Henry Foy, The Financial Times, 09.07.2016
It was a carefully worded criticism – just 160 words long – that Barack Obama delivered to Poland’s government on Friday, as the US president used the NATO summit in Warsaw to rebuke the country’s right-wing ruling party for moves that have caused a constitutional crisis and seen it charged with endangering democracy.
But the subtle critique, which drew surprise among Polish journalists and anger among some ruling politicians, was months in the making, involved dozens of advisers and hours of discussions, which culminated in a late-night meeting on the eve of the speech and a critical intervention from former secretary of state Madeleine Albright.
Arriving in Warsaw ahead of the summit, Ms Albright conducted a whistle-stop tour of meetings around Poland’s capital to speak with members of the political opposition, leading journalists and the civil society group Committee to Defend Democracy (KOD), people involved with the talks told the FT. The fact-finding mission helped sway Mr Obama’s advisers into going ahead with the public admonishment of his hosts.
Speculation over whether Mr Obama would mention the political climate in Poland at the summit had been rife ever since his attendance was confirmed.
At question is a series of reforms by the broadly eurosceptic and nationalist Law and Justice party and supported by Polish president Andrzej Duda that have paralysed the country’s highest court, given it political control over public media channels and seen it stack the country’s civil service with supporters.
“I expressed to President Duda our concerns about certain actions and the impasse around Poland’s constitutional tribunal,” Mr Obama said in a speech after meeting with Mr Duda, as the Polish president stood next to him.
“And as your friends and ally we’ve urged all parties to work together to sustain Poland’s democratic institutions. That’s what makes us democracies, not just by the words written in constitutions or in the fact that we vote in elections, but the institutions we depend on every day, such as rule of law, independent judiciaries and a free press,” Mr Obama said. Mr Duda did not respond to the comment.
The decision on the wording was taken at a meeting the night before in Warsaw’s Marriott Hotel, involving secretary of state John Kerry and other senior advisers.
Some argued for Mr Obama to stay out of a domestic political issue and steer clear of potentially aggravating a divisive issue in Europe. Others stressed the need for him to remind Warsaw that Nato is an organisation for both defence and democracy – the argument that Ms Albright strongly supported, according to those briefed on the discussion. The latter camp prevailed.
In an interview with the FT, Ms Albright, who was US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 but is now a private citizen with a number of non-governmental roles, confirmed her meetings with Polish organisations, but said she was not acting in an official capacity.
“I have met with KOD and some journalists and I do think, and did think, that it is very important for there to be a clear message that NATO is not a military alliance but is also a way of supporting common values, and that was an important thing to say,” she said. “The President was terrific on that.”
“I am a private citizen,” she said. “I was not asked to do anything by the state department. But because I am who I was, I get briefings. But there is nothing official about what I have done.”
“I have had conversations,” she said, mentioning Obama administration officials such as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Victoria Nuland, who was part of the group that advised on Mr Obama’s speech. “I have had conversations, but nothing, nothing official.”
“Reading what [Mr Obama] said, I think he was absolutely right,” she added.
According to people who met with Mrs Albright on Thursday, they were “given the impression” by the former secretary of state that she was acting as an unofficial conduit for information to Mr Obama’s circle of advisers, including Mr Kerry and Mrs Nuland.
“She made it clear that she was on a fact-finding mission, and was using her ability to meet people and institutions that government officials would not be able to sit down with,” said one of the people who took part in the talks.
A person close to Mr Duda told the FT that they had expected Mr Obama to mention the constitutional court issue, but that the depth of his critique had been a surprise.