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US prefers private talks not megaphone vis-a-vis Poland

Michael Knigge
January 15, 2016

Unlike the EU and European politicians, the US has remained rather quiet so far about the new Polish government’s controversial domestic moves. But public silence shouldn’t be equated with acquiescence.

USA Weißes Haus in Washington D.C
Image: Imago/Eibner/Hundt

Poland's new right-wing government did not waste time when it introduced new legislation giving the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) control over the country's court and public media shortly after taking power in October, a decision that was sure to ruffle feathers in Brussels and elsewhere.

European politicians didn't mince words to criticize Warsaw's power grab.

The president of the European Parliament Martin Schulz, who, in December, had likened the situation in Poland to a "coup," again recently compared the actions of the new government to those of Russian President Vladimir Putin. EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans in a leaked letter last month warned Poland not to adopt a controversial new law, which, it says, could "undermine" the constitutional order.

EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger, responsible for the digital economy and society, advocated that Warsaw should be put under the EU's rule-of-law supervision, a historic step which was taken by the EU on Wednesday. And finally, Volker Kauder, the head of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Party in the Bundestag, recently spoke in favor of introducing sanctions against Poland if the country continues, in his view, to ignore the principles of the rule of law.

Washington lays low

To be sure, Poland's new government led by justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro did not exactly hold back either in the ensuing war of words.

EU Polen Flaggen
The rhetoric between EU politicans and the new Polish government has gotten increasingly harshImage: picture-alliance/B. Schleep

Meanwhile, Washington, arguably Warsaw's key ally in national security issues, remained comparatively tight-lipped. One of the few official - but telling - remarks came from a state department press conference late last year. A spokesman first said in response to a question about the situation in Poland that the US was observing events with great interest and had a very close relationship with Warsaw, but then he added this:

"We have frank and candid exchanges with them on a variety of issues … We have raised questions with the government about legislative actions with regard to the constitutional tribunal."

Translated into plain English, that means Washington is concerned about the Polish government's moves as well. But it apparently has decided not use the megaphone to communicate those concerns to Warsaw.

Cautious approach

"It is basically a cautious wait-and-see and let's-get-it-right approach from the US side," said Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund's Warsaw office. And it makes sense, he added, because the last thing anyone could want regardless of the one's stance on the controversial new laws was to make the new government feel like it is surrounded by critics simply out to get it.

Lashing out publicly against Warsaw so far seems to have only hardened the new government's response and could make it even more difficult to engage and influence it. Instead, having a close dialogue with Warsaw, like the US is pursuing, is the better approach, said Baranowski: "I would not be surprised if it includes stronger words, not in public, but in private."

Of course, the US, a non-EU member, views Warsaw, the key country on NATO's eastern flank, primarily through a geostrategic prism.

USA verlegen schweres Militärgerät nach Osteuropa Symbolbild
The US considers Poland a key ally in Eastern EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

But the US is also deeply interested in a stable and strong EU and has not been shy in the past to make its positions heard on EU domestic issues that Washington feels could undermine the stability of the EU.

Britain's potential EU exit, Turkish membership, Hungary's governmental media and court clampdown and Greece's financial crisis are examples.

No interference

That Washington hasn't publicly spoken out on the decisions of the new Polish government therefore may also be a sign that the US wants to see events play out a little longer between the EU and Poland first before possible stepping in.

Jakub Grygiel, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for European Analysis, said that the US should tread carefully vis-à-vis Poland. "I don't know whether the US government has communicated with Warsaw on recent internal developments in Poland, but it would be imprudent for Washington to interfere in the domestic decisions of a democratically elected government of one of our most important allies," he told DW via email. "It would unnecessarily create tensions in an alliance that, given the continuing threat from Russia, should only strengthen."

Continued private conversations not public name-calling then seems to be Washington's preferred strategy to engage with Poland for now.

"I expect a number of visits, more dialogue and only then a clearer pronouncement from the US political side," said Baranowski.