Author: Wojciech Kwiatkowski, PhD, Department of American Studies, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw (UKSW)
In November 2020, the United States will elect a president. This is a significant event not only for America and the Americans themselves, but also for the whole world. The candidates, who were put forward by the two largest parties in the United States, include the incumbent President Donald Trump, the Republican Party nominee, and Joseph Biden, representing the Democratic Party. In this year’s election, the position of Vice President will also be more important than usual, as the VP is second in line of presidential succession (which is relevant given the age of both candidates), performs the tasks assigned by the Head of State on a daily basis and is a natural candidate of the party in the 2024 election.
As a preliminary matter, it should be noted that there is a cross-party consensus among the American politicians on the general direction of US foreign policy and the protection of broadly defined US interests beyond national borders. Therefore, even a possible shift in the White House should not cause significant changes in the perception of Poland or other Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) by the USA. Since regaining its sovereignty, Poland has been able to maintain good relations with the USA regardless the political background of the American President, whether he represented the Democratic or the Republican Party. On the other hand, a change in the Oval Office always means some novelties in the foreign policy – especially since it is not conducted on an ongoing basis by one person only, but a number of people forming the administration. In the current situation, this is especially important as the liberal (“progressive”) left wing of the Democratic Party has been significantly strengthened and its political ideology is completely different from that of Donald Trump.
US policy towards the EU and NATO
President Trump’s victory would actually be a continuation of his relations with Europe. They are based on the principle that certain issues, established decades ago in a slightly different state of affairs and considered irrefutable, must be redefined in order to maintain American leadership in the world. There is a logic in this course of action when it comes to economic issues. In the European context, the America First policy, promoted by Donald Trump, is a consequence of the permanently negative balance of US trade with the EU and the assumption that countries, such as Germany, have begun to use the economic potential of the EU to weaken the US economy and thus to undermine the dominant position of the US in the world. Moreover, Donald Trump’s unfavorable words about NATO should also be understood rather as a call for European countries, especially Germany, to review their position to date with regard to financing mutual security. In fact, this system cannot be based on the strength of a single entity alone, which in any case bears the vast majority of the costs involved, while the beneficiaries of this solution invest in the development of their economies and develop social programs for their citizens without even bearing the substantial cost of American troops stationing on their territory. It is also impossible not to notice that the economically strongest EU country, Germany, ruthlessly and without an agreement with the US and multiple European countries, is enhancing its economic relations with the Russian Federation, the best example of which is currently the Nord Stream 2 project. Furthermore, the bone of contention in relations between numerous EU countries and the United States turned out to be a completely dissimilar attitude towards Iran (breaking the nuclear agreement in addition to introducing sanctions against EU companies doing business there by the USA), securing the position of Israel in the Middle East (the matter of recognizing the capital of Israel turned out to be divisive), or fighting climate change (the best example of which was the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris Agreement).
It is difficult to make an unambiguous assessment whether Poland can gain anything from this type of animosity in the long run, especially since it has been a member of the European Union for several years and it exports more than 80 percent of its goods to this market. The fact is, however, that during Donald Trump’s term, Poland signed economically beneficial long-term gas contracts with the USA. This issue may be treated as a promotion of American LNG export to Europe (after the decision of the current administration to develop the shale gas sector and open the domestic extraction sector, America has become a key player on the global oil and gas market), however, for Poland and many CEECs it is a vital element of energy sovereignty. Without regard for the EU position, the Americans have also expressed their willingness to support the Polish government in the development of nuclear energy in Poland. This is substantial because according to more and more liberal and left-wing European politicians it is necessary to move away from this source of energy. Furthermore, it should be emphasized that thanks to the current administration, the United States has been actively involved in the infrastructure and energy concept of the Three Seas Initiative, which is crucial for Poland and CEECs. Although this scheme is also considered by the Americans as an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the desire to eliminate development inequalities in Europe and deepen the integration of CEECs with the West without the direct participation of Germany, it was in a way backed by the USA with one billion dollars transferred to the Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund. It should also be mentioned that equally imperative decisions to significantly increase the contingent of American troops in Poland and to sell highly advanced military technology were made under the current administration. This fact alone, of course, will not guarantee Poland’s security, but it is an important sign that Poland is a reliable partner of the US as well as that certain infrastructure and military equipment will be fully compatible with the American one. The idea of reducing the American contingent in Germany by 12,000 soldiers should be considered a negative consequence of the policy of the Trump administration towards Germany and NATO. This is dangerous for Poland as well as other CEECs because this administration is reluctant to transfer soldiers withdrawn from there, e.g. to the country on the Vistula, which in turn might significantly weaken NATO’s eastern flank.
As for the second candidate, it seems that Joseph Biden will return to the traditional American foreign policy of supporting integration processes in Europe. It will be much more welcomed by the liberal left-wing European politicians, especially the German ones. In the opinion of Biden’s associates, the adoption of such an approach will ensure that Europe solves some problems (that are important for it) on its own, or with little involvement of the USA, as well as is able to effectively unburden or support the USA on the international arena in solving global problems (such as the growing status of China). It seems that the Biden administration will especially count on the Federal Republic of Germany in the process of implementing these goals because of its ideological similarity and the status of the strongest country in Europe. Thus, the relations of the United States, Poland and CEECs will be seen by this administration from the angle of the relations with the authorities in Berlin. Undoubtedly, however, the aforementioned economic and trade projects with Poland will be continued as they bring measurable financial benefits to America, relatively stabilize jobs in the USA or are an element of a policy towards China and Russia as well as are backed by both the Republicans and the Democrats.
Additionally, the role of the USA in the North Atlantic Alliance will return to the status prior to 2017, in the sense that Joseph Biden will clearly confirm traditional role of the USA in this organization. However, the need to allocate large sums of money in the federal budget to fix the national economy after the pandemic will require a thorough review of the most expensive modernization programs for the army. Hence, it can be assumed that the potential new administration should maintain the demands of the previous one, which concern greater expenditure of the European allies on the modernization of their armies, in accordance with the Wales Summit Declaration of 2014. The reconstruction of the US economy may also force the Biden administration to freeze or even limit the number of US troops in Poland – regardless of the fact that this decision was made in the US as some time ago as a cross-party consensus and the fact that the Polish side has committed itself to partially cover the costs of this operation. This would be another small step towards the reconciliation with the authorities in Berlin, which had distanced themselves from this Polish-American project from the very beginning.
It could be expected that the Biden administration will also strive to quickly reach an agreement on nuclear disarmament with the Russian Federation. This correlates with the end of the New START treaty signed by Obama and Medvedev in 2010. The financial matter is not without a significance here – extending the program’s provisions for another five years may bring America savings of several billion dollars a year. It can be assumed that possible concessions from Russia in this respect would be rewarded by the American administration, e.g. at the expense of Polish interests.
The Nord Stream 2 issue
The two candidates take up the issue of preventing the completion of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is crucial for Poland, but also for many CEECs. American politicians from both parties see halting this scheme as an element affecting Europe’s energy independence from Russia, hence the cross-party consensus on American sanctions on this project. It is also certain that immediately after the election, the administrations of both candidates would like to fine-tune the already existing restrictions (imposed in accordance with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act), taking into account the amendments proposed by the Congress this summer to include the so-called pipe laying activities (if adopted by the Congress and signed by the President, they will come into force retroactively from December 20, 2019). This includes, for instance, sanctions for companies providing investment guarantees for this project, in addition to companies offering insurance or reinsurance for ships involved in pipe laying activities or welding equipment.
The position of the Donald Trump administration is clear on this issue and no changes are expected – the US will not defend Germany (and provide the financial benefits associated with the US army presence in Germany) should the authorities in Berlin work hand in hand with Moscow on a project undermining the US assumptions concerning security in Europe. This administration might also continue the rigorous approach to the issue of sanctions and finding further gaps. Moreover, one can expect silent support for the Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection (UOKiK), which has imposed a fine of about 6.5 billion euros on Gazprom. However, the response of the administration of the Democratic candidate is unknown. Joseph Biden has repeatedly announced that he is striving to normalize transatlantic relations, which requires an agreement with the authorities in Berlin, for whom the completion of the gas pipeline is a strategic issue. With this in mind, it could be argued that an attempt on the part of the United States to, for example, deviate from a strict approach to sanctions, could be made in exchange for certain concessions from the German side.
A greater threat to the Polish economy can be seen in the implementation of the Biden-Harris electoral promise on climate change, i.e. the decarbonization of the global economy, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and internationalization of the fight against climate change. America’s departure from oil is to be coupled with similar actions in the European Union. Therefore, it could be expected that in this matter the Biden administration will reach an agreement with Germany quite quickly. This country is already imposing political discourse regarding this issue throughout the EU and is actively promoting its own “green energy” technology. Consequently, the US may attempt to exert pressure on Poland and CEECs to quickly transform their economies and move away from coal. This action will then be coupled with similar steps taken at the EU level by politicians representing the largest, relatively modern and developed EU economies.
This phenomenon is unlikely if Donald Trump remains in the Oval Office for the next four years. Already during the election campaign, he was against the abandonment of oil and gas extracted from shales by the US as well as the imposition of strict greenhouse gas standards, considering them factors that limit the development and competitiveness of the US economy. Moreover, he strongly emphasized the financial interests of the countries that are promoting the Green New Deal.
Regardless of who will be sitting in the White House in January 2021, one should not expect a softening of the US position on the annexation of a part of Ukrainian territory by Russia or recent events in Belarus. The existence of these countries and their relative independence from Russia is an important component in ensuring the security and stability of the whole of Europe. Supporting them is also consistent with the American ethos as well as crucial for the security of Poland and other CEECs.
Both administrations will take a similar stance on Jewish claims against Poland for the so-called “heirless property.” The US seem not to be convinced that the Polish law is compatible with the generally accepted rules of inheritance, according to which if the deceased has no heirs, the property is transferred to the state. Therefore, further pressure from the US in this regard should be expected.
It is also of little importance who will be sitting in the Oval Office when it comes to matters such as protecting American corporations and technology giants in Europe. The issue of blocking the adoption of the so-called digital tax by European countries becomes particularly significant. Moreover, the rationale of protecting American companies will be important in the context of obstructing activities of the Polish authorities aimed at limiting the participation of foreign entities in the Polish media market. Not less significant is the fact that the incumbent President regularly falls victim to manipulation and other reprehensible practices by the largest American media corporations or social networking sites, whilst in the United States media are subject to strict regulations of federal antitrust law and supervision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
It can be stated with a great deal of certainty that the Biden administration will regularly raise the issue of whether Poland or some CEECs are violating “democratic standards” or the principles of the “rule of law.” These matters, which have been repeatedly mentioned by the politicians of the Democratic Party over the past several years, were vaguely raised by him during the current election campaign. This is remarkable because these allegations come from a politician who is actively supported by those who justify or participate in acts of vandalism and violence that we are currently witnessing in America, those who incite violations of federal immigration and electoral laws, or who show far-reaching contempt for the work of law enforcement. Moreover, this politician sees no threat to democracy or freedom of speech in his own country when social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter censor the posts of right-wing and conservative users, vaguely referring to the protection of personal rights of undefined individuals.
Looking at the history of mutual relations, one must bear in mind that for the USA they have always interplayed with its strategy towards Europe. Therefore, in the case of both candidates, it could be expected that the subject of having good relations with Poland will not be a priority, and the cross-party arrangements of American politicians to protect the American interests in this region will be implemented regardless of who is ultimately sworn in as the president. The key issue for the US during this term will certainly be to rebuild the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic as well as to establish a stable and predictable front against China and, to some extent, against Russia. In these matters, the role of Poland and other CEECs seems to be quite marginal. However, Poland should consistently make its voice heard (especially when it comes to the threat from Russia or the construction of Nord Stream 2) as well as strive for closer relations with the US in military and economic terms.
The victory of any of the candidates will give Poland such opportunities and this is undoubtedly excellent news. Over the past decades Poland has proven that it is capable of establishing good relations with politicians from both American parties. However, if Joseph Biden wins, the Polish authorities should take into account that the current ability to build relations with the US will be put to the test – first of all because of dissimilar views of a large part of his staff from those prevailing among the current administration in Poland, but also because of the announcement of forming an agreement with Europe, basing on arrangements with the economically strongest EU countries. From this perspective, the victory of Donald Trump would be more favorable, especially since he does not hide his sympathy for Poland.