The greatest significance of the recent victory of President Andrzej Duda of Poland in the presidential election over his liberal and pro-German opponent is international, not domestic. Poland is where the clash of geopolitical futures is occurring right now among the top world powers.
Russia dominated Poland until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and it is trying to preserve remnants of its influence. Germany acquired a position of dominance in the early 1990s. It made many business investments in Poland to produce inputs for German industry, and 28 percent of Polish trade is with Germany. It also invested in the politics of Poland with numerous grants to Polish organizations, scholarships, and cultural programs. This symbiosis was agreeable to both countries and peaked with Poland’s 2004 admittance to the European Union. It was a great boon to Poland’s economic development but now the EU increasingly is regarded as a heavy-handed tool of Germany.
The biggest disagreement between Poland and Germany concerns Russia. This conflict demonstrates itself in numerous issues such as NATO, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and many others. Poland pays its 2 percent of GDP NATO requirement, loves America, and is positive about the presence of U.S. troops, while Germany spends little on defense, has an army that is far from fighting status, and fosters anti-Americanism. Germany is constructing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to become a distribution hub of Russian natural gas in Europe, which will increase its vulnerability to Russian blackmail. Poland is constructing pipelines and LNG terminals within the Three Seas Initiative to free Eastern Europe of the Russian natural gas monopoly and to import it from elsewhere, mainly the United States.
Polish people also remember the 1981 German support for the imposition of martial law in Poland and its lack of contribution to overcoming communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
All this was tolerable until Russia invaded Ukraine and the Law and Justice Party won the parliamentary election in 2015. Poland felt very insecure and demanded that NATO establish a real presence in Eastern Europe—not just a formal membership—and resolutely oppose Russian machinations on its western borders. In view of the German attitude toward Russia, the Polish government turned to the United States, especially after the election of Donald Trump as president.
During his term in office, Trump significantly strengthened NATO, opposed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and endorsed the Three Seas Initiative to build infrastructure in Eastern Europe. He also supported including Poland in the Visa Waiver Program to allow Poles to visit and do business in the United States. Currently, the Polish government is negotiating a new Defense Cooperation Agreement and terms of transfer of some U.S. troops from Germany to Poland.
The reelection of President Duda allows the continuation of a generally strong Polish-U.S. relationship, strengthening of the Western alliance and building up Eastern Europe as an independent entity between Germany and Russia.
This does not fit well with German designs and Germany does not consider the matter closed. Though Germany is disappointed that the pro-German opposition candidate did not win the presidency, despite the subtle assistance provided to him (German corporations own 80 percent of Polish local press, and other media outlets), they are not giving up on other possibilities of influence. The first question they asked after the election is whether President Duda will remain aligned with the Law and Justice government and its policies.
A few years ago, precisely after 45 minutes of telephone conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Duda vetoed key government legislation on judicial reform. Obviously, he could be persuaded again to undercut the Polish government agenda. Further, after his last term in office, he might desire to have a career in the European Union institutions and only Germany can assure him of that, just as they appointed former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to high-level EU jobs.
Another avenue for German influence is the recent appointment of a new German ambassador to Poland who is a former deputy chief of the BND, Germany’s intelligence service, and former head of NATO intelligence. His father was a Wehrmacht officer during World War II who served on the Eastern front in Poland and Russia and was airlifted out of the siege of Stalingrad to become an officer in Hitler’s command headquarters. One would think this appointment might seem a bit insensitive to the Poles. The appointment of such a high-level official from intelligence services shows Germany means business.
Thus, the reelection of President Duda is a vote for a close relationship with the United States and the strengthening of NATO, as well as national and regional independence. But will it stay this way? Germany and Russia will do everything they can to overturn the existing pro-American balance of power. Is the United States ready to confront that?