President Obama may be unpopular in Central and Eastern Europe, but only for speaking the truth about the inevitability of American disengagement. Mitt Romney cannot count on a warm welcome in Warsaw if he pretends this disengagement is reversible.
During his week away, of course, the US presidential hopeful will be mainly concerned to mobilise America’s overseas voters, lightening some wallets along the way. But he wants to do so against a backdrop of cheering foreigners.
That explains the choice of Poland for the grand finale of his tour. Whilst it may not be home to too many American citizens with full purses, Poland has certainly been marked down as a red state on the extended map of America.
Staunch allies of Washington during the run-up to the Iraq War, the Poles were famously annoyed by President Obama’s cancellation of the American missile-defence programme in Central and Eastern Europe and by the President’s recent, flat-footed comments on the Holocaust.
It sounds, then, like a sure thing for Mitt. Yet, Poland is unlikely to provide the pictures the campaign needs, and it’s not just because Warsaw is virtually empty of people during the holiday season.
For one thing, Poles are not currently minded to distinguish between different brands of American politician. If Governor Romney comes and bashes the incumbent’s record, he simply risks fuelling a blanket atlantiscepticism.
For another, Europeans have got wise to American electoral diplomacy. If a candidate makes a point of visiting a place during an election campaign, they know he expects this to be the highpoint of his popularity in the region. He will not be back any time soon.
Add to this the fact that Varsovians have an inkling of what is expected of them by the Romney team, and it jars with their own self-perception. They do not want to find themselves painted as the people of 20 years ago, hungry for American-style liberty and leadership.
There is, in short, an understanding that American disengagement from the region is irreversible rather than a question of political choice, and people here have no reason to prop up a fantasy. Times have moved on and so have the Poles.
This shift in thinking will be music to the ears of a government keenly trying to recalibrate its foreign policy. After the initial shock of the missile-defence cancellation, the government in Warsaw has accepted the idea of US disengagement first grudgingly and then with rather more enthusiasm.
Its recognition that Poland must stand on its own two feet has already paid off, allowing the government to develop a healthier and less deferential relationship with the US. This in turn has led to progress on thorny issues such as visa requirements for Poles visiting the States.
But it has also required of Poland a more significant investment in the shaky European Union. The logic is clear, if harder to sell: in an unforgiving international environment, the EU needs to be reformed and strengthened so that it is capable of providing security for its members.
With its economy growing, and defence spending fixed by law at 1.95% of GDP, Poland believes it can play a key role in that process. Yet, it also knows that its defence capabilities are rather small, and that its European partners are still more useful to it than it is to them.
Romney’s visit thus comes at an acutely sensitive moment. If he pretends that the US is still prepared to invest politically and militarily in the region, he could do lasting damage to Poland’s ambitions: he would raise popular doubts about the real necessity of investing in the EU, and he would give rise to suspicions about Poland’s commitment to the EU amongst its partners.
A weakened US badly needs a strong Poland in a strong EU. Will Governor Romney have the nerve to admit it?