Will Obama Be Positive for Poland?

Few will refute that the election of Barack Obama to the American presidency last month was a historic event that will affect not just the United States but the entire globe. But it’s when we start thinking of ourselves that the arguments begin. How will an Obama presidency affect Poland? Will he be Poland’s friend or will the country be neglected under his watch? Below, Thymn Chase and Jim McNulty debate the positive and negative aspects, respectively, of Polish-American relations under Obama.

FOR: Writing as an American citizen who voted for Barack Obama, I am truly proud that he will be the 44th President of the United States. I have no doubt that the Obama administration will be drastically different from Bush’s regime and will implement substantial changes in domestic and foreign policy. How quick Obama is able to enact these changes and what they will mean for America and its many allies, economic partners and even enemies is wholly uncertain and the subject of much speculation. As regards whether the Obama administration will be “good” for Poland specifically, we need not look any further than Obama’s own words concerning the most pressing U.S.-Polish issues.

Let’s begin with the most universally positive issue ? visas. On July 17th Barack Obama made the following statement: “We should work to include countries like Poland that are members of both the EU and NATO into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Today’s visa regime reflects neither the current strategic relationship nor the close historic bonds between our peoples, and is out of date.” These are powerful words and a blatant endorsement for Poland’s membership in the program. I believe Obama will make good on this statement and during his administration Polish citizens will finally be able to travel to the U.S. without enduring the arduous and often embarrassing visa process.

A more complicated and controversial issue is the still uncertain future of the missile defence shield. In the same statement on July 17th Obama had this to say: “If we can responsibly deploy missile defences that would protect us and our allies we should ? but only when the system works.” Obama was referring to the fact that the system has yet to prove its accuracy and effectiveness after numerous tests. He also went on to warn that “the Bush administration has in the past exaggerated missile defence capabilities and rushed deployments for political purposes. The Bush administration has also done a poor job of consulting its NATO allies about the deployment of a missile defence system that has major implications for all of them. We must not allow this issue to divide “new Europe” and “old Europe,” as the Bush Administration tried to do over Iraq.

Poland is primed to emerge as a diplomatic power in the EU as it plays an increasingly larger role in tackling the challenges facing the EU and NATO in the region. To achieve this Poland first needs to step out from under the shadow of the U.S. and make its own foreign policy decisions. If Poland and the U.S. go through with the missile shield it will forever remain a dangerously divisive issue within the EU and with Russia. Most supporters of the missile shield believe it will be a strategic deterrent against Russia, despite both Polish and U.S. officials’ claims that this is “mathematically impossible” with the proposed system. As Obama said, “Poland should not have to choose between its vital interest in closer integration with Europe and its alliance with the United States.”

The missile shield still has to be ratified by both the U.S. Congress and the Polish Sejm. The plan remains highly unpopular among Congressional Democrats, who now have a commanding majority in both houses, and considering the current economic crisis some Republicans might even vote against funding the missile shield in the near future. If the missile defence shield plan collapses under the Obama administration, one’s opinion of President Obama would undoubtedly hinge upon where one stands with regards to the missile system. Personally I would see it as a great victory for both the U.S. and Poland.

No matter what happens, it is clear that Obama has turned a new page in history. He has given credence to a new politics of hope that is fuelled by optimism and governed by reason. His election is a great example to Poland and the rest of the world that no matter how bad things get (especially politically) anything is possible.

AGAINST: The historic victory of Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. presidential election has already been labelled as the beginning of a revolution. According to the most avid supporters, Obama’s presidency will not only end years of Bush’s misgovernment, but it will transform relations between the United States and the rest of the globe. The change that Mr. Obama promised to deliver is supposedly being welcomed not only by Americans but also by many people around the world. By the same token, Poles should also look forward to embracing this harbinger of change from Illinois. Or should they?

I hate to break it to you, but from the Polish foreign policy standpoint, the future incumbent of the White House does not mean good news (not that McCain would be that much better). I can list a number of reasons why, but these two below should make it a no-brainer.

First, consider this: over the years it has been more than just a stereotype to claim that Democrats are soft on national security. Given candidate Obama’s plans to cut the program of the missile defence system and create a rapprochement with Iran, perhaps the above-mentioned cliché is more than just a Republican campaign slogan. In fact, Obama’s proposals might be good for the United States itself. But they seem to be quite harmful for Poland at the same time. If Iran becomes America’s friend again, the rationale for the missile defence system in Europe will almost definitely cease to exist. And for Poland this means trouble and embarrassment. If Washington decides to pull out of the missile defence agreement (that was signed with the Polish government last August), it will put Polish diplomacy in a very awkward position. After all, Poland went against the predominant European current by choosing to be a part of the American shield, not to mention that it enraged Warsaw’s “favourite” eastern neighbour. The bottom line is that the day Barack Obama’s administration withdraws from the missile defence deal, Poland’s international credibility will suffer, big time.

Secondly, it is more than probable that as president, Obama will focus his foreign policy more on Asia and Africa rather than on Europe. Of course, traditional European allies of the U.S. like Great Britain and Germany (and occasionally France) are still likely to enjoy America’s attention. But unless something really bad or/and unexpected happens in Central and Eastern Europe, there will be no place for Poland on the U.S. agenda. This has nothing to do with Obama’s race (or his place of upbringing), but with the simple fact that the recent shift in international relations has constantly been moving away from Europe. For Poland, Obama’s victory may constitute an unpleasant wake-up call.

It is high time for Warsaw to rethink its policy towards the United States. For years, Polish-American relations characteris�ed the marriage of the reluctant elephant and willing mouse. While Warsaw’s wishful talk of a U.S.-Polish strategic partnership sounded like a lunatic’s dream, Washington tried not to squash this hope and played its cards well. Right now, it seems that the dusk of this era is coming. Obama’s victory might have been just what Poles needed to face an unwelcome reality. Poland will not be the 51st state. Neither will it become a second Great Britain or Israel. Instead, Polish politicians might want to remind themselves that since 2004, their country has been a member of quite a successful international organisation. And in this respect, the election of Barack Obama might be a bittersweet experience for Poland. Change is good, after all. At least so they say.

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