The last leg of a world tour by US Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney took him to Warsaw yesterday (31 July). Romney’s trip highlighted the stereotypic view with which Poland and the US tend to view each other, and illustrated how these mutual images – redolent of the heady days when Poland passed from communist control – bring nostalgic comfort to both countries in a period of anxiety, writes Roderick Parkes.
"Communication at high-level foreign visits tends to be rather rudimentary. It relies on that improvised miming usually reserved for holidays abroad – all grins and smiles and gurning between people who do not speak the same language and are probably rather fed up with each other.
This being an exercise in domestic electoral campaigning, Mitt Romney’s visit to Warsaw took it to extremes. It was a facsimile of America meeting a facsimile of Poland. Neither version bore much resemblance to the real thing. And this was precisely as it should have been.
On stage was a presidential candidate straight from the Hollywood studios. The campaign’s advance team had arrived a week earlier with a large bag of stardust, and some campaign dollars. Warsaw’s sound engineers and lighting technicians, enjoying an otherwise peaceful summer, hadn’t stood a chance.
Over the course of a weekend, the local university library was transformed into an American electoral hustings. Somewhere in the background stood a solitary blue flag with gold stars. But it was out of place. For one afternoon only, this was still a unipolar world.
Poland fell politely into its role too. Tuesday’s Poland was one which had just been freed from oppressive rule and was on its way to becoming a vibrant, free-market economy. Any mention of the radical market reforms the Communists themselves had introduced in 1988 would have seemed suddenly ahistorical. Any mention of the intervening 20 years, even more so.
Even the unforeseen events fitted the narrative. On the Polish side these were clumsily old-fashioned – the American journalist whose passport had found its way on to a black list and who narrowly avoided being frog-marched away by unsmiling guards; her colleague who leaned against the back-rail of the photographers’ podium only to discover there wasn’t one.
And on the American side, the mishaps were somehow glamorous. Romney losing track of time and nonchalantly arriving ten minutes late for his own address; the banners carefully flown in from the US on Monday and frantically reprinted overnight after an ideas-person decided the speech was not about “Liberty and Democracy” after all, but about “Freedom and Democracy”.
Of course it is clearly stretching the truth to claim, as Romney did, that Poland has no better friend in the world than the US: Poland’s closest friends are in the European Union. And it is clumsy to point out, as Romney did, that Poland’s economy is roaring ahead of the rest of Europe, as if this were a bonus for a country heavily linked to its neighbours.
Yet it seems churlish to bring too much reality into what was a pleasant exercise in nostalgia. For both sides, the pleasure of the meeting lay in pretending that they were still exactly as the other wanted them to be, and that the world had not changed since they last met a generation ago.
Moreover, history has a way of tripping up cynics. US President Ronald Reagan’s noted tear-down-this-wall speech (delivered in June 1987) was also considered anachronistic when it was delivered – an exercise in wishful thinking by a US in decline. Only later was it re-evaluated. Who knows how Polish-American relations will develop?
But all the same, the readiness to indulge in nostalgia does highlight how low the stakes in this once vital transatlantic relationship have become. The audience yesterday did not come seeking genuine reassurance or real answers from the American, and he did not feel the need to provide them.
Poles were not, for instance, much interested to learn how a Republican administration would engage in Europe’s east, nor indeed how it would deal with the destabilising influence of the real wave of Freedom and Democracy sweeping the south. For his part, Romney had probably not considered Poland except as a backdrop.
The visit was noteworthy only for the fact that Governor Romney ended up falling victim to the same nostalgia which he was seeking to exploit: if they were ungenerous in their coverage, it is in no small part because the 35 captive US journalists flown in by the campaign had also hoped to find a world where enthusiastic crowds still turn out for visiting American dignitaries.
Their criticism of Romney had nothing to do with his gaffes—they simply wanted a palatable explanation for the US’s diminished status in the world. Yet no amount of campaign magic can hope to bring the 80s back."