How Trump Embarrassed Poland
The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.
Tuesday, September 18, was to culminate in resounding diplomatic success for the Polish President Andrzej Duda. But instead, the news of his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump was partly drowned out by cries of outrage and ridicule back home. So, what went wrong?
The official photograph of the two presidents in the Oval Office shows a stern, stately Mr. Trump seated at his desk, while the Polish President leans against it standing up, signing the document with an awkward smile. The picture––tweeted by the White House––spread like wildfire across Polish media. Although the backlash was strongest in pro-opposition outlets, it was certainly not contained to any one party––the Polish people at large felt their national pride was hurt. The slogan of the ruling party, that Poland is finally “rising from its knees,” didn’t help.
Twitter swarmed with half-joking, half-indignant photos comparing the former Polish presidents vis-à-vis their American counterparts, smiling, patting each other on the backs.
Lech Wałęsa, famed Polish freedom fighter and the first President of post-Soviet Poland, compared his own photos with Mr. Trump with the photo tweeted by the White House, adding the caption, “Find the difference.”
There were even photos of President Trump and Kim Jong-Un seated opposite one another, signing a joint declaration at the Summit in Singapore. Judging by this popular reaction, what many in Poland saw last week was blatant disrespect from the American President for not providing a chair––i.e. equal status––to the Polish President, who in turn looked meak and undignified for not requesting one. But is that the whole picture?
Translation: “The people change, the times change.”
Polish-American relations are, in fact, at a high point.
The Polish ruling Law & Justice party, which elevated Mr. Duda to presidency in 2015, has made it clear that it prefers to work with the U.S. far away than with the European Union in its neighborhood.
President Duda and then-prime minister Beata Szydlo hosted President Trump in Warsaw back in 2017.
The visit, according to Mr. Trump, made a lasting impression of hospitality and candor. It was “an experience I will always treasure and I will never, ever forget,” he declared during the joint press conference on Tuesday.
As the two talked about the new strategic partnership between the U.S. and the Republic of Poland, Mr. Trump was more straight-forward: “I’m thrilled to say that the alliance between our nations has never been stronger, with you and I at the helm,” then he turned directly to Mr. Duda, adding, “Do you agree with that?”
The latter leaned in to the microphone nodding and said, “Yes,” in English. President Duda’s enthusiasm was reciprocated, and reflected both nations’ enthusiasm about joint cooperation for major foreign policy breakthroughs. In attempts to dispel the anguish back home, Mr. Duda posted more favorable photos of himself and the Polish First Lady with President Trump and First Lady Melania. So much for the disrespect.
However, Mr. Duda may find the charge of paying court to Mr. Trump a bit harder to dodge.
Afterall, he did ask, following up on the Polish Foreign Ministry’s official proposal, for a brand new U.S. military base near Warsaw and promised to call it “Fort Trump.” The name was not mentioned in the written offer, but one cannot deny the appeal. He proudly reminded Mr.Trump of the Polish contribution of blood and treasure to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which were highly controversial in Poland then and remain so to this day.
But the biggest tribute, and one that is likely to resonate with President Trump’s dealmaker mindset, is the whopping $2 billion that the Polish government is willing to pay for “Fort Trump.” Unlike the photo, this exorbitant amount did not make all the headlines in Poland last week.
As for etiquette, it doubtless would have been more prudent for Mr. Duda to present himself as a leader of a proud and independent state and a peer to any U.S. President. Perhaps, a more solemn, dignified look would better complement the magnanimous offer Mr. Duda brought with him to the White House on Tuesday. The Polish President was certainly not on his knees, in short, but he wasn’t exactly on equal footing with his counterpart either.