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Biden’s Diplomacy of Benign Neglect

By not rushing to call his counterparts in Poland and Ukraine, US President Joe Biden is signaling to democratic forces in both countries that they must first stand on their own two feet. The strategy already seems to be working in Ukraine, and it may eventually bear fruit in populist-ruled Poland, too.

WARSAW – US President Joe Biden is very familiar with both Poland and Ukraine. His decades of service as a United States senator and his eight years as vice president under Barack Obama taught him that the two countries are among America’s most devoted friends and allies. Yet he waited until April 2 – just as Russian troops were once again massing on Ukraine’s eastern border – to call Ukraine’s president, and he still has not spoken to his Polish counterpart.

Biden’s relative silence seems to speak of a policy of “benign neglect,” a term coined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was a domestic policy adviser to US President Richard Nixon. But whereas Moynihan wanted Nixon to avoid becoming entangled in America’s racial issues, Biden’s decision to keep Poland and Ukraine at a distance may seem surprising. Although Poland is sliding from liberal democracy into populist dictatorship, Ukraine is desperately trying to consolidate its democracy despite constant Russian meddling and threats. 

Moreover, even Poland’s illiberal government still tries to position the country as if it was America’s 51st state, with the US embassy in Warsaw playing a role similar to that of the Soviet embassy before 1989. During Donald Trump’s presidency, a mere phone call or tweet from then-US Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher was enough to make Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party suspend its plans to shut down critical media outlets like the private television network TVN24.

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