Last week’s train bombings in Madrid appear to have knocked Spain out of the U.S.–led coalition in the fight against terrorism. After the March 14 election, the new Socialist prime minister-elect, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, vowed to pull Spain’s 1,300 soldiers out of Iraq and to seek closer relations with France and Germany.
Of equal, if not greater importance, however, is that the new regime in Madrid will strengthen French power within the European Union (EU). Over the past year, the EU has been torn by struggles over its new constitution and the apportionment of voting power allowed to each member. Spain along with soon-to-be member Poland fought hard to retain their share of power—promised under the Nice accords in 2000—against an effort by France and Germany to keep control of the EU in the hands of Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.
A strong Spanish and Polish presence in the EU would have provided an effective check on French ambitions and also would have resulted in a more decentralized and, hopefully, more democratic EU. So the effective neutering of Spain represents a double threat to the U.S. First, the U.S. loses active Spanish support for the fight against terrorism; second, the EU moves one step closer to being a French and German dominated bloc animated by primitive anti-Americanism.
Attention now turns to Poland, slated to join the EU in May. Last week, President Aleksander Kwasniewski reaffirmed Polish support for the U.S.-led effort in Iraq and pledged to keep Polish troops in place, although he expressed reservations over pre-war intelligence on WMDs.
Poland remains America’s staunchest ally on the European continent. Its forces fought alongside the U.S. in the war against Saddam Hussein from the beginning of the campaign. After Britain, Poland’s 2,700 troops represent the largest U.S. ally in Iraq and Polish forces command approximately 7,000 more troops from several smaller central and east European countries. The Polish sector in southern Iraq has remained calm, relations with the local populace are generally cordial, and so far only a single Polish soldier has been killed. (Polish troops also serve in Afghanistan in support of U.S. and NATO forces.)
Anti-Americanism, rampant in Western Europe, is virtually non-existent in Poland, thanks in large part to the nine million-plus Polish diaspora in the U.S. which has consistently allowed most Poles a closer and more realistic view of America and Americans.
Poland’s pro-American stance, however, has come with a price. During the first Gulf War, after Polish intelligence agents arranged the escape of CIA operatives from Iraq and Polish forces joined the anti-Saddam coalition, the Baathist regime defaulted on the $1 billion it owed Poland, money the hard-pressed Polish economy could ill-afford to lose. During the run-up to the Iraq war, Poland and its central European neighbors were threatened by French diplomats who suggested that pro-American behavior would be punished by keeping these countries out of the EU if they did not “shut up.”
The Poles also earned French and German ire by demanding “too much” power within the EU, even though Poland’s voting strength had been agreed on in 2000 by all members. As it now stands, Poland and the other central Europe countries will enter the EU as second-class citizens. Poles will be restricted from travel within the EU—as if they were a contagion dangerous to West Europeans. France’s selfish farm lobby succeeded in getting the EU to slash subsidies to Poland’s hard-pressed small farms. Eurocrats confidently look forward to the rapid dissolution of nearly a million small family farms in Poland that are deemed superfluous and inefficient. In other words, their low labor costs make them a threat to the EU farm lobby (which has also torpedoed meaningful reform of the Union’s farm policies that would benefit all sides).
Poland’s current government, led by ex-communists, has managed to bungle economic and political reforms and its popularity is at historic lows. Despite this, the Polish economy continues to grow (albeit more slowly) and on foreign policy, the economically weaker Poles stand tall in comparison to their rich neighbors in Western Europe. Although many Poles have had reservations about getting involved in the Iraq conflict, they remain supportive of the war on terror and no Polish troops will be pulled out of Iraq in the foreseeable future.
At the same time, the pro-American Poles have been dismayed and chagrined at their treatment in Washington. While U.S. officials praise Polish involvement when the occasion demands, real actions to help Poland have failed to materialize. For example, modest military assistance that would help Polish armed forces fight the war on terror more effectively has been slashed. Polish companies, some of which have experience working with Iraqis on infrastructure construction projects, have been largely shut out of reconstruction contracts.
The Poles largely symbolic request for the U.S. to drop visa requirements for Poles traveling to the U.S. has been ignored. This has proved a major irritant to Poles, who are confronted with the sight of smug Frenchmen who opposed the U.S. war on terror at almost every turn waltzing across America’s borders like honored guests. Poles trying to visit relatives in America or attend American colleges and universities are treated like criminals by U.S. consular staff whose bureaucratic demeanor often seems like a throwback to the Soviet era.
U.S. officials have largely ignored Poland’s contribution in their major public statements. American conservatives and supporters of the war on terror have remained silent while liberal pundits and cartoonists in the mainstream media have treated Polish assistance to the U.S. with contempt and even outright ethnic stereotyping and bigotry. Kwasniewski’s comments this week, though misinterpreted in Western media, were a clear signal that the U.S. needs to start paying attention to its allies.
A strong U.S.–Polish partnership is very much in America’s interest. In addition to the direct support provided by Polish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Poland still lives in a dangerous neighborhood. Belarus (ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, a megalomaniac with Stalinist delusions), and Ukraine have both been implicated in selling arms to terrorists and rogue states, perhaps even including nuclear material. Poland’s proximity makes it an ideal place to develop intelligence networks to keep an eye on such shady regimes as the one in Belarus and give a nudge to reformist elements in Ukraine.
Within the EU, Poland could still provide a check on anti-Americanism and French ambition. The original vision of the EU of a community of free-market democracies—rather than a bureaucratic monstrosity dominated by its two most powerful members and animated by politically correct secularism at home and anti-Americanism abroad—can still be realized. The Poles, who feel close to both America and Europe, could be a bridge that would allow Americans and Europeans to build healthier relations in the future, economically and politically.
But this will require American leaders to pay attention to Poland and take seriously its quite modest needs. Many Poles are starting to conclude that partnership with America is only a one-way street. This must not be allowed to happen. The U.S. cannot afford more Spains and alienating a loyal friend is not the way to win the war on terror.
John Radzilowski, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at Piast Institute: A National Center for Polish and Polish American Affairs and is co-author of Poland’s Transformation: A Work in Progress and Spanish Carlism and Polish Nationalism: The Borderlands of Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.