Merely some 25 years after the halcyon days of Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and the fall of Communism,Poland finds itself in strategic trouble as Russian power grows and American involvement in Europe wanes. Then there is the European Union teetering on the brink of breakdown. This is not how things were supposed to be, but history is back with a vengeance. What should Poland do to assure its independence in the future should it find itself having to rely on its own means?
George Friedman in his recent article “Poland’s Strategy” frames Poland’s security problem succinctly and offers three solutions: “For Poland, the existence of a powerful Germany and Russia poses an existential problem, the ideal solution to which is to become a buffer that Berlin and Moscow respect. A secondary solution is an alliance with one for protection. The latter solution is extremely difficult because dependence on Russia or Germany invites the possibility of absorption or occupation. Poland's third solution is to find an outside power to guarantee its interests.”
How workable are these solutions? Let us consider the last two options. Alliance with Moscow is virtually impossible for an independent Poland, given its recent history: Poland has spent five decades of the 20th century under de facto Russian occupation as a rearrangement of borders and power on continental Europe in the wake of Second World War forced option two on Poland. Not only is any movement toward Moscow by Polish politicians likely to play badly within Poland, especially among those 30 to 40 percent of the Polish electorate who support the Law and Justice Party, it is also unlikely for the simple reason that Russia's attitude toward Poland has been tainted in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Poland has proven itself to be an unreliable friend and ally. It is also hard to imagine such a turn given Poland's NATO membership. Those facts leave Berlin as a potential ally, but in simple terms Germany’s interests will not be better served if it privileges Poland’s concerns over the benefits of friendly relations with Russia. In fact, Berlin did not privilege such concerns when it came to the Nordstream pipeline. Of course, Poland needs to be a good neighbor to Germany and Russia, for that matter, but these policies should not lead to passiveness among Poland's political elites when it comes to long-term strategic thinking.
But in the two decades since gaining independence from Soviet control, Poland has been passive, its thinkers resigning themselves to narratives of reliance on security guarantors, the third path that Geroge Friedman has identified. Today the US and NATO provide this security guarantee, but its future is uncertain, dependent entirely on how much expense and effort America will wish to expend in order to defend the European continent against Russian designs. This may turn out to be very little, in comparison to the effort expanded during the Cold War, for Russia and the United States are no longer locked in a do or die struggle of ideologies. The balance of forces has shifted as China's growing economy is creating a new pole of global power and America's interests are shifting toward Asia as a result. Given this shift, the help of a friendly Russia could serve America's balance of power interests vis a vis China. One could, of course, raise the objection that Poland is secure within the EU community, but the EU is a military nonentity mired in an economic crisis.
Relying on guarantors in the long term always presents dangers. These dangers result from two issues: one, national interests may change in a way that no longer makes adhering to guarantees in the interest of the guarantor. Two, the guarantor may not be in a position to act quickly enough.