Poland and the Baltic states cannot be permitted to exploit American military engagement in Eastern Europe as a means of driving a permanent wedge between NATO and Russia. A permanent discord between NATO and Russia will only add yet another costly volatile region to the world’s growing list of concerns.
Many of NATO’s anxious Eastern European members are hoping that the United States pledges permanent American boots on the ground during the Alliance’s upcoming summit in Warsaw, Poland. The Eastern European’ anxiety is understandable given not only the current crisis in Ukraine, but their long history of troubles with Russia. Yet this very history breeds paranoia and makes some in Eastern Europe prone to miscalculation and exaggeration of potential threats. It is up to the United States of America, as a mature democracy versed in the delicate diplomacy that has secured peace in Europe ever since 1945, to once again play a constructive role that will placate both Eastern European and Russian security concerns, thereby serving American interests and promoting American ideals.
Those of us concerned about the direction of US foreign policy in the region have been on the losing side of key political battles in recent years. When Poland established the Eastern Partnership to bring Ukraine and several other former Soviet Republics into the European Union, we warned that the Union required internal reform first, and that no progress could be made in its eastern expansion if this expansion were perceived as antagonistic to Moscow. We argued for internal reform and for an Eastern partnership which begins with good relations with the strongest of Eastern capitals: Moscow.
When our opponents ignored our advice and plunged headlong into a street revolution in Ukraine, we warned that it would end in disaster, in war. That war is now upon us. The disaster is here. The logic of a regional European war has brought us to the next step: the inevitable escalation of military buildup in the region. This step, while regrettable, is unavoidable. None of us wants the escalation that the NATO summit promises to bring, but because the war in Ukraine came, the escalation of military tensions necessarily follows. While it is tempting to lay blame, we must press on and work with the political reality we have in favor of the outcomes we desire.
Under present conditions, the outcome of the NATO summit is a known factor and the summit itself is not a matter of political interest (barring surprises). All of the important decisions that the summit will serve to implement have been made long ago. As a practical matter, the NATO summit will primarily be grand political theatre, which the present Polish government will attempt to turn to its future electoral advantage. In spite of the fact that the Summit was arranged for by the previous Polish government, the current one is more than happy to present the Summit as their own achievement, a coronation of their promises to secure American military support for their aims.
The Polish government’s elation will be short lived. It will not get permanent NATO bases, but only persistent rotations. It will not get the proverbial Patton’s 3rd Army, but merely one NATO battalion which consists of roughly three-five thousand troops. The Polish government has promised its people that beyond security, am American military buildup will also bring economic growth which accompanies the creation of NATO bases. Their constituents will soon be sorely disappointed to discover that promising military investments from foreign countries is no substitute for sound domestic economic policy.
When the NATO summit ends, Poland’s strategic situation will be worse, not better, because for each American boot on the ground and for each missile defense installment, there will be a Russian boot on the ground in Kaliningrad and Russian missiles targeting Polish cities. Poland, in wishing to avoid the hard but necessary task of diplomacy with Russia by inviting the American military, will be faced with an even greater problem when the United States begins its own negotiations with Russia and uses American military pressure against Poland to force the Poles to comply with American policy. American military presence in Poland effectively ends autonomous Polish foreign policy via Russia. The question is: What will the United States do now? Will America, having put boots on the ground, succumb to the demands of Poland’s government for belligerence towards Russia, or will the United States—having taken firm command of the situation on the ground—act to establish a workable relationship with Russia?
Irrespective of the strategic aspect of any eventual increase in American military presence in Eastern Europe, no troop increase will actually solve the problem which is at the core of both Eastern European and Russian anxiety: the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Only a concerted effort by the United States, France, Germany, and Russia to end the civil war in that country will in turn restore positive relations between East and West. So long as the United States and European Union chose to isolate Russia, so long the Ukraine crisis will go unresolved. The combination of a troop buildup by the United States and Russia on the EU’s eastern flank and the festering civil war in Ukraine will merely raise tensions which are already too high. Without a clear political strategy that actively seeks concord between East and West, America will find itself militarily engaged in a region without any sense of purpose of direction. This has, in American military history, usually been referred to as a quagmire. There are hopeful signs on the horizon that all sides wish to avoid such a fate. The EU council chairman Jean-Claud Junker is set to attend an economic forum in St. Petersburg despite ongoing economic sanctions, as well as American public sentiment in this presidential election season that clearly indicates that Americans do not want escalation with Russia, independent of who wins in November. The next American President will have a difficult choice to make. The future President of the United States will either look realistically upon the situation or will continue to imagine that blind idealism is a substitute for clarity in the pursuit of moral aims and national interests.
The present Ukraine conflict, and the Polish-Russian rivalries surrounding this conflict, are not new. For 600 years, western portions of modern Ukraine were Poland. Likewise, independent of the fluctuations in the size of the Russian Empire, modern Eastern Ukraine was Russia for several centuries. Warsaw and Moscow share a tragic thousand-year history of political and military rivalry over the lands composing modern Ukraine. It is imperative that the American military not find itself dragged into this age-old conflict. It is an irony of history that Poland, in calling for permanent American bases and German and American troops, is petitioning for a restoration of the geopolitical order carved out by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939.
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as originally signed, ceded lands that are now modern Poland to the Western sphere of influence, while relegating lands that are now modern Ukraine to the Eastern sphere of influence. Then, as now, the West was led by Berlin, the center of economic and military power in Europe. Then, as now, the East was led by Moscow, the center of economic and military power in Eurasia. The key difference between 1939 and 2016 is that Germany and the Anglo-American powers are allies, and Poland, in appealing for English and American aid, is de facto also appealing for German aid. Modern Poland sees its role in the words of Jerzy Giedroyc, as a conduit of Western values to the East, to Ukraine, and believes that “without a free Ukraine, there is no free Poland.”
Giedroyc’s view is not only a historical fallacy (Poland was free for 600 years during which time Ukraine did not exist), it effectively surrenders Polish sovereignty (a “conduit” by definition is not an independent actor, but merely a transit route for someone else’s policy). Nevertheless, it is the majority view of the Polish ruling class derived from Solidarity. This view is effectively subservient to the classical German imperialism embodied in Ostpolitik, which held that Germany must civilize the barbaric East. Modern Poland, for all of its anti-German posturing, has no Eastern policy beyond what Giedroyc taught, and while Giedroyc did not teach that Poland was to conduct German policy in the East, the effectual truth—in the Machiavellian sense—is that being a “conduit for Western values” means that Poland is an eternal conduit for German Eastern policy. Giedroyc’s view, which has been fully implemented in the past twenty-five years, has been—as those of us who were its critics from the outset argued—a complete and utter failure. Despite separating two historical antagonists (Russia and Poland) through the creation of intermediary states (Ukraine, Belarus), the rivalries between Warsaw and Moscow are at fever pitch as Ukraine crumbles and Belarus is only saved by the iron will of its President, who is now no longer blamed for being “the last dictator of Europe,” but rather appreciated for maintaining law and order in such a volatile region.
The lesson of the past twenty-five years is clear: Artificial borders and artificial countries will never substitute for real political labor aimed at getting to the root of national differences and working towards authentic national reconciliation. The war in Ukraine demonstrates that we have reached the limits of geopolitics and require Statesmanship and Opinion Leadership in its stead. It is up to Berlin and Washington, D.C. to now provide this leadership. Contra former Polish foreign minister Sikorski, who called for German military might to counter Russia during his infamous speech in Berlin, Americans and Europeans of good will should now call upon Berlin and Washington, D.C. to demonstrate the might of common sense and good diplomacy after two years of military activity, which has only heightened the crisis.
Having now pledged her military engagement on behalf of Eastern Europe, the United States, in order to proceed wisely, must understand the historical ramifications of German foreign policy. Modern German Eastern policy is a revival of nineteenth-century German realpolitik in the tradition of Bismarck, who opined that the definition of good German foreign policy is to sign a good treaty with Russia. Since Hans Dietrich Genscher’s time, it has been Germany’s aim to create through diplomacy the economic and political ties with Russia that the Third Reich had attempted to forge with blood and iron. A German-Polish alliance, while an important aim of German policy, was always meant to be the prelude to German-Russian partnership.
Polish-American efforts to frustrate German Eastern policy by undermining the delicate political order in Ukraine in 2014 via the Maidan revolution were destined to become a Pyrrhic victory (which is why this writer opposed them at the time). The revolution in Ukraine was a smashing success: It smashed the imperfect growth of a peaceful market economy and the peaceful, organic evolution of a nation-state which had never existed in the history of mankind and replaced it with a two-year-old civil war and an economic collapse. In the wake of this fiasco, German-Russian partnership was only strengthened, as attested by the Minsk accords, which were spearheaded by the two countries and Germany’s nuclear arm: France. Having been goaded into starting a fire, the United States is now stuck with the task of extinguishing it. The key to success rests in using American might to foster German-Russian partnership rather than to frustrate it in pursuit of Polish Prometheist ends. Polish Prometheism is the modern ideology of Lebensraum. Its aims are different, but its effect—war with Russia—will be the same. The ideology masquerades under the misnomer of “democracy-building,” but Nazi propaganda in 1941 also proclaimed that it was defending Western Civilization by invading the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. Americans must be smarter than this. Given that the Polish Prometheist government has announced that it will not heed the “opinions” expressed by the verdicts of its Constitutional Tribunal, and given that i has jailed its most vociferous critics on the left just as the Prometheist dictatorship of 1926 did, the United States State Department is slowly awakening to the frightening paradox that America has just pledged to defend Polish democracy from Russia when in fact Polish democracy is not threatened by Russia, but by Poland’s rulers who undermine constitutional law in favor of factious majoritarianism.
There is truth, and there is political truth. While the truth may be, as Dr. Richard Sakwa once put it, that “NATO is now struggling to defend Europe against the consequences of NATO expansion,” the political truth is that NATO expansion is a fait accompli, and American conservative thought must accept this fact and seek to make realistic proposals which deal effectively with present circumstances. The truth is that all the tensions presently afflicting the lands between Warsaw and Moscow could readily be solved by intelligent diplomacy between Poland and Russia. This is particularly true now, when Russia is weakened by a high degree of international isolation and sanctions, while Poland is strengthened by NATO and EU membership and has a newly elected government which enjoys a majority in parliament. No better moment exists for a Polish initiative to de-escalate tensions with Russia and contribute to stability in the region. The political truth is that Polish recalcitrance continues, as it has done countless times in the past, to make Polish-Russian diplomacy a practical impossibility. The political truth is that, as Poland’s former Minister of the Interior was recorded saying prior to tendering his resignation in 2015, “Poland exists only in theory,” which means that Germany and the United States are responsible for serious diplomacy and security in Eastern Europe.
The Baltic states, particularly Estonia, recognize this political truth, as does Ukraine itself. The Estonian President, who is an American from New Jersey named Thoomas Hendrik IIves, recognizes this explicitly. In a recent interview in Poland, he shocked no one when repeating that Estonian liberty can only be maintained via alliance with Germany. Lithuania, a historic Polish ally which harbors deep antipathy towards Poland, also prefers the security of German leadership to what it views as Polish imposition. Poland, though nominally committed to building an alliance with other Eastern European powers to thwart German dominance, has been incapable of doing so because it would require diplomacy with Moscow. Warsaw’s dream of a broad Eastern European alliance worked only once in modern European history: It was called the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary owed its existence to the strength of its multi-vector diplomacy with Russia and Berlin. Poland will not create a new Austria-Hungary because Poland is incapable of diplomacy with Moscow. To the extent that the outlines of a united Eastern European front exist, their leadership is in Hungarian hands because Victor Orban’s Fidesz party is at once allied to the German-dominated European People’s Party and has established good relations with Russia. Yet Poland, being at once the largest Eastern European state and at the same time completely incapable of building an effective coalition of those states, is powerless to take constructive steps to help decrease tensions between East and West. The regrettable, but effective result of this is that Europe and Russia must resort to the geopolitics outlined by Molotov and Ribbentrop in 1939 but avoid the catastrophe of Hitler’s greatest blunder: war with Russia in 1941. It is the job of American diplomacy to make sure that this balance is struck. No doubt this is a terrible set of alternatives, but to ignore the real alternatives is to fall prey to the reality of a wider war in the future.
In light of this political truth, the United States of America, upon establishing its military presence in Eastern Europe, must make clear to Poland and the Baltic states that the United States will not tolerate any recalcitrance on their part with regard to the necessity for continued NATO-Russia cooperation to stabilize and de-escalate the Ukraine crisis as well as cooperation in the greater Middle East against ISIS, which is the true threat to all of us. Poland and the Baltic states cannot be permitted to exploit American military engagement in Eastern Europe as a means of driving a permanent wedge between NATO and Russia. A permanent discord between NATO and Russia, harkening back to the Cold War, with Kiev playing the unenviable role once reserved for East and West Berlin, will only add yet another costly volatile region to the world’s growing list of concerns. This is why any increase in American military presence in Eastern Europe must come with a clear political component: The United States should compel Poland and the Baltic states to initiate diplomacy with Russia and forge long-term efforts to reconcile with Moscow in exchange for American military commitment. A failure to pressure Poland and the Baltics to engage Moscow diplomatically will mean that the United States will simply be placing its military in harm’s way, to be used as a pawn between geopolitical rivals in Warsaw and Moscow; this is a role America must avoid.
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The featured image is a photograph of the first meeting for NATO Defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 10, 2011. It is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.