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Transition 2012

A guide to foreign policy and the 2012 U.S. presidential transition.

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Views From Abroad: Romney, Poland, and the Russia Question

by Toni Johnson
August 3, 2012

A Polish soldier stands by the monument dedicated to the victims of Katyn, Russian forest where thousands of Polish officers were executed in 1940, in Warsaw, September 17, 2007. (Peter Andrews/Courtesy Reuters)


In this week’s Views, we have a guest post from Bartosz Wiśniewski, a research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, an institution participating in CFR’s initiative to connect foreign policy institutes from around the world.

Wiśniewsk gives us a perspective on some of the policy implications of Romney’s Warsaw visit. Here is what he had to say:

Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s recently concluded overseas trip, touted by his campaign as an opportunity to boost the presidential hopeful’s foreign policy credentials, featured a brief but nonetheless meaningful episode in Poland. He touched all of the right chords: praising the Poles’ tenacity as freedom fighters, applauding the success of Polish transition to democracy, and recognizing our economic vigor in spite of the global slowdown.

However, an issue that merits special attention is the one that actually did not feature too prominently during Romney’s visit, but was widely referred to (at least in the United States and international media) as the significant reason to set the campaign’s sights on Poland in the first place, i.e., policy toward Russia.

After Romney tagged Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” it seemed like a no-brainer that he would want to amplify this message in a country with a particularly rocky historical record of relations with Moscow, and one that was repeatedly pointed to as the “victim” of Obama administration’s “reset.”

On the surface of things, that assertion was correct, and it’s not only about painful history. Just consider the following: Poland and Russia are at odds when it comes to the future of the post-Soviet space. Warsaw was one of the champions of the Eastern Partnership initiative, aimed at boosting the erstwhile Soviet republics’ ties with the EU. Moscow paddles in the opposite direction, trying to resuscitate economic ties with its “near abroad.” Poland is wary of the lack of transparency of the Russian military potential. Russia continues to throw around threats of deploying “countermeasures” against any future missile defense installations on the Polish soil. Finally, Poland would like to see its dependency on Russian natural gas imports diminish, and is moving decidedly to tap into its shale gas deposits.

Still, as tempting as it may be to portray Poland as a bulwark against an alleged Russian resurgence, such a label would be inaccurate and potentially misleading. Even before the Obama administration kicked off its “reset” with Russia in early 2009, Warsaw was already on the course of its own political rapprochement with Moscow.

So far, the process has been neither uncontroversial nor easy. However, not even the April 2010 tragic plane crash over the Russian town of Smolensk, which claimed the lives of scores of Poland’s political and military elite and made it politically costly at home to carry on with the rapprochement, could derail this policy. Indeed, just a few days ago Poland and Russia began to implement an agreement intended to facilitate cross-border transit between Polish northern regions and the Russian district of Kaliningrad. And while it may look unimpressive in the grand scheme of things, it runs counter to the stereotypical picture of Polish-Russian hostility.

Therefore, Romney was right not to rekindle his fiery rhetoric on Russia while in Poland. Granted, Warsaw remains watchful of Russian policies, but has found its own recipe for addressing the challenges that they may bring. Perhaps crucially, Poland wants to rely on the vitality of NATO and allied solidarity–something that the Obama administration was quite effective at ensuring in the past couple of months–rather than unnecessary “word fights.” If Romney were to take charge of U.S. policy next year, that’s something he might want to take into account.

1 Comment

  • Posted by Peter Duveen

    The Russia of today is not the same as the Russia of the “Cold War.” It is to be expected that Poland would find a productive relationship with this new Russia, as the two countries both suffered under imposed totalitarian Marxist regimes. Poland also had difficulties with its neighbor, Germany, which is perhaps the chief power in the NATO alliance. So if it can rekindle friendly relations with Germany, why not with the new Russia?

    One must remember what the objective for international affairs should be. It is to create and protect a harmonious and productive atmosphere for the populations of the respective nations of the world. It is not to enhance the careers of a small group of military, media, financial, political or foreign policy professionals, or to promote narrow and often destructive national goals. This seems to be where foreign policy often takes a wrong turn, particularly of late. Do you really believe that foreign policy think tanks, by joining together, shall bring about a better world? If it ends with homogeneous thinking, we are in for future peril of the type that has given us “wars of choice,” in the words of Richard Haass, and that has brought the world’s people to the verge of bankruptcy and destruction while those in an inner circle appear to reap the benefits. Such an outcome is not stable. These policies are born of a kind of illusory thinking, of an overestimation of the power yielded by any one nation or group of nations. They will be condemned by history.