In desperate need of geopolitical thinking

The editor of leading daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita gives his view on Poland’s fractured foreign policy over the past 25 years.

In a book titled ‘Jaruzelski: A Paradoxical Life’ by Paweł Kowal and Mariusz Cieślik, which came out this year, there are a number of passages that stand out. The authors describe the way the elites of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL) handled its eastern neighbour. Naturally, everything east of the Elbe happened in the shadows and as prescribed by the Soviet Union. It was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that dictated politics and settled social, military and economic matters, while USS R’s leaders exerted constant pressure on the associated regimes. All of that is well known, but it is shocking how the question of “what will the Soviets say?” loomed over nearly every decision – and all the indecision – of Poland’s rulers.

The question was not always answered quickly. That’s why the PRL was like a giant bound by a million ropes. Without some extra slack it could barely move. The ropes were in the hands of the Kremlin. It was the constant question of how it would respond that prevented the leaders of the socialist states from making any risky moves. Meanwhile, Moscow either kept silent or made more or less unintelligible gestures.
Rarely, particularly after Khrushchev, did they make direct threats. More likely they sent signals of mild annoyance, pieces of ‘friendly’ advice or veiled threats.

Poland’s tragedy was that the fear and inability to act translated into a complete standstill while the country fell into ruin. It wasn’t until Gorbachev’s perestroika that Poland received a clear signal from the Soviets: you’re on your own. We are backing off. And then it started.

Shadow of the red cloud

After the revolution of 1989 both those who had been removed from power and those who took over were children of the Polish People’s Republic. They were raised under the shadow of the same red cloud. They were accustomed to fear and evasion. That is, I believe, what slowed down Poland’s political changes and the process of settling the score with communism. We wanted to get rid of socialism, but were still afraid of Moscow’s response. There were still thousands of Soviet soldiers stationed in Poland. We were bound by a web of Comecon-era economic relations. The former could give us a bloodbath, while the latter could starve us. We needed Lech Wałęsa’s boldness and courage to send the Red Army back home and knock on NATO’s and the EU ’s doors, which up till then had been firmly shut. It soon turned out that the doors were open wider than we had expected. Polish political elites were in awe: we could act without restraint.
And yet, something from the previous trauma remained. Wasn’t that the reason why the US forced the rulers of the Republic of Poland to grant their CIA bases in Kiejkuty nearly full sovereignty? Weren’t they so eager to surrender sovereignty over a piece of Polish land because they were afraid of the American response? Had a new Big Brother replaced the old one in their minds? The result was that we were treated like a banana republic, where you could do things that were banned in civilized countries such as the US , like torture. It’s not about whether these acts were justified in the fight against terrorism, but that they were impossible in the US , but not Poland. All because of the Polish elites’ semi-colonial mentality.

Lingering traces

It has been a quarter century since the transformation, and now a new generation has grown up. There are new ways of thinking. The trauma of the past should have gone by with the generation of the founding fathers, but its traces still linger. You can still see the ropes binding the giant.

Let’s go back to the year 1999. Poland is joining NATO. Polish television is showing historic images of the Polish flag being raised at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. In Warsaw, the navy blue banner of the alliance is fluttering. Brussels breathes a sigh of relief that the Warsaw Pact has finally been broken. Warsaw breathes a sigh of relief: we are safe. But are we really? Poland gains the status of a member of the alliance, but the alliance has already made engagements that discriminate against its new members. The “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation” of 27 May 1997 excludes the possibility of creating new bases on their territory and cuts them
off from nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether we, back then in late 1990s, want bases and nukes. The deal excludes that possibility and makes us a buffer zone. It’s a paradox: as a member we are bound to meet all our obligations towards our partners, but our rights are severely limited. Are there historical analogies? It’s not too hard to find them.

Now the year is 2004, the sunny, early days of May. All of Warsaw is celebrating Poland’s EU accession. “Poland is returning home,” say politicians. After short transition periods the freedom to travel, work and invest will finally make us a part of ‘the West’. From now on, there will be nothing but development. Really? It was hard to grasp back then but now it’s clear. Integration without adopting the euro will forever push us into the background. Our own currency offers the short-term advantage of flexibility. But in the larger perspective it means lower credibility. To make up for it, we would have to be a real economic tiger. But we are not. Slovenia joins the euro zone in 2007, Slovakia in 2009, the Baltics join between 2011 and 2015. Poland won’t move forward. The prospects for joining the euro zone are passing us by, along with the right social climate for it. Where would we be now had we decided to adopt the euro quickly back in 2004? The question will remain unanswered.
The euro matter has been shelved. Poland is no longer undecided – it says a firm “no.” I see this as a means to a selfdestructive end, increasing the distance to the centre of our “planetary system” that is Germany and France.

The Siberian bear awakes

Finally, Russia. The Siberian bear woken up by Vladimir Vladimirovich. The strangest country in the world. A military power whose most recent success was the heroic conquest of South Ossetia and the bloodless accession of the Crimea, as well as ‘playing stupid’ in eastern Ukraine. “We’re not really there” shouts KGB colonel Putin over the voices of media from all over the globe that have already proven Moscow’s involvement in the conflict. At the same time, Russia bans Polish apples and pork, and condemns itself to isolation and economic sanctions. Putin may be the only guarantee against anarchistic revolt and kleptocracy in Russia, but his politics is too near to the standards set by his great ally, Kim Jong-Un, the ugliest dictator in the world. All of this is happening right next door, but we don’t have a missile shield, nor do we have NATO bases. Americans come and will continue to come here, but the 1997 deal with Russia still holds.

At the same time, the issue of refugees shows how horribly undecided we are. Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz is in favour of Poland taking in refugees when she is in the country and against bringing them in when she is outside of it. The leader of the opposition uses phrases straight out of the manual of a xenophobe. The Christian nation puts its (illusory) safety ahead of the teachings of Christ, while politicians racing for parliamentary seats treat this crucial issue as a tool to elective office.

We are on our own

Poland needs to think more in terms of geopolitics. To be clear, it’s not only about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defence. Geopolitics is also, or maybe mainly, a clear point of reference for decisions and policies within the country. Without a geopolitical
reflection, there is no debate about the national interest. Looking at it from within is a fundamental mistake. We need to look it from outside and over time. That’s why the call for think tanks to become more active in the field seems to me to be essential.

We need to make up our minds on the implications for our national interest in European matters such as the Grexit and Brexit. Each perspective ought to be thoroughly analysed: what it means, how it can pose a threat and what opportunities it may bring. The conclusions of these discussions should become our contribution to the policies of the major international communities we are a part of. We need to play our own game and promote our own ideas. We need to be the smart kid in Europe, not the slow one. And we can’t wait for any Soviets or Americans, because we are and always will be on our own with our problems.

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