This article was first published by Geopolitical Futures and is reprinted here with permission.
Once again, on the Vistula River, we are worried about security guarantees in the wake of a U.S. election. Politics is a dynamic, not a static, condition. The competition never ends.
For Poland to stay ahead in this competition, the United States will have to demonstrate that despite its vast distance from Eurasia, U.S. interests in the supercontinent are so important that Washington is ready to incur the same costs as the Russians or the Chinese. This was certainly the case during the Cold War, when the United States convinced West Germany and other allies that Washington would defend Western Europe even at the cost of a nuclear attack on the U.S. Will the American attitude be the same in the new strategic environment of the 21st century?
So far, Biden administration officials have not sufficiently addressed this strategic question in any official speech. Nor was the question fully answered during the speech of former President Donald Trump in the summer of 2017 in Warsaw, despite his warm words about the Three Seas Initiative, his criticism of EU bureaucracy and his many compliments about the values and heroic past of Poles.
U.S. officials often comment on American leadership in Europe. But platitudes about how America intends to stay in Europe to support its allies are unconvincing. Geostrategic alliances are not about favors but about interests. U.S. alliances exist to serve the interests of the United States – that is, to maintain the advantageous position of the United States in Europe and Asia. This is the real glue of the alliance. If the United States ceases to need its position in Eurasia, or is no longer able to sustain that position, American commitments and presence will disappear.
Moreover, alliances are never eternal, despite what many people think. Alliances also are based not on historical and cultural ties or shared values, but on geostrategic interests in development, security and power. Mistaken notions that alliances are about identity give rise to errors and misperceptions, including the erroneous impression that one’s partners are doing them a favor in the alliance. Poles used to think this too often. International relations don’t work this way. Real alliances require real commitments and costs, and anything else is irrelevant. Without common interests and goals, sentiments about common values evaporate like the morning fog. So when the United States starts to leave Europe, it will be because it no longer shares interests with its former allies.
This has been the case many times in the history of the world. For example, Britain strategically withdrew from Asia and the Indian Ocean in the early 1970s, despite close historical and linguistic ties and undeniable shared values with Australia. The Anglo-Australian alliance evaporated overnight. Great speeches will save nothing as long as the alliance does not have a practical purpose, resources and common interests. “The Polish nation is an exceptionally patriotic nation. Anyone who knows how to move the strings of our patriotism can play any melodies,” wrote Stanislaw Mackiewicz about the lack of understanding of the essence of alliances.
The Essence of Power
In an autumn 2017 essay titled “Without America: Australia in the New Asia,” Hugh White described what would happen if Trump suddenly called the Australian prime minister, announced that a war had broken out in the South China Sea and asked for allied solidarity. White believed that the prime minister probably would have no choice but to agree, because such is the software of politics, and it is no different in Australia.
How would Poland respond in a similar situation, if faced with war in the Baltic states? What would Warsaw do when saying “no” could destroy the credibility of the North Atlantic alliance and the independence of the Baltic states, even though it would leave Poland intact? White’s Australian example contends that it is imprudent to enter a war “with a blank promissory note,” without fully understanding what the specific, unemotional end goals of the war are, what the consequences are, and what the risks and costs of war are for the state. We do not like to think in these terms, especially in Poland, because we have convinced ourselves that Poland cannot survive without Western allies.
The essence of power is to achieve your goals at a cost lower than that of another state opposed to your goals. Superpowers do not immediately exercise their power directly and ostentatiously on smaller countries. It’s not that easy, for even weak countries can generally control what happens on their territory. Stronger powers can change this if they send troops or apply economic sanctions to the weaker countries, but first they usually offer rewards or impose costs: for example, arms purchases or unequal trade deals. Indeed, the main measure of a country’s international strength is its ability to impose costs on other countries at a low cost to itself. Hence, in the absence of a constructivist order, there is a search for leverage, eternal competition and, as a result, a zero-sum game between states. This implies that even weaker nations always have room for maneuver – unless they are occupied – provided that they are ready to pay the price of freedom of maneuver.
Without the credibility and strength of the United States and NATO, Polish politics would necessarily center on maintaining maximum independence at the lowest possible cost by balancing in all directions. In this new Europe, Poland would have to become a security exporter. Fortunately for Warsaw, Russia is economically weak, and so it cannot use economic pressure on Poland. (This stands in contrast to Asia, where, for example, Australia would be forced to cooperate with China if the United States were to withdraw, because China is an economic power.) Moreover, Russia is unlikely to be able to apply energy pressure if Poland becomes independent from eastern energy, as it is trying to do. That is why energy independence is so important for Poland, because it does not increase the costs of a policy of independence. Finally, a well-prepared military force can prevent a foreign power from imposing its will by increasing the cost and risk of an attack. Midsize countries in Eurasia will have to deal with this by creating their own anti-access/area denial systems. Managing these pressures in the supercontinent of Eurasia will require cool heads and calmer nerves.
Countries that are lucky enough to experience a strategic pause do not really need a highly complex foreign policy, because the world system “works” for them automatically – as it did for Poland after 1991, and certainly again after 1999 when Poland joined NATO, and in 2004 when it joined the European Union. Outside of these rare moments, countries have to make difficult choices and sacrifices every day to shape the world around them so that they remain safe or become safe and prosperous. These countries must prove that they can stand independently, without looking to another core area for protection. Even remaining in an alliance with the U.S., Germany or the European Union, it makes sense for Poland to strive to consolidate and develop its own core area. Alliances are fleeting, but nations are resilient.