Polish-German Ties: A Return to the Past?

In late August, three weeks after assuming office, Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, embarked on a well-received official visit to Berlin. It allayed concerns in some quarters that his presidency would resurrect the combative foreign policy his right-wing party, Law and Justice, practiced toward Germany from 2005 to 2007. At that time, prickly ties between Warsaw and Berlin and deep Polish skepticism toward the European Union led to a common perception throughout Europe that Poland was an unreliable and unstable partner. But in a drastic shift after becoming Prime Minister in 2007, Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk—currently President of the European Council—revitalized ties with Berlin by spearheading an era of constructive foreign policy that has raised Poland’s influence in European affairs to unprecedented heights.

Now that Law and Justice is projected to reclaim power in parliamentary elections scheduled on Oct. 25, observers in Europe and across the Atlantic fear that its electoral promise to recalibrate Polish foreign policy will reintroduce tension with Germany, a course that would be strategically catastrophic for Poland and paralyzing for the broader European community.

Despite tough campaign rhetoric of vowing to stand up to German strength in the defense of Polish interests, Duda’s visit to Berlin was met with accolades, with one major German daily proclaiming him “a declared friend of Germany.” In meetings with officials, including his counterpart German President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel, Duda praised Poland’s constructive ties with Germany, and in particular Merkel’s leadership against Russian aggression in Ukraine, as vital to the continent’s peace and security. One of Duda’s aides remarked that visiting Germany early in his term was “an important signal that the President wants to continue the dynamism and intensity of Polish-German relations.”

Indeed, Poland’s need for robust ties with Germany stems from the core of its security policy. Fearing that Russia’s military gaze might fall on other Eastern European states in the wake of its ongoing intervention in Ukraine, Poland hopes to persuade Germany to consent to permanent NATO installations on Polish territory as a deterrent against Russian aggression. Germany and the United States have long rebuffed this request, fearing that such a radical change in NATO policy would provoke Russia. Yet despite differences on this and other specific issues, there were sighs of relief in both countries that Duda’s conciliatory remarks signaled, at least for now, the continuation of constructive bilateral ties.

However, the possibility that a new Law and Justice administration will alter Polish foreign policy to the detriment of Polish-German relations is real. Before his visit to Berlin, Duda insisted that Law and Justice would only “correct,” not “revolutionize” Polish foreign policy, but many party hardliners demand a more skeptical policy toward Germany and the European Union. Duda’s friendly remarks in Berlin suggest that he at least understands that Poland’s geopolitical climate makes dysfunctional relations with its important western neighbor self-defeating given Poland’s need to leverage a united European front against Russian aggression. But since the Polish presidency is largely ceremonial, it is premature at this stage to forecast with certainty that robust Polish-German ties will endure.

Given the complex situation NATO faces in its east, the United States has a role to play in ensuring the continuation of friendly Polish-German ties. After the Oct. 25 elections, US officials should make clear to their Polish counterparts that they would oppose any attempt by Warsaw to create distance with Berlin by stressing that Polish security is best advanced by strengthening, not undoing, the continental ties Civic Platform has fostered since 2007. During the years Law and Justice picked fights with Berlin and Brussels over issues ranging from energy policy to relations with Russia, Poland invested heavily in warm ties with the George W. Bush administration, which enthusiastically courted what it called “new Europe”—the newly democratized members of the former Eastern Bloc—as a ground spring of support for its foreign policy.

The United States should act as quickly as possible to dispense with any illusion in Law and Justice that the Obama administration would embark on a similar initiative. The realization that it has no alternative to a constructive security and economic partnership with Germany might ground Law and Justice’s foreign policy planners in reality.

Polish-German reconciliation is one of the most significant stories of the postwar era in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Poles still have personal memories of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Poland, but the two neighbors have managed to foster economic, diplomatic, and security ties the strength and comprehensiveness of which are a testament to the promise and potential of European integration.

Civic Platform capitalized on the economic and political opportunities of close Polish-German ties during the eight years it has been in power. If Poles choose to return Law and Justice to power this month, the party should disown its failed foreign policy legacy and pledge to continue strong ties with its western neighbor, a vital prong of Civic Platform’s foreign policy that has made Poland safer and more influential than at any other time in its recent history.

Adam Twardowski is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

Image: Poland's President, Andrzej Duda, addresses Parliament after the swearing-in ceremony in Warsaw, Poland, on August 6. Duda visited Germany three weeks later in a trip seen as a boost to Polish-German ties. (Reuters/Kacper Pempel)