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Dec 29, 2015 | 20:27 GMT

5 mins read

Is Poland's New Government Alienating Itself?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

According to Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, the United States is open to the possibility of moving the next NATO summit from the currently scheduled Warsaw, Poland, to another country. The newspaper reported that the United States is concerned about the Polish government's recent activity — most notably a reform of the Constitutional Court that limits the court's power to veto legislation.

Although this report has not been confirmed, it would not be the first time the new Polish government has concerned its allies. Since the nationalist Law and Justice party won general elections in October, EU institutions have repeatedly warned the new Polish administration about actions that could lead to its isolation. Shortly after the election, the new government replaced five judges appointed by the previous government, raising eyebrows in Brussels. Then, the new administration accused the media of manipulating public opinion and attacked the European Commission and the German government for their alleged double standards on issues such as Ukraine and the refugee crisis. But Poland is not just a member of the European Union; it is in the NATO alliance, too. 

If the United States is in fact considering moving the NATO summit away from Poland, it would be a criticism more pointed than any coming from the European Union: Keeping good ties with NATO in general and Washington in particular is a key element of Warsaw's foreign policy. Located on the North European Plain and surrounded by powerful nations, Poland has based its strategy on forming numerous military and political alliances and securing U.S. protection. The European Union's fragmentation and Russia's growing assertiveness make this imperative particularly pressing.

The ruling Law and Justice party has a critical view of the European Union and is ready to pick fights with Brussels, especially if it can use such bickering to consolidate its popularity at home. In contrast, friction with the White House is more dangerous because it could damage a core element of Poland's foreign policy strategy. Warsaw counts on the United States for military protection as well as for diplomatic and economic containment of Russia. At a time when many EU countries are pushing for a normalization of relations with Moscow, the Polish government has support from Washington in calling for the existing sanctions on Russia to continue.

The United States is also interested in keeping good ties with Poland, a large country in Eastern Europe. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski on Dec. 1, and both officials expressed their "unwavering commitment" to NATO and the security of Eastern Europe. But the United States has shown its willingness to pressure its allies when it needs to. Romania is a good example of this. As with Poland, the United States considers Romania a pivotal country when it comes to containing Russia. However, Romania's value has not kept the White House from pushing Bucharest to fight corruption and improve transparency, as well as to introduce market-friendly reforms to improve the business environment for foreign investors.

The White House may fear that Poland's new nationalist government will adopt populist policies aimed at weakening Polish institutions and hurting foreign companies. For example, the Law and Justice party has promised to introduce special taxes for foreign banks and supermarkets. U.S. officials have criticized similar moves by the Hungarian government in the past, with a former U.S. ambassador in Budapest going as far as to join anti-government protests when the Hungarian administration tried to introduce a special tax on the use of the Internet.

If Warsaw chooses to make cooperation with NATO and the United States more difficult, that is a concern for Washington. In mid-December, members of the Polish Ministry of Defense and the military police made a night raid on the headquarters of the NATO-affiliated counterintelligence center in Warsaw. The Polish government attempted to downplay the incident, saying that it only wanted to replace officials appointed by the previous government, but the move reveals Law and Justice's interest in strengthening its control of Poland's defense apparatus. 

The United States could also worry that the new Polish government's attempts to reverse policies enacted by the previous government could affect Poland's military. Poland's current military leadership has a strong working relationship with its NATO and U.S. counterparts, and abrupt changes in personnel or policy could change this. Supported by the United States, the previous administration in Poland began an ambitious project to modernize the army. But the new administration could decide to revise the contracts and promises made by its predecessor, thereby undermining the modernization plans. In addition, proposals to lower taxes and introduce new subsidies for poor households could redirect funds from the military modernization effort.

The Law and Justice party's plans are likely to irritate investors and governments in Western Europe and the United States at a time when Poland still needs military and financial support from abroad. For months, Poland has been demanding a larger NATO presence in Eastern Europe. Germany and other EU members resist the idea, which makes support from the United States crucial. Therefore, the new Polish government could struggle to balance its domestic agenda and its strategic imperatives.

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