Poland: Foreign Policy Trends
CRS Report for Congress
Poland: Foreign Policy Trends
June 21, 2005
Specialist in International Relations
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Poland: Foreign Policy Trends
More than most countries, Poland’s relations today with the rest of the world are
influenced by its past. The victim of historical forces and powerful neighbors,
Poland was partitioned in the 18th century, and once again in the 20th. This loss of
sovereignty may partly explain its assertive foreign policy. Poland has carved out a
unique, sometimes maverick role for itself in Europe. A NATO member since 1999,
and an EU member since 2004, Poland has forcefully pursued its national interests
and has not been reluctant to assert itself with major powers — for example, with
Germany, its leading trading partner; with the European Union; and with the United
Poland has been a staunch U.S. ally, not only in the global war on terrorism, but
also in the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq. However, several factors — including the
revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the March 2004 Madrid
bombings — have caused Poland to weigh the costs and benefits of its participation
in Iraq and reassess its partnership with the United States. Many Poles are also
disappointed that their cooperation in the Iraq mission has yet to yield tangible
benefits. In particular, the Poles had hoped for help in three areas: military
assistance, Iraq reconstruction contracts, and U.S. visa policy.
Poland has been an active member of the European Union (EU), and has not
always sided with the majority; many of its positions within the EU — and toward
its eastern neighbors — have been in accord with U.S. policy preferences that have
at times been at odds with EU members. However, some analysts believe that, for
economic and social reasons, Poland likely will draw closer to its fellow EU
countries over the long term, and may eventually play a leadership role on the
This report analyzes Polish foreign policy motivations and trends, and
implications for U.S.-Polish relations and U.S. interests in Europe. It will be updated
after the 2005 Polish elections. For additional information, see CRS Report
RL32966, Poland: Background and Current Issues, by Carl Ek.
Poland and Europe — East and West..................................2
Polish-U.S. Relations: Iraq and Related Issues...........................3
Poland: Foreign Policy Trends
More than most countries, Poland’s relations today with the rest of the world areth
influenced by its past. At the end of the 18 century, it was partitioned among
Russia, Prussia and Austria, and for more than a century, Poland as a state did not
exist. It was re-established after the First World War with U.S. backing, only to be
divided again between the Nazis and the Soviets in 1939, and then dominated by1
Moscow after 1945.
Poland has long been viewed as a crucible for change in Central and Eastern
Europe and, ultimately, the Soviet Union. Historians are likely to attribute that in
large part to the rise of two remarkable men. In 1978, the Archbishop of Krakow,
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, was elected Pope John Paul II. The following year, he
returned from Rome to visit his homeland and said mass before more than one
million celebrants, urging Poles, “Do not be afraid.”2 John Paul served as an
inspiration for Poles to confront their own government, and, by extension, the USSR.
In 1980, after the government raised food prices, electrician Lech Walesa led his
fellow shipyard workers in Gdansk in a strike. The confrontation led to the formation
of Solidarity, an independent trade union; over the ensuing decade, it evolved into a
political party that was instrumental in ending communist rule. In 1983, Solidarity
leader Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1989 and 1990, Solidarity
candidates won Poland’s first democratically-contested parliamentary and
In the 1990s, successive post-communist governments moved swiftly to
consolidate democracy and establish a market economy. Their efforts were capped
in 1999 by NATO membership, and in 2004 by entry into the European Union (EU).
Poland has conducted a proactive foreign policy over the past 15 years. It has
aggressively pursued its national interests, and has not been reluctant to assert itself
with major powers — for example, with Germany, its leading trading partner; with
the European Union; and with the United States.
Warsaw has cooperated with its neighboring states to the north and south in
such regional formations as the Baltic Cooperation Council and the Visegrád group.
1 For additional background, see U.S. Library of Congress. Federal Research Division.
Poland: A Country Study. Glenn E. Curtis. October, 1992. Poland. Europa Yearbook.
2 Poland’s Lech Walesa Remembers Pope’s Importance In Ending Communism. AP. April
3, 2005. A Counterbalance to Communists. By Judy Dempsey. International Herald
Tribune. April 2, 2005.
But Poland’s main foreign policy initiatives in Europe have been directed to the east
and west. It has actively promoted the development of democracy in the two
countries to its immediate east: Belarus and Ukraine. To its west, Poland has had a
somewhat contentious experience integrating into the EU.
In terms of transatlantic relations, Poland is perhaps the most emblematic of the
countries tied to both the United States and the EU; it does not wish to have to
choose between the two, but occasionally has had to take sides. This was particularly
true of the Iraq conflict, in which Poland chose to support U.S. policy both
diplomatically and militarily. However, several factors, including the March 11,
caused Polish public opinion to turn resolutely against continued involvement in Iraq.
The government has responded with a phased withdrawal of its troops. In addition,
many Poles believe that the United States has failed to show sufficient gratitude for
Poland will be holding parliamentary elections in September 2005. Many
observers believe that the current ruling party, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD),
is likely to suffer defeat at the hands of the center-right Civic Platform (PO) party.
If that does transpire, most observers believe that Poland’s foreign policy would not
likely undergo abrupt and dramatic changes. Under the next government —
whichever party leads it — Warsaw may become somewhat less reflexively pro-
American. Although the Poles may have lined up beside the United States on Iraq,
they also know that their future economic prosperity depends on continued
cooperation and integration with the EU.
Poland and Europe — East and West
As noted above, part or all of Poland was under Russian domination throughout
the nineteenth century and most of the 20th. For Poles, history is never far from the
surface. In looking eastward, Poland has therefore sought to encourage
democratization of Belarus and Ukraine not only on principle, but also for the
practical reason that doing so would improve Poland’s security by establishing a
buffer zone between itself and Russia. Poland’s policies toward its two immediate
neighbors have been largely consistent with those of the United States — somewhat
confrontational toward the more repressive Belarus, but seeking engagement with
Ukraine. Many have argued that helping the two countries eventually acquire EU
and NATO membership should be a foreign policy priority for Poland.
Poland’s involvement in Ukraine’s fall 2004 political crisis was particularly
noteworthy. President Kwasniewski joined with EU foreign policy chief Javier
Solana and Lithuanian President Vladas Adamkus in helping negotiate a settlement
over the disputed presidential vote. Poland’s new status as a member of the EU is
believed to have lent weight to its role in mediating the Ukraine political crisis.
Poland pushed within the Union to get Brussels more actively involved in helping
solve the crisis in Kiev. Finally, Poland subsequently joined with several of its
neighboring countries in endorsing Ukraine’s eventual EU membership. A U.S.
commentator noted that “[t]he Ukraine experience ... showed that the European
Union has grown more hospitable to democratic evangelists: Polish President
Alexander Kwasniewski ... provided Europe’s backbone in Ukraine along with ...
Javier Solana.” Some observers believe that, flush with its success in Ukraine,
Poland might now set its sights on encouraging reforms in Moldova.3
Perhaps the most important factor in Poland’s eastward perspective is its
relationship to Russia. One Polish academic has asserted that his countrymen “fear
Russia and exaggerate the threat it poses,” and cautioned against allowing a “phobia”
about Russia to hamper the effectiveness of Poland’s foreign policy. Noting that the
United States is a main source of Poland’s security, he pointed out that “for the US,
Russia is not a threat but an important, though difficult, partner in the war against
Islamic terrorism.”4 He argued that, to more effectively promote democracy in
Belarus and Ukraine, Poland must improve its relations with Moscow.
In May 2004, Poland fulfilled a long-term foreign policy goal when it joined
nine other countries in becoming a member of the European Union (Poland achieved
NATO membership earlier, in 1999.) EU membership had been a contentious issue,
particularly for Poles living in rural areas who feared that they would be
overwhelmed economically by more efficient, western European agricultural
producers. However, those fears have thus far been groundless, as Poland began to
experience economic gains — agricultural subsidies and a surge in farm exports —
almost immediately after it joined.
Poland was not reluctant to assert itself before joining the EU and will likely be
even less hesitant to do so now that it is a member. On several issues, Poland staked
out positions intended to advance its interests and values; these stances have
sometimes been opposed by major players within the EU, such as France and
Germany. For example, during the development of the EU constitution, Poland,
joined by several other mostly Roman Catholic countries, called for the preamble to
include language referring to Europe’s Christian heritage; the measure was not
adopted, but Pope John Paul II lauded Poland for its efforts. Warsaw also has argued
strongly that Turkey is a democratic Islamic state, and deserves to be admitted into
the EU. Poland has argued for its right to maintain relatively low corporate taxes, a
practice criticized by some other countries as an unfair subsidy meant to attract
foreign investment. Finally, Poland has supported the development of an EU military
capability, but has stressed that this not be done at the cost of weakening NATO.
Polish-U.S. Relations: Iraq and Related Issues
Poland supported the United States in Iraq both politically and militarily. It was
one of a small number of countries to provide troops in the combat phase of the
conflict, and then deployed a large (2,500-strong) contingent of peacekeeping troops.
3 ‘A New Wind’ Out of Washington. Fred Kempe. Wall Street Journal. January 26, 2005.
President Sees Bigger Role After Success in Ukraine, Looks to Reunite Moldova. By Marc
Champion. Wall Street Journal Europe. February 17, 2004.
4 If Poland Wants to Co-create the EU’s Eastern Policy, It Has to Avoid Being Labeled as
Russophobic. Antoni Podolski, quoted in Polish News Bulletin. December 2, 2004.
Poland took command of a multinational division providing stability in the center of
Iraq. But several factors — chiefly the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid
and the revelations of prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib — contributed to increased
public pressure against continued military engagement in Iraq. In December 2004,
the Polish government declared that it would be withdrawing about one-third of its
forces after the Iraqi elections; further announcements on a phased withdrawal
Given the many daunting challenges and political risks, some question why
Poland joined with the United States in the Iraq conflict in the first place. Observers
attribute Poland’s participation to a variety of factors. Some stress that the Poles
were at least in part motivated by a sense of gratitude for past U.S. support, including
U.S. assistance during the Cold War and the lead role played by the United States in
expanding NATO to include Poland, among other states. Poland may also have
joined the Iraq effort because it subscribes to the Bush Administration’s belief in the
need to thwart tyranny and spread democracy. Poles cite their role as a mediator in
Ukraine’s political crisis as another example of this conviction in action. According
to former Polish Foreign Minister Cimoszewicz, Poland did not join the coalition
because it believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but rather
because Poland believed it was in its own security interests to support the United
States and thereby maintain a strong transatlantic security linkage.5
There were practical benefits of joining the Iraq operation. Polish defense
officials speak of the invaluable experience and information that the Iraq operation
has provided the military, chiefly through having command of a large, international
expeditionary force. Another benefit was psychological: at the outset of the conflict,
the Bush administration treated the Poles as important partners in the international
scene. According to one analyst “Bush gave Poles and the Polish political class the
feeling that they belong to the countries that really matter in the world.”6
However, Poland has experienced difficulties both at home and abroad as a
result of its participation. Along with other factors, the Iraq deployment is listed as
a reason for the SLD government’s sharp decline in popularity. In addition, some
analysts believe that Poland’s partnership with the United States may have
contributed to strained relations with other EU states — particularly France and
Germany, which opposed the Iraq invasion; in May 2003, a German newspaper
referred to Poland as America’s “Trojan donkey.” Some Poles have faulted the
partnership for being unconditional; a former Polish Defense Minister has argued, for
example, that the SLD government erred in not bargaining with the Americans for
military assistance before committing troops to Iraq.7
5 Poland Toughens Stance Over Backing US With Plans To Complete Its Mission.
Financial Times [FT]. October 14, 2004.
6 Backing For Man Who Made the Country Feel It Counted. FT. September 9, 2004.
7 Polish News Bulletin. November 4, 2004. Is Poland America’s Donkey or Could It
Become NATO’s Horse? Economist. May 10, 2003.
Some Poles also maintain that their country has begun to see itself as paying for
U.S. mistakes in Iraq, and that this might have an impact on bilateral relations. In the
past year, in fact, the Poles have become less reluctant to criticize the United States
openly. For example, in a September 2004 interview, President Kwasniewski urged
the United States to be “flexible, open, and gracious.” In a later press appearance,
he recalled that “from the beginning I warned President Bush against a policy of
American dominance in Iraq and in the whole world.” And more pointedly, former
President and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa remarked that “America failed its exam
as a superpower. ... [it is] a military and economic superpower but not morally or
politically anymore. This is a tragedy for us.”8
Poles also have begun to ask themselves what they have received in return for
their loyalty to the United States; in particular, Poles had hoped for help in three
areas: military assistance, Iraq reconstruction contracts, and U.S. visa policy. In
recent months, some Iraq reconstruction business has begun to flow toward Polish
firms, and President Bush pledged to seek $100 million in military assistance for
Poland. It is the visa waiver issue, however, that seems to resonate the most among
Poles, perhaps because it could be “fixed” without financial cost to the United States.
Warsaw has hoped to join 27 other countries which have been granted a waiver of the
U.S. government requirement to obtain a visa for short-term travel to the United
States. According to one report, “[t]he political class were outraged at the US
decision to treat Poland differently from the EU-15 by imposing visa regulations on
Polish nationals, as part of a general tightening of immigration controls in the wake
of [9/11.]” In a radio interview that touched upon this issue, Lech Walesa maintained
that Americans “are making fun of us.”9 U.S. analysts, however, argue that there are
some factors militating against waiving visas for Poles. First of all, Poland’s
continued high unemployment rate (close to 20% in April) might act as an incentive
for Poles to seek work outside of the country and overstay their visas. Secondly, if
the United States were to make an exception for Poland, even though it does not meet
the objective requirements, many other countries would also seek to make their case
for being exempted. One observer has pointed out that, given continuing concerns
over the threat of terrorism, there is not much sentiment in Congress to make it easier
for people to enter the United States.
Finally, Poland is said to be lobbying to be a future location for a U.S. military
base amid U.S. consideration of a global re-basing scheme. Poles claim that such a
move would represent good payback for their participation in Iraq; U.S. military
bases would benefit local economies, as well as Poland’s desire for American
investment. Lastly, having the U.S. military present on its soil, they argue, would
increase Poland’s sense of security.
8 US Ally Poland Criticizes Washington’s Foreign Policy. AFP. September 12, 2004.
Polish President Appeals For a More ‘Open and Gracious’ U.S. International Herald
Tribune. September 4, 2004. Continent’s Drift: At Expense of U.S., Nations of Europe are
Drawing Closer. Wall Street Journal. December 23, 2004.
9 Between Iraq and a Hard Place. EIU Country Briefing. October 14, 2004. Walesa Lashes
Out At US Over Visa Requirements for Poles. AFP. August 10, 2004.
More than many countries, Poland has a habit of asserting its independence; one
unwavering constant in Poland’s foreign policy has been its efforts to protect its
perceived national interests in a region that more than once has devoured it as a state.
Poland has been a close ally of the United States; as a new member of the EU, it is
now attempting to balance its transatlantic interests.
Because it views the United States as the main guarantor of its security, Poland
will likely continue to support the United States within NATO. Poland wants to
modernize its armed forces, ensure alliance interoperability, and improve its own
defense capabilities. However, the Poles point out that their resources have been
severely strained by the Iraq mission, forcing them to sideline their plans to update
Poles were more supportive than most Europeans of the U.S.-led invasion of
Iraq and the subsequent military occupation. Nevertheless, some observers maintain
that participation in the Iraq operation was the most controversial foreign policy
decision made by a Polish government since the fall of Communism. Many Poles
agreed with the government’s decision to deploy troops with the coalition, and were
proud that Poland was given a command role; some asserted that Iraq demonstrated
that Poland’s security interests are now global, no longer just regional.
Several factors eventually increased Polish public opposition to the war, and
Poland has become less reluctant to criticize the United States openly, in part, some10
argue, because it has begun to see itself as paying for U.S. mistakes. Some Poles
assert that, in siding with the Americans, they erred by putting all their security eggs
in one basket, damaging their relations with other allies. They suggest that Poland
repair its intra-EU relations; and believe that, given its size and growing influence,
Poland might eventually become a leading force within a larger, stronger EU.
Many of Poland’s actions within the EU have been consistent with policies
preferred by the United States: Poland and the Bush administration both support the
notion of taxing consumption, rather than investment. On EU security policy, Poland
stresses the importance of maintaining the transatlantic link. Like Washington,
Warsaw supports the accession of Turkey. Poland’s sponsorship of a reference to
Europe’s Christian heritage in the EU constitution shows that Poles are not reluctant
to mix religion with governance, compared to many other European societies.
Poland has demonstrated that it can be an independent actor within Europe,
often taking positions in line with U.S. policy or interests. For example, the decision
to buy Lockheed Martin F-16s rather than European-built fighter aircraft, regardless
of technical rationale, might have had political repercussions — Poland was still
queued up to join the EU at the time. Polish officials stress that their government did
not expect a quid pro quo for its decisions to join the Iraq coalition and to purchase
10 The disillusionment with Iraq did not spill over into a disapproval of the Bush
Administration; polls showed that, during the fall 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, Poland
was the only country in Europe to prefer Bush to his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry.
U.S. fighters. Nevertheless, there is a sense that the U.S. inaction on several issues
of intense interest to Poles indicates an absence of gratitude; it resulted in a
“disappointment that support for [the] USA didn’t bring Poland measurable
Poland’s foreign policy outside the EU has also generally been in harmony with
U.S. international goals. For example, Poland was instrumental in advancing the
practice of democracy in Ukraine; Warsaw played a lead role in resolving the fall
2004 election crisis. President Bush stated that President Kwasniewski had “showed
remarkable leadership and the people of the Ukraine are better for it and the world
appreciates it and I appreciate it.”12 During the current decade, Polish leaders have
at times spoken of acting as a bridge between Russia and the West. Through
maintaining active ties with Russia, Poland also hopes to discourage non-democratic
In answer to the question of where Poland sees its future and interests, some
observers see a division: the United States may be important to its security, but
Poland has a natural affinity toward fellow EU countries in cultural and economic
matters. Many believe it is inevitable that Poland will draw closer to Europe.13 But
what kind of EU member it will eventually become — from the U.S. standpoint —
remains to be seen. Some believe that Poland as an EU member will likely wind up
being more like the United Kingdom, a staunch U.S. ally, than like Belgium, which
has at times taken positions contrary to U.S. policy.
Some have speculated that Poland, given its size, will be looked to as leader of
the Central and Eastern European region. However, officials from neighboring
countries say that, although they may respect and admire Poland, they hope that it
does not come to regard itself as the chief spokesperson for Central Europe.
Some observers believe that Polish politics is undergoing a transition period,
featuring the fading of the old Solidarity generation. They assert that, although
Poland has traditionally had closer ties to the United States than many other
European countries have, members of the new generation entering politics are
perhaps not so firmly rooted in the transatlantic relationship. Analysts therefore
caution that U.S. policymakers should not take Polish friendship for granted. In
addition, for the past ten years the United States has had a close friend in Poland in
Aleksander Kwasniewski, but his time as president is coming to an end. In one view,
[i]t is unlikely that any Polish leader in the next few years ... will be as strongly
pro-US as Mr. Kwasniewski. ... It is important not to exaggerate the extent to
which Poland will move away from the US in the next few years, but Warsaw
will be less willing to set itself at odds with Berlin and Paris in order to
11 Polish Participation in the Armed Intervention and Stabilization Mission in Iraq. By
Maria Wagrowska. Center for International Relations. Warsaw. August 2004. p. 4.
12 Military Aid, Visas Top Agenda For Presidents Bush, Kwasniewski. US Fed News.
February 10, 2005.
13 See, for example: From America’s Protégé to Constructive European. Marcin
Zaborowski. Institute for Security Studies. December, 2004.
accommodate Washington — especially as it believes its loyalty has been poorly14
Poland’s fall 2005 parliamentary elections, according to many observers, may
well result in a center-right coalition. The parties that would likely form the new
government might not qualify as “Euroskeptics,” but some of their members have
admitted to feelings of ambivalence about the EU.15 Some analysts also argue that
communist successor parties, such as the SLD, and politicians, such as Kwasniewski,
may have been overly cooperative toward the United States and Western Europe in
an effort to compensate for their past allegiances. Polish foreign policy since 1989
does not appear to have been significantly affected by whichever party is in power,
but analysts suggest that a non-socialist-led government at this point could be
expected to push Poland’s national interests more aggressively in its bilateral
relations with the United States.
14 EIU Country Briefing. October 14, 2004.
15 A Hedgehog Lies In Wait. Jan Cienski. Financial Times. October 26, 2004.