Polish Public Opinion on the United States and Polish-American Relations
24 LUT 2022
Aritra Deb / Shutterstock.com

This report summarises the key findings of two opinion polls commissioned by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in August 2021. The subject of both polls was the attitude of Poles towards the United States and various aspects of Polish-American relations.

The surveys were preceded by PISM analysts’ work on the development of a specific catalogue of interests and opportunities as well as problems and challenges in PolishAmerican relations. They were then grouped thematically into six categories and subjected to further sociological analysis and questions by public opinion researchers cooperating with PISM. The main issues examined by us included:
− the general attitude of Poles towards the United States;  
− the perception of the principles and strategic objectives of U.S. foreign policy;  
− the approach of Poles to security in bilateral relations with the United States;
− the perception of the style of American diplomacy in Poland;  
− Poles’ assessment of the bilateral economic and technological cooperation;  
− expectations of Poles towards the United States.
− The issues analysed are likely to remain relevant in bilateral relations both in the short and long term.

The question of Poles’ current attitude towards the United States has been repeatedly taken up in public opinion polls by domestic research centres, including the Public Opinion Research Centre’s (CBOS) survey on Poles’ sympathies and antipathies towards other nations, which has been conducted for more than two decades. The issue of perceptions of the current and previous U.S. presidential administrations have also been addressed within the broader and cyclical study “Transatlantic Trends” carried out by the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). This PISM report, however, is the first such comprehensive and public analysis focused exclusively on Poles’ perception of the United States, Poland’s key ally. We see this report as a first step towards future systematic and comparative studies of the attitude of Poles towards U.S. policies. We will aim to repeat such surveys every 2 to 3 years, which would allow us to capture elements of change or continuity in Polish public opinion’s perception of the United States.

It is important to emphasise that the survey revealed very good attitudes towards strengthening the relations in general, as well as in specific areas of Polish-American cooperation. Almost two-thirds of Poles have a positive attitude towards the United States, while more than half believe that since 1989 the two countries have been linked by “special ties”. Almost half of the respondents declare an interest in U.S. foreign policy. The level of responses indicating a generally positive assessment of the current state of bilateral relations, considered as based on partnership and serving common interests, was similar. Given the opportunity to indicate the most important ally, almost half of the surveyed Poles pointed to the United States (interestingly, one in five indicated “none”). The vast majority of Poles (62%) were convinced of the American will and readiness to react militarily in the event of a direct threat to Poland. There was also a strong preponderance (66%) of opinion among the respondents that the United States is right to demand that European NATO countries increase their national defence spending.

Paradoxically, the coincidence of our polls and the fall of the U.S. and NATO-backed Afghan authorities in Kabul did not really influence the respondents’ answers. On the contrary, the events in Afghanistan even strengthened Poles’ affinity for America and confidence in its security guarantees for allies such as Poland (see also the “Introduction” and “Background of the Study”). The emotionality and tone of some of the comments on the end of the mission in Afghanistan may reflect a gap between the perception of these events by Polish opinion-makers or media and the opinion of the Poles randomly surveyed at the same time. Nearly half of Poles (44%) believe that the United States remains a country that sets standards for democracy in the world, while only 10% express the opposite opinion. An even higher percentage of positive responses (jointly 72%) was noted in assessments of the importance of American investments in the Polish economy and benefits for Poland relating to the supplies of American liquefied natural gas (60%). Exactly half of the Poles surveyed also stated that the overall image of the United States in Poland has steadily improved over the past 20 years, with slightly fewer respondents (41%) expecting bilateral relations to improve in the future. Such high expectations are expressed despite the simultaneous conviction of Poles about the limited influence of Polish-Americans on U.S. domestic and foreign policy (only every tenth respondent consider this group highly influential). The above opinions confirm the belief long expressed by experts and media that Poles have a positive attitude towards the United States. Some of the answers given, however, make it clear that this is by no means an uncritically pro-U.S. approach. For example, Poles express a negative assessment of the decision of the Biden administration to lift U.S. sanctions related to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, with more than half considering it contrary to Polish interests. Most Poles (53%) are also against the possible deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Poland, regardless of the circumstances of this still very unlikely and hypothetical decision. Only 13% of Poles would accept the deployment of a nuclear arsenal in peacetime, while only one in four would allow it in times of a greater threat to Poland. This is one of the survey results that will require in-depth research as it opens up room for different interpretations (we assume that Poles’ attitude to nuclear weapons is similar to other European countries). Every second Pole (54%) expects that the acquisition of military equipment from the United States should always be linked to the creation of opportunities for the development of the Polish defence industry. It is also noteworthy that exactly three-fourths of the respondents expressed the belief that American troops deployed in Poland should be subject to Polish criminal law, while only 20% agreed that they should be subject to only American law (which is previously agreed and current). These responses, however, can be regarded as not particularly distinguishable from the views expressed by the populations of other U.S. allies where American troops are stationed. The results of the surveys on the perception of past deliveries of military equipment and the criminal immunity of U.S. forces in Poland require further attention from the authorities of both countries, ahead of action, especially given the potential for misunderstandings or ambiguities precisely against this background. Also noteworthy are those responses that may pose a challenge to the future bilateral relations between the United States and Poland. Above all, the survey revealed very serious generational differences. The youngest respondents (aged 18–24) show little interest in United States foreign policy and do not see the benefits of the Polish-American alliance. This generation also less frequently identifies the United States as Poland’s most important ally and thus sees no ‘special ties’ linking the two countries. The same group of respondents does not particularly care about the question of the country of origin of advanced technologies, and generally prefers Europe keeping distance from the multidimensional Sino-American rivalry. Interestingly, these opinions are expressed in tandem with the generally high support of the youngest Poles for Biden’s foreign policy. The issue of Europeans’ attitude to the growing Sino-American rivalry would undoubtedly also require further research in Poland and other European countries. At the same time, it would be accurate to claim the youngest Poles have little knowledge on the subject, stemming from their selection of “I don’t know” or neutral responses. This is the consequence of their low interest in international politics in general. However, the youngest respondents also seem quite susceptible to the current and future impact of China’s disinformation campaigns aimed at its American rival. This group, unlike previous generations of Poles, has no direct political experience shaping a positive image of the United States, for example, the direct memory of the U.S. support to the anti-communist opposition before 1989 or with Poland’s accession to NATO. Not all elements of U.S. security cooperation seem to be understood by Polish public opinion. Only 24% of respondents declared that they know the purpose of the U.S. antimissile base being built in Redzikowo. However, their answers to the subsequent question showed that they misperceived the purpose of this site, with only one in ten pointing to missile threats from Iran (correct answer), while the vast majority (64%) pointed to threats from Russia. More than a decade after this U.S.-NATO project began, these results demonstrate the low effectiveness of U.S. and allied public diplomacy communication. The results may also be linked to the relative effectiveness of Russian disinformation, which constantly presents the site in Redzikowo as being aimed precisely at Russia. The issue of clarifying the purpose of this component of the Atlantic Alliance missile defence system should be treated with more attention by decision-makers in Washington, Brussels, and Warsaw. Polish-American relations have a unique and very strong legitimacy among Poles. Taking into account the objective asymmetry of their potentials as well as the priorities and interests of both countries, it is clear that Poles appreciate the balance of the PolishAmerican cooperation to date, which also translates into cooperation in NATO, the UN, and other international bodies. However, the analysis of Poles’ responses to specific questions shows that this recognition is not due so much to sentiment or illusion about the nature of the “special ties” as it is to a common-sense understanding of the asymmetry and convergence/divergence of interests of the two countries, and even to the distance of Poles from certain decisions or priorities of a given administration in Washington. The already visible generational changes noted in the polls may in future bring an increase in the number of Poles critical of the United States, which currently are a small percentage of the respondents. This, in turn, would entail a parallel decline—although difficult to predict in terms of time and scale—in the level of Polish acceptance of American actions or the pursuit of specific interests in Poland and Central Europe. We encourage you to read this PISM report in its entirety, treating the results provided as a contribution to the discussion on various aspects of bilateral and transatlantic relations conducted both in Poland and in the U.S. 

Marcin Andrzej Piotrowski