What is the good will of a loyal allied country worth to the Obama administration? We are talking about a European nation that has stood by the United States in solidarity as few have since Sept. 11, 2001 — one with 2,000 troops in Afghanistan and a possible willingness to step up to commit more troops at a time when others want to pull out.
The answer, very unfortunately, seems to be that relations with trusted allies are taken for granted in Washington these days. On diplomacy with Europe, the Obama administration has a terrible tin ear. Nowhere was this more evident than in the shabby treatment accorded Poland, which the administration has sought to remedy.
The Polish 70th anniversary commemorations of the beginning of World War II take place in Gdansk today. This unfortunately involves the latest in a long series of U.S. snubs felt keenly in Poland. On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, resulting in six years of war in Europe, the Holocaust and the deaths of 20 million people. The leaders of Russia, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and other countries will attend the ceremony, presided over by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. The head of the United States government — unbelievably — will be absent.
The Polish government sent out the invitation three months ago to the White House, but an answer was received only on Wednesday, a mere five days before the ceremony. Repeated attempts over the summer by the Poles to contact the White House and the State Department met with a long period of silence. One White House aide actually replied that everyone was on vacation until after Labor Day, which caused a Polish official to say he apologized that Adolf Hitler had invaded his country on Sept. 1.
The initial answer from the White House almost defied belief. The head of the official U.S. delegation was not to be a member of the Obama administration but former Clinton Defense Secretary William J. Perry. Over the weekend, a change was announced, and the U.S. delegation is to be headed by National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones. Gen. Jones will head the U.S. delegation, rather than President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gen. Jones will stand alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Anyone want to play “who doesn’t belong in this picture?”
The lack of understanding of European history and sensitivities was not lost on the Polish chattering classes. They have been in a justifiable uproar over this mother of all snubs, feeling a mixture of humiliation and neglect. For an administration that pledged to prioritize public diplomacy, this treatment of an ally was appalling. Unsurprisingly, popular opinion of the United States took a serious nose dive in Poland.
Already, the Obama administration’s warm embrace of the relationship with Russia has been a cause for concern among Central and East European governments. As a consequence, intellectuals and former politicians of those countries published a letter in July, after the summit between Mr. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, saying “all is not well in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Central and Eastern Europe is at a political crossroads, and today there is a growing sense of nervousness in the region.” This serious warning, rather than being taken to heart, caused offense in Washington.
Also, the Obama administration’s apparent attempts to use plans for “the third site” for U.S. missile defense (in Poland and the Czech Republic) as a bargaining chip to win Russian support for sanctions on Iran have gone down very poorly in Poland. The Polish government, after all, went out on a limb to secure the deal with the former Bush administration in hopes of upgrading defense cooperation between the two countries.
Finally, bitterness has persisted among Poles over the U.S. visa regime, which waives visa requirements for short-term visa stays in the United States for most European nationalities — but not Poles. Following recent U.S. legislation, other Central and East European countries, including the Czech Republic and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, have provisionally joined the visa-waiver program. The Poles, though, still run afoul of U.S. rules on overstays by visitors.
Is it too late to salvage U.S.-Polish relations? Maybe not, but it clearly will take a greater effort on the part of the Obama administration. Mr. Obama’s election was greeted with huge enthusiasm by young Poles, as by most Europeans, and he is supposed to be visiting Poland next year. In other words, there is something to build on if the White House chooses to do so. Though Gen. Jones remains below the rank of a head of state, the belated upgrade of the delegation to the commemoration in Gdansk was at least a start.
Helle Dale is senior fellow for public diplomacy at the Heritage Foundation.