Barbecues and ping-pong: President Barack Obama’s week-long European trip has hardly been a standard one, not least for the choice of destinations. Following visits to long-term US allies Ireland and the UK (today he heads to France), Team Obama touches down in Poland on Friday for a two day trip. It may be an unorthodox addition to the itinerary, but Poland could possibly prove to be the most crucial stop on his trip.
US-Polish defence cooperation will reportedly be one of the hottest issues during Obama’s first visit to Poland. Despite an earlier decision by Washington to put Bush-era missile defence plans on hold, American MIM-104 Patriot missile launchers have been deployed in rotation at two Polish military bases since last May.
Hopes are high in Warsaw that Obama’s trip could bring the much-awaited announcement of a further deepening of military ties. In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington could deploy an F-16 fighter unit to Poland.
But the proposal was condemned by Moscow. In spite of recent attempts by both countries to break the frosty impasse, Poland’s relations with Russia, its Soviet-era master, have remained decidedly cool over the years. The latter’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 angered decision-makers in Warsaw and numerous Polish politicians say boosting defence cooperation with the US is the best guarantee of their country’s borders.
“Poland rests its security on NATO, and this has made maintaining close relations with the US a strategic priority,” says Maciej Golubiewski, an expert from the Sobieski Institute, a Polish think-tank.
However, Poland’s mixed experiences over joining the US-led military coalition and sending its troops to Iraq and Afghanistan has diminished Poles’ trust in America. The fact that Washington has not scrapped visa requirements for its citizens, despite Poland’s staunch support for both military interventions, has been particularly resented in Warsaw.
“America is like an oil tanker, it does not change its course all of a sudden. The American policy towards our country has been stable… for 20 years. However, we have learnt quite recently to take proper care of our own interests,” Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski told daily Rzeczpospolita in an interview.
“Poland’s current government is not putting as much emphasis on bolstering ties with Washington as the former did. Instead, greater focus has been placed on the EU,” says Golubiewski.
Obama and local leaders will also discuss US investment in Poland’s recently discovered shale gas reserves which are said to be the largest in Europe. According to the US government-run Energy Information Administration (EIA), the country has nearly 5.3 trillion cubic metres of shale gas, enough to cover its gas needs for 300 years. Some of the world’s biggest oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, have purchased licences to drill for shale gas in Poland.