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US foreign policy under the Trump administration often suffers from a bad press. So, in theory, an initiative to organise a ‘Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East’ on relatively neutral soil should elicit positive commentaries and bonus PR points. The above-named event did indeed take place in the capital of Poland, co-led by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Jacek Czaputowicz. But, contrary to its benevolent theme, it generated a chain of bad press and accusations of building a coalition against Iran, whose own representation at the conference was not desired. So, ‘instead of unifying its allies under a common cause … the Administration only highlighted the growing rift between the US and its Western European allies, and clumsily overshadowed the points of agreement regarding Iran’, wrote the CNN portal. However, notwithstanding the commentaries from liberal and non-Western media outlets, the organisers of the event hailed it as a success, with the adoption of a declaration on multiple working groups which will be created in pursuit of what is nicknamed the ‘Warsaw Process’.
Two key security policy aspects drove the US–Poland initiative. The US made sure to leverage its alliance with Poland to advance its goals in Europe. Both the Trump administration and the Law and Justice government in Poland are currently quite estranged from other key North Atlantic governments. When the US left the JCPOA – as the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is formally known – this was met with opposition from the UK, France and Germany, the European signatories of the deal. But the countries of Central and Eastern Europe remain largely indifferent to this dispute, having other key security priorities. What Poland is interested in is permanent presence of US troops on its soil, to ward off any potential Russian intervention, and that dictates staying close to the US and avoiding any disputes. Furthermore, the current government in Warsaw has also been traditionally sceptical of a more Euro-centric defence strategy, so it was not impressed by claims that the dispute about the survival of the JCPOA was an opportunity for the Europeans to stand together. Seen from this perspective, therefore, the organisation of a conference about the Middle East, even if it was perceived to be an anti-Iranian event, was seen by Warsaw as a small price to pay for strengthening diplomatic and defence relations with a key NATO ally.
At least on the diplomatic front, the cooperation between Poland and the US on organising the conference went well. The US elevated the prominence of the event with the visit of Vice President Mike Pence, who met with Poland’s President Andrzej Duda. Together they issued a joint press statement, after visiting American soldiers stationed in Poland. The signing of a contract for the delivery of a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System to Poland preceded those speeches. Last but not least, both leaders paid their respects to Holocaust victims at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in a possible nod to the sizeable Israeli delegation led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This brings us to the second key security outcome of the conference – Israel’s role and its uncommon alignment with the Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and the UAE, among others. As a BBC correspondent noted, a direct meeting of Israeli and Arab delegations at such a level was unprecedented since the Madrid talks in the 1990s. Poland proved a congenial host to both sides: Israel was allowed to say what it wanted without being criticised in return, while many Arab states re-forged their connections with Poland. Meanwhile, both Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo were also quite vocal in their contempt of Tehran.
Sadly, the conference drove a sharp wedge between the hawkish, conservative organisers and the rest of the West, which can only work against the common security interest of NATO. Many Western European countries sent low-key delegations to the event in order not to upset the already fragile JCPOA framework, while EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini was visibly absent. UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who attended the conference, was quoted saying that he was there specifically to discuss the state of affairs in Yemen, rather than the controversial matter of the JCPOA’s survival.
In addition, many EU and NATO states refused to echo the unwavering support that the US and Poland offered Israel, especially since the Palestinian authorities boycotted the meeting altogether.
Overall, the conference can be considered a short-term gain for the US on the Middle East, as well as contributing to the perception of Poland as winning bonus points in its quest for further security guarantees from the US. Although not on the same scale, the outcome is strangely reminiscent of events in 2003. Back then, Poland – already in NATO and soon to join the EU – was happy to offer its services to the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ in its invasion of Iraq, against the judgement of the much-dismayed EU decision-makers. On a smaller scale, it is doing something similar today.
Wojciech Pawlus is Counter-Proliferation Coordinator at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Downtown Warsaw, 2015. Courtesy of Wikipedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.