President Donald Trump is breaking with tradition by visiting Poland, an ex-communist country in central Europe, before making a presidential visit to longtime allies Britain, France or Germany.
The White House has stressed Poland’s importance as a loyal NATO ally and its potential as an energy partner as reasons for the visit, which he will make Thursday just before attending a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. But there are several other reasons that make Poland a logical early destination for the new U.S. president.
Trump will be welcomed in Poland by populist leaders who are closely aligned with his worldview and who gained power in 2015 with the same brand of nationalistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric that has put both the new U.S. leader and the Poles in conflict with leaders in Western Europe. Like Trump, Poland’s leaders seek to restore more national sovereignty and weaken international institutions like the European Union. Some political observers worry that the visit could further deepen divisions between Poland and its Western European partners. There is also concern Trump’s visit could embolden the Polish government and encourage what the EU sees as an erosion of the rule of law in Poland.
Trump can probably count on large enthusiastic crowds to greet him in Warsaw, where he is expected to give a major televised address to the nation. In fact, according to Polish media reports, that is exactly what Poland’s government promised the White House in its invitation. To make good on that pledge, ruling party lawmakers and pro-government activists plan to bus in groups from the provinces to hear Trump’s speech. A warm reception would certainly be a plus for Trump after his somewhat awkward debut in Europe in May. He also could get a frosty reception at the G-20 due to his recent decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord and other policies. Some NATO allies have also been annoyed by Trump’s repeated calls for them to increase military spending.
Poles, on the other hand, can expect only praise from Trump on their defense expenditures. A U.S. ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, Poland is one of the five NATO members that spends the expected 2 percent of gross domestic product on its military. The Poland-U.S. security relationship has also gotten a boost this year with the deployment of some 5,000 U.S. troops to Poland as part of two separate American and NATO missions. The deployments are meant to reassure allies on NATO’s eastern flank that the alliance is serious about protecting them from Russian aggression.
Many across the region hope to hear Trump commit himself to NATO’s Article 5, which says an attack on one member is an attack on all. After months of waffling on that defense pact, Trump finally did so in June standing alongside the Romanian president in the Rose Garden. Still, it would mean a lot to an anxious region to hear those words spoken on soil closer to Russia.
The hundreds of thousands of Polish-American voters in the United States represent an important constituency in several battleground states, and last year they helped give Trump the edge he needed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They will certainly be grateful for Trump’s visit to Warsaw, especially since he has chosen to address Poles at Krasinski Square, a location that symbolizes Polish heroism during World War II. That large square has a memorial to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a courageous but doomed uprising against Nazi Germany that resulted in more than 200,000 Polish deaths and the destruction of Warsaw.
During Trump’s visit to Warsaw, he will also attend a summit devoted to the Three Seas Initiative, an effort to expand and modernize energy and trade links among 12 countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas. One driving purpose of the initiative is to make the region less dependent on Russian energy. Under the project, U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which began arriving in Poland in early June, would have the potential to supply more of the region. The visit coincides with efforts by Trump’s administration to become a net exporter of oil, gas and other resources to boost U.S. revenues and influence.