Romney’s Futile Trip to Poland
Mitt Romney’s visit to Poland two weeks ago, closing the tour to beef up his foreign policy credentials, ended with a whimper. He tried to capitalize on the vast reservoir of good-will American leaders have built in Poland over the centuries. And he received the warm hospitality that visitors expect (and mostly get) in Central Europe. Yet it was a futile campaign move, as Romney no longer represents the Republican party of Eisenhower or Reagan—whom Poles admire—but an ideology that finds little in common with contemporary Poland or Polish-American voters whose support he will seek in November.
Romney failed to address the three most salient political issues for Poles and Polish-Americans, and instead sought to wrap himself in the symbolism of heroism and courage for which Poland has become famous.
First, Romney praised Poland’s economic performance but did not address the Eurozone crisis, nor visit Berlin and Brussels during his tour. Poland has performed relatively well economically in the short-term, but it fully knows that its future is intertwined with that of its neighbors. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, observed recently in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, that it considers American engagement in Europe “important” as Poland’s “fundamental interests” are in Europe. By ignoring two key power centers of Europe, Romney did not display the strategic understanding and foresight Poland would expect of an American leader to help promote its long-term success.
Second, on Afghanistan, Romney’s initial inclination (until his recent switch) to extend troop presence beyond 2014 clashed with Poland’s policy. Poland, like the US, is tired of war and wants to bring its troops home. It saw the clear military necessity of dismantling Al-Qaeda and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the defense of its American ally. Having served these objectives, it shares the Obama administration’s strategy in decreasing ground forces in Afghanistan. Apparently now, so does Romney, though Poles should be skeptical whether this is his considered decision or a tactical campaign reversal.
Third, Poland has long sought to have the U.S. visa requirement waived for its citizens as is for most EU citizens. Current legislation is stalled due to Republican opposition. Given Romney’s views on immigration, Poles and their Polish-American relatives should seriously doubt whether their chances for freedom of travel would be better under his administration. As with the other main political questions for Poles and Polish-Americans, Romney was silent and focused instead on themes from a by-gone era that struck bizarre notes with contemporary ears.
Having earlier described Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” Romney continued his Cold War ruminations about the Soviet Empire and the Iron Curtain. But this comes several decades too late. While the knee-jerk antagonism towards Moscow possibly elicited some latent support in Poland, most Poles have moved on and the current Polish policy has been to build better relations with its Eastern neighbor. Poles supported the new START treaty, cognizant that inevitably they would be caught in the crossfire of a nuclear war. Even while expressing initial skepticism regarding the general reset policy towards Russia, Poles also see the need to work with Russia on specific areas of common interest such as Afghanistan or Iran.
Strangely, Romney romanticized Poland’s “march toward economic liberty and smaller government” as a model for the rest of the world to get out of economic recession. “Look to Poland,” he said twice in his speech at Warsaw University on Tuesday. But according to the Heritage Foundation, Poland’s government spending at 44.6% of GDP is actually higher than the level in the U.S. of 42.2% of GDP. If this is Romney’s view of “smaller government,” perhaps even Paul Krugman would approve, as it would mean $362 billion of additional government spending. And while Poland’s GDP growth rate of 4.3% in 2011 and forecasted at 3% for 2012 is impressive, its 12.4% unemployment is hardly a model for the United States, unless Romney’s economic plan has yet to disclose this novel element of his vision for Americans. Moreover, Poland’s economy is approximately three percent the size of America’s, and comparing the two is like apples to poppy seed.
Romney’s most surreal visit was with Lech Walesa. The Solidarity movement leader and the first President of modern democratic Poland, who began his career as an electrician and a union worker, could have wondered at Romney’s position to let the car industry in Detroit collapse in 2009. While Walesa stood on the barricades in defense of jobs for his fellow stockyard workers, Romney would have watched from the boardroom as thousands of workers’ lives were up-ended. Indeed, the Solidarity movement distanced itself from Romney during his visit and criticized his labor policy. But Walesa played the role of a generous host and recalled his dear friend Ronald Reagan in welcoming Romney to Gdansk.
Yet, relations between countries are built on areas of future common interest, rather than old memories, however happy. And on this score, Romney had little to offer to Poles or Polish-Americans.