politics and foreign relations, there were also serious concerns about Mr Trump’s potential unpredictability on international issues, particularly whether his administration would be less willing than its predecessors to engage in European security. At one point, Mr Trump even appeared to question Washington’s continued commitment to trans-Atlantic mutual defence implying that the USA would only protect NATO allies who were prepared to pay at least 2% of their GDP on military spending as required under the Alliance’s rules. Indeed, some commentators feared that Mr Trump might try and strike a grand bargain with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, about whom he spoke favourably on a number of occasions, over the heads of Poland and other post-communist states.
However, Law and Justice actually came to see Mr Trump as an ideological soulmate. The party’s supporters have argued that its political success reflects widespread disillusionment with what many Poles see as the country’s out-of-touch and complacent liberal-left ruling elites, who they feel are disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns. Mr Trump’s victory allowed them to present its critique of these elites as not simply an anomalous and isolated local Polish phenomenon. Rather, they saw Law and Justice and the Trump administration as being in the vanguard of a broader anti-elitist, anti-liberal backlash from traditionalist conservatives, who unashamedly put what they saw as the national interest first, against the globalist cosmopolitan elites that have dominated Western politics in recent years.
Law and Justice’s key international ally
For sure, there were several clashes between Warsaw and Washington, notably involving diplomatic interventions by the Trump-appointed US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher, but these tended to involve cases where American commercial interests were at stake. One such disagreement was over Law and Justice’s planned reforms targeting foreign-owned media which it was felt could threaten the US-owned TVN broadcaster that takes a strongly anti-Law and Justice editorial line. Nonetheless, this largely involved symbolic political gestures rather than decisive policy actions, and Poland could generally count on the Trump administration’s goodwill on the issues of greatest importance to it.
For example, although the policy of deepening US military engagement in Poland was set in motion by the previous Obama administration (and the presence of American troops remained on a rotational basis, not permanent as the Polish government had hoped for), the decision was mostly executed during Mr Trump’s term of office. An agreement to further increase the number of US troops stationed in Poland from 4,500 to 5,500 was ratified during the final days of his administration. Under Mr Trump, the USA sustained and deepened the Obama administration’s opposition to the Nord-Stream 2 pipeline project to transfer Russian gas to Germany by-passing Poland via the Baltic Sea, including threatening sanctions against companies involved in its construction, and started delivering liquefied natural gas to help secure Polish diversity of energy sources. Mr Trump also oversaw the long-awaited admission of Polish citizens to the US visa waiver programme, for which Warsaw had campaigned for many years.
Perhaps Mr Trump’s most significant political gesture towards Law and Justice was to give strong support to the ‘Three Seas Initiative’, a Polish-led regional forum to develop solidarity and co-operation between twelve Central and East European states. The main European powers viewed this project with some suspicion as part of an effort by the Polish government to position itself as a regional leader outside the Franco-German dominated EU power structures. Law and Justice has tried to shift away from the EU policy pursued by previous Polish governments of locating Poland within the so-called European ‘mainstream’ and instead build alternative alliances with the post-communist states to counter-balance Franco-German influence. By showing that he was happy to develop closer links with governments such as Poland’s, that challenged the existing EU elites, Mr Trump’s involvement turned the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ into a more meaningful international platform.
Indeed, Law and Justice’s excellent relations with the Trump administration enabled it to counter opposition arguments that, given Warsaw’s difficult relations with the EU political establishment, Poland had become isolated internationally. Knowing that it was one of the few European countries that he could rely on for a warm welcome from both the government and (given its strong historical Atlanticism) general public, in July 2017 Mr Trump chose Warsaw as the venue for his first major visit to the continent and keynote foreign policy speech where he praised his hosts as key American allies. Mr Trump also gave Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda a powerful endorsement days before last summer’s Polish presidential election when he became the first foreign leader to visit the White House after the easing of coronavirus restrictions.
Geopolitical interests or ‘shared values’?
Not surprisingly, therefore, Law and Justice hoped for a Trump victory in last November’s US presidential election. Indeed, Mr Duda initially held back from acknowledging Joe Biden as the new President until the election results were officially ratified, simply issuing an ambivalently worded tweet congratulating him on his ‘successful presidential campaign’. At the same time, the Polish opposition presented Mr Biden’s success as the harbinger of a global ‘liberal restoration’, just as Law and Justice had portrayed Mr Trump’s victory as evidence of a broader anti-establishment conservative backlash. The Polish government’s opponents are hoping that Law and Justice’s ideological proximity to the Trump administration – together with Mr Biden’s likely pivot back to developing stronger ties with the EU political establishment, and his argument that US international relations should be based on the idea of the Western alliance as a community of ‘shared (presumably liberal) values’ rather than simply common geo-political interests – will make it more difficult for the ruling party to pursue its domestic and international policy agenda. Law and Justice’s US-based critics are both influential in America’s opinion-forming media and well-placed in the country’s foreign policy establishment, so are likely to exert a much greater influence over the Biden administration than they did over Mr Trump.
For sure, the Biden presidency provides a much-needed morale boost for the Polish opposition, and Law and Justice is very disappointed to lose such a powerful international ally. There will be no more pro-government publicity from White House photo opportunities and supportive high profile diplomatic visits to Warsaw as there was under the Trump presidency. On the other hand, Polish-US relations were nowhere near the top of Mr Trump’s foreign policy agenda and will not be for Mr Biden either. Nor are US elections proxy wars for Polish party political competition and, apart from avid Poland-watchers and a few Central and East European specialists, virtually no one in America has probably even heard of Law and Justice.
Moreover, whatever lack of ideological affinity there may be between the Biden administration and Law and Justice, the new President is both a pragmatist and strong Atlanticist. Polish-US strategic co-operation is deeply rooted, and both geo-political realities and the two countries’ common interests remain unchanged, so US policy on the key issues affecting Poland are likely to do so as well. Given that, as Mr Obama’s Vice-President, Mr Biden was one of the main architects of the NATO initiative that resulted in thousands of US troops being based in Poland, there is little to suggest that decisions taken by the Trump administration to strengthen the American military presence there will be reversed. Mr Biden has signalled scepticism towards the Nord-Stream 2 project and declared repeatedly that his administration will continue to support making Central and Eastern Europe’s energy market less dependent on Russia; although, given his simultaneous goal of re-building relations with Berlin, he may not follow through on the threat to sanction German companies involved in the pipeline’s construction. Mr Biden will probably also be generally sympathetic towards the ‘Three Seas Initiative’, as long as it is seen as complementary to broader European integration within the EU and not, as Law and Justice originally hoped, a Polish-led counterweight to the Franco-German axis.
Will ‘rule of law’ issues be a priority?
The biggest challenge for Law and Justice is likely to be the extent to which the Biden administration decides to prioritise so-called ‘rule of law’ and liberal moral-cultural issues, especially the status of sexual minorities. While the Trump administration tended not to involve itself in Polish internal affairs unless US commercial interests were at stake, a Biden White House is likely to be much more critical of Law and Justice on these questions. During the presidential election, Mr Biden referred to Poland alongside Belarus as an example of a ‘totalitarian’ regime, suggesting that he viewed Law and Justice as violators of what he feels are the ‘shared values’ of the Western international community. Mr Biden intends to organise a global summit to strengthen democratic institutions and confront countries that he argues are backsliding, in which Poland could feature as a problematic case. Moreover, although the Trump administration was somewhat closer than Law and Justice to the liberal-left mainstream on issues such as state legal recognition of, and adoption of children by, same-sex couples (where Ambassador Mosbacher argued that the Polish ruling party was on the ‘wrong side of history’) the Biden administration is likely to give such a liberal approach to moral-cultural questions an even higher profile.
Law and Justice argues the ‘rule of law’ is a vague and amorphous concept that has been thoroughly politicised and is being used instrumentally against the Polish government by its domestic and international opponents. Nonetheless, it will grit its teeth when such issues are raised and deal as constructively as it can with the Biden administration. Indeed, it is likely to adopt the same twin-track strategy that it has been pursuing for some time in its approach to relations with the EU political establishment. On the one hand, it will accept that on ‘rule of law’ issues the Biden administration is likely to largely agree with the Polish opposition’s argument that Law and Justice’s actions in areas such as judicial reform are undermining democracy (although it will strongly contest these claims). It will also accept that there will be disagreements on moral-cultural issues, where Law and Justice rejects what it sees as a hegemonic Western liberal-left consensus that it believes undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. At the same time, Law and Justice will try and present Poland as a reliable and constructive US ally, arguing that these disagreements on ideological issues do not prevent Warsaw from developing positive working relations on matters where the two countries have common interests.
So Law and Justice is hoping that, for all their political differences, the Biden administration will put contentious issues that could undermine broader strategic co-operation on the back-burner. If the new US government does become more pro-active on these questions, and even tries to place some kind of conditionality on its co-operation with Warsaw with tangible consequences for Polish interests, this could provide an opening for the Polish opposition. However, if, as seems more likely, the Biden administration simply ‘turns up the volume’ in terms of rhetoric and normal diplomatic pressure, this will annoy and unsettle Law and Justice but should not impact significantly on either strategic co-operation or the balance of forces in Polish domestic politics.