Adding insult to injury has become a trademark of President’s Obama policies regarding Poland and other Central and Eastern European (CEE) states. After several political jabs and diplomatic mishaps, including referring to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish death camps,” he has created considerable tension in relations between the U.S. and the region. Of course, the administration’s lack of commitment to strengthening ties with CEE in the short run is a far greater problem for CEE than for the U.S. Still, Obama’s policies regarding Russia and the CEE states seem to consist in eschewing some old, faithful allies without acquiring new ones. In the long run, the decline of American influence in the region and the failure of the Russian “reset” will undermine the U.S.’s strategic foreign-policy goals.
“What on earth happened to Sikorski, why has he become so pro-German and pro-EU all of a sudden?” I was recently asked by a renowned British journalist and writer known for his skepticism toward the European Union and his support for the Anglosphere. “He thinks that Barack Obama may be reelected” was my immediate answer.
Indeed, until last year, Radek Sikorski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs and Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s most trusted adviser on international matters, was known to be one of the most Atlantic-oriented politicians in Europe. He was educated at Oxford; he wrote for National Review; he was a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and he is happily married to Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize–winning American writer. Formerly the Polish minister of defense, Sikorski has supported the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan and Poland’s participation in both operations.
This commitment to alliance with the U.S. was neither well understood nor welcomed in Western Europe (especially in Paris and Berlin), and it was not fully backed by the Polish public. Before 2011, Sikorski and other leading Polish politicians were frank about their belief that the European Union is merely an economic pact and that only their alliance with the U.S. could guarantee geopolitical security. This was the view of other CEE states as well. Their leaders were convinced that Russia’s rekindled ambitions were a threat to the region’s stability; their concerns grew, understandably, after the 2008 war in Georgia. But for no good strategic reason, the bulk of NATO’s defense facilities and troops have remained idly stationed in Germany, still burdening American taxpayers. Even today, CEE states host no significant NATO bases.
For Sikorski and other pro-American CEE politicians, the signing of a missile-defense pact in 2008 between the U.S., Poland, and the Czech Republic was a strategic success. The system had technical limitations and was never designed to render the region impervious to a potential Russian attack. But an increased American presence in any form would serve as proof that the U.S. was committed to the region’s security. The pact specifically involved locating U.S. anti-missile defenses in Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic. The system was designed to take down a limited number of warheads. It was assumed they would probably be from Iran.
In Poland, the pact was signed by Sikorski and Condoleezza Rice in August 2008. Russia reacted immediately, threatening a new arms race and establishing a hypothetical strategic plan to destroy the missile shield. “Poland cannot go unpunished,” said the hawkish General Anatoly Nogovitsyn. In 2011, Obama unilaterally broke the pact when he announced that no elements of the missile-defense system would be deployed in the two countries and that the U.S. would collaborate more closely with Russia on “defense” issues. Moscow officially expressed its satisfaction.
Granted, in times of economic crisis, political leaders are apt to make problematic decisions. Also, Russian cooperation is crucial to carrying out the American mission in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, a contentious gesture toward old allies should have been accompanied by some form of reassurance. Instead, the Obama administration treated the CEE states to an unadulterated serving of political brutality and diplomatic insensitivity. The administration’s reversal of its decision to locate the missile-defense system in the two CEE countries was communicated to them abruptly. Mention of the reversal was made in a telephone conversation with the president of the Czech Republic and was not preceded by any special consultations.
The official announcement came on September 17, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. The timing did not go unnoticed in CEE or in Russia. Furthermore, no attempt was made to move even some of the idle troops and equipment from German bases to CEE. True, such a move was not a part of the missile-defense pact with Poland and the Czech Republic, but such a gesture would have both curbed CEE’s disappointment and dampened Russia’s triumph. The administration paid little heed to an open letter from former presidents and diplomats of the region’s states that urged Obama not to forget about America’s allies and voiced concern over Russia’s resurgent imperialism. The document was signed by, among others, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Daniel Rotfeld.
Rotfeld, a senior Polish diplomat and a Holocaust survivor, recently had to endure yet another lapse of tact from the White House. In May, he was appointed to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom that was being posthumously awarded to Jan Karski, the man who first informed the West of the Shoah. During the ceremony, Obama referred to “Polish death camps,” thereby insulting Rotfeld’s lifelong effort to expunge the misleading expression from public discourse and to stress that Poland had been occupied by German Nazis who built death camps to exterminate Polish Jews as well as other Poles and Europeans.
The diplomatic faux pas was widely reported by the mainstream media, reminding the public about other recent stumbles in CEE-American relations. Thus, the “death camp” remark in itself was of little long-term significance, but it was an opportunity to publicly debate some growing concerns that could lead to a shift in foreign policies across the region. Poland and CEE in general have to make some difficult choices as they consider the impact of cooler treatment from the U.S., the prospect of a partial collapse of the EU, and Russia’s diplomatic bullying. Moscow’s failure to sufficiently cooperate in the investigation of the Smolensk airplane crash, which led to the death of the Polish president and several other top-tier politicians, is a further complication. Given all that, the region’s states will naturally seek closer ties with Germany. Fortunately for Warsaw and other CEE capitals, the net value of trade between Germany and CEE still remains higher than the value of trade between Germany and Russia.
After the U.S.’s decision to relocate the missile shield, the Atlanticist rhetoric that used to mark Sikorski’s speeches disappeared from them. In response to U.S. fickleness, he and Tusk shifted Poland’s diplomatic tone. In a meeting in November in Berlin, Sikorski called Germany “Europe’s indispensable nation.” “You may not fail to lead,” he told German leaders. “Not dominate, but to lead in reform. Provided that you include us in decision-making, Poland will support you.” This statement, tantamount to an endorsement of iron-fist rule by Germany in turbulent times, foreshadowed Polish support for a new Mitteleuropa established on the ruins of the old EU.
From the Polish point of view, such an arrangement, although somewhat humiliating, is preferable to the kind of heavy Russian influence that has engulfed Belarus and Ukraine. Russian-style political culture is unbearable for countries that aspire to Western-style democracy. It appeals mainly to authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states and even, one could argue, encourages their development. In their recent work on competitive authoritarianism, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way dub this phenomenon the “black knight” effect.
And so CEE elites regard the possibility of German domination as the lesser evil. It might concern them, however, that Germany’s ties with Russia have grown stronger ever since Gerhard Schroeder’s notorious chancellorship from 1998 to 2005. Russia’s vast natural-gas supplies are, for clearly political reasons, sold to Germany at a significantly reduced price compared to what CEE pays. Partly because of these special Russo-German ties, CEE leaders steer clear of provocative rhetoric toward Russia. In a difficult geopolitical situation, they do not want to openly oppose the Russian Federation. Wanting to be seen as Germany’s political clients, they conduct their Russian affairs through Berlin, which provides some protection from the bullying tactics of the eastern giant. Moreover, Berlin is strong enough to be immune to the black-knight effect and is expected to defend its immediate sphere of influence.
Being stuck between Germany and Russia has always been the predicament of the whole CEE. In recent history Czechs, Hungarians, Balts, and Slovaks invariably chose the German side — if they still had a choice — when worst came to worst. Twice in their history, Poles have tried to be independent, paying in both cases an unacceptable price.
As CEE elites are doing their best not to repeat the mistakes of the past, the U.S. government is apparently repeating the diplomatic maneuver that Franklin D. Roosevelt performed in Yalta, where he agreed to a wobbly alliance with the U.S.S.R., sealing the fate of Central and Eastern Europe. This time, though, CEE is not completely defenseless. It’s merely discouraged. Faced with U.S. and NATO indifference, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have recently decided, as an additional precaution, to develop independent military initiatives that would operate outside of official NATO structures. Such preparations, however, appear futile: The region’s strong economic growth and the fact that the Polish economy was relatively unharmed as other European economies fell into recession mean that, unlike the Greeks, citizens of CEE still have the purchasing power necessary to buy manufactured goods from Germany. But they do not have the military and military muscles to protect their geopolitical interests. This makes the scenario of becoming Germany’s satellite highly probable.
The U.S. must understand that at this rate it could end up having no close allies in continental Europe or, for that matter, in most of Eurasia, except for England, Turkey, and Japan, which are powerful but located on the rims of the vast Eurasian landmass. Germany and France have long ceased to provide any military or political support for new U.S. defense policies. At the same time, the “reset” strategy failed to soften the Russian regime, which has become increasingly undemocratic and oppressive: Witness Putin’s engineered transition back to the presidency and the recent crackdown on opposition protests.
Obama’s policies have hardly improved relations between Russia and the U.S. Putin recently rejected Obama’s invitation to the G8 summit at Camp David, choosing to visit the Russian-occupied areas of Georgia instead. The message is plain: The U.S. decision to scrap the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic was perceived as a sign of weakness that Moscow could exploit.
Russia’s goal now is to convince the U.S. to abandon the missile-defense program altogether and to accept Russia’s undisputed hegemony in Central Asia and the Caucasus and over states such as Ukraine and Belarus. An impudent escalation of demands after a conciliatory gesture is a practice very much in line with the historical habit of Russian politics, and with Putin’s desire to maintain his strongman image at home.
Moreover, Obama may not be able to reset the “reset” policies, especially after having already antagonized CEE. Germany may win the day by achieving both strategic alliance with Russia and close ties with CEE states concerned by Russia’s growing power.
And this is merely the beginning of the U.S.’s geopolitical problems. On June 5, Russia and China signed a number of economic agreements and have vowed to tighten their cooperation at the U.N. and on international matters generally. Among other things, this means sustained gridlock on the civil war in Syria. Indeed, if one adds China to the Eurasian equation, it becomes clear that, in the long run, a vast Euro-Asiatic coalition stretching from Brittany to Sakhalin is plausible. It is probable that such a coalition would effectively countervail against U.S. power.
George Friedman argues in his latest book that preventing an expansionist agenda consisting of European technology joined to Asian resources has been an important goal of American foreign policy for almost a century — and that, in this regard, little will change in the near future. According to Friedman, in order to prevent the grand Eurasian coalition, the U.S. must cooperate with small and medium-sized countries, particularly those in Scandinavia and in Central and Eastern Europe between the Baltic and the Black Seas (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania) – countries uneasy about the growing ambitions of Euro-Asiatic super-weight players. .
“If Poland believes that it is a bargaining chip,” Friedman writes, commenting on recent developments in U.S. foreign policy, “it will become unreliable, and thus in the course of the next decade the United States might get away with betraying Poland only once. Such a move could be contemplated only if it provided some overwhelming advantage, and it is difficult to see what that advantage could be, given that maintaining a powerful wedge between Germany and Russia is of overwhelming interest to the Unites States.”
Without American support for a “wedge” policy, Prime Minister Tusk and Foreign Minister Sikorski will act as pragmatic politicians should and side with Germany. But I understand my British friend’s surprise at the shift in their rhetoric and policies. After all, Polish political culture is much closer to the Anglosphere’s republican tradition than it is to the Russian autocratic or the German bureaucratic model.
Poland was the second nation after the U.S. to adopt a written constitution; it did so barely four years after the Philadelphia convention. The internally unstable Polish republic did not long weather the political storms that are so frequent in CEE, and the demise of the first Polish state was accompanied by the dismemberment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Not long before, this political body had been one of the most populous European states. In the 17th century, it granted a wider franchise than England and did not base it on a property census. Western historians often forget that the Polish parliament passed its own version of habeas corpus 250 years before the English did.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or Republic of Two Nations, as it called itself, is explicitly mentioned in five of the Federalist Papers. Mentions of it there are sometimes critical, but they suggest that the American Founders saw between the two young nations a similarity that invited deeper comparison. The authors of the Federalist Papers demonstrate an impressive expertise in Polish and Central European history and culture. As the Founders admit, their aim was to facilitate the creation of another federal republic, one that avoided the flaws of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but resembled it in trying to govern a large territory and a large population through elected offices.
Learning from history is a practice that the current U.S. administration might want to revive. Most of the world’s population is historically conscious and does not inhabit a postmodern wonderland where, as if by pressing a button, one can “reset” long decades of complex relations between nations. Conversely, a seasoned superpower that is successfully ahistorical in its foreign policy would be hard to imagine. After committing enough blunders, the elites of the superpower might watch as players that otherwise would never cooperate come together to form a coalition to diminish its influence.
— Michael Kuz is an instructor at the political-science department of Louisiana State University. He was named Bernard Marcus Fellow by the Institute for Humane Studies in 2011–12 and is an active member of the Philadelphia Society.