Did Trump Chose Poland as His First Stop to Upset Merkel?

Donald Trump in front of the Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasinski Square during the Three Seas Initiative Summit in Warsaw, Poland, July 6, 2017. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

President Trump's first visit to Poland, ahead of the G20 Summit, has been called a soft ball, a chance to visit a friendly, right-leaning nation and receive a warm welcome.

But that understates the potential for the visit. More than just an easy first stop, it is a chance for the United States to seize the moment by strengthening military ties with Poland and other Central and Eastern European nations and helping Poland continue to acquire energy independence.

In choosing to visit Poland, as opposed to more western allies, such as the UK or Germany, the White House raised more than a few eyebrows. Poland's ruling party, Law and Justice, has, under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, pursued a problematic domestic agenda, seen by critics as an effort to consolidate power, and it has been at odds with the EU's vision of what constitutes appropriate democratic practice.

By flying to Warsaw, some fear President Trump will upset the unsteady relationship between Poland and its democratic neighbors — not surprising or unreasonable given the President's own penchant for tossing gasoline on existing political fires.

However legitimate those concerns may be, President Trump will also arrive in Poland at a moment of real opportunity. Partly in response to America's support for its democratic aspirations in the closing decade of the Cold War, Poland has been one of our staunchest allies.

Its troops have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and last year it sent troops and aircraft to aid in the fight against ISIS. Moreover, it will join Romania in hosting a missile defense site, for which work has already begun, to protect the alliance.

The US currently has some 900 troops in Poland, and the Poles have allowed the US to use their territory as the staging ground and headquarters location for the rotational armored brigade deployed as part of the European Reassurance Initiative. It has also hosted multinational military exercises with NATO allies. But the US and NATO can do more to expand cooperation with Poland.

The Poles appear willing to support an even larger NATO presence; the administration should jump at the opportunity. They should work with their Polish counterparts to strengthen military interoperability, encourage joint basing and exercises, and provide expedited access for Warsaw to top-end American military platforms and weapon systems.

NATO has rightly increased its deterrent posture against Russia over the past two years. But it's far from sufficient, as any number of war games and crisis simulations have attested to. Poland can and should play a more prominent role in bolstering NATO's defenses on its Eastern Front.

Beyond military matters, Poland has also sought to decrease its reliance on Russian gas and recently accepted the first delivery of US liquefied natural gas (LNG). Building on the momentum of that shipment will, reportedly, be a priority of the President's visit.

Increasing US shipments of LNG to Poland could further energy security and, in conjunction with new pipelines joining Poland to neighboring allies, begin to decrease Moscow's leverage in the region.

As such, President Trump's decision during his visit to Warsaw on Thursday to meet with regional leaders at a summit of the "Three Seas Initiative" — an effort to improve trade, infrastructure, and energy links among the 12 nations between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas — is an important step.

What President Trump will actually say in Poland is up in the air. According to National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the President will "celebrate Poland's emergence as a European Power" and "lay out a vision, not only for America's future relationship with Europe, but the future of our trans-Atlantic alliance."

But other reports have the President focusing not only on Poland's rise but also its perseverance in maintaining its national identity and contrasting it with the so-called globalist outlook of other Europeans that some in the White House think is the death knell of Western Civilization.

If the latter, the headlines will just tell how the President has picked another fight with Berlin, Paris, and Brussels, and the speech will do little to move the ball forward when it comes to increasing alliance efforts to beef up deterrence in the East; indeed, it may be counterproductive.

If the former, as important and grand as his words might be, given the President's penchant for bombast, allies will be looking for more. It might give Law and Justice a moment's pleasure but, absent concrete plans on how to move forward on the security front, the speech will be only that.

Gary Schmitt is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI and the director of AEI's Program on American Citizenship. He is a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and was executive director of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during President Ronald Reagan's second term.