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.
Interests of guarantor states are formulated internally through ideological conflicts between the factions of its ruling elite. These conflicts play out in the marketplace of security narratives inside the policy-level circles of the guarantor state. Unless a client state has a significant capacity to affect the internal policy-making of the guarantor state by controlling the narrative told about it in the context of geopolitical interests of the guarantor state, reliance on guarantors for security becomes profoundly risky. In the case of the US as Poland’s guarantor, for example, Poland’s narratives about security and geopolitical risk and the interests of the US being served by engagement in that part of the world compete against the narratives of other client states who would wish to involve the US in other parts of the globe as their security guarantor. Recently, when the Obama administration wished to reset America’s relations with Russia, Poland’s security narratives were subordinated to security narratives that framed concessions to Moscow in light of strategic necessity. This led to disappointment in Warsaw, a development that was predictable.
Such disappointments are the necessary outcomes of guarantor security policies gone wrong, and such policies will go wrong more likely than not, because the calculus that affects the power of guarantors always changes. If it was impossible for the US and Russia to be friends in the 1980s, for example, such a friendship could become necessary if China’s power continues to grow and the US chooses to pursue a balance of power approach to managing China. The worst case scenario for Poland is falling through the fissure that could open should the EU break apart and America’s interests oblige it to withdraw as a security guarantor for Europe. Such a development would leave Poland completely vulnerable to Russian influence. If the EU were stronger, more centralized a political union, Poland would be more secure within it to be sure, even in the absence of America in Europe, but the EU is not a strong political union and its main reason for being, that of a common economic zone united by a single currency, is in question, partly as a result of the lack of a centralized political authority able to address the economic crises in Greece and Spain.
Finally, even if all other factors are held constant, reliance on guarantors is also risky because guarantors may not be able to project the required military force quickly enough. This happened in 1939 and could conceivably happen again in the future. The US today does not have the right mix of forces close enough to protect Poland from a sneak decapitation strike. For example, if Russia positioned Iskander batteries in Kaliningrad, it could strike Polish military assets in minutes, before they could react, essentially decapitating Poland’s military capability, presenting NATO with a fait accompli. Would a fall of Poland matter to US interests? George Friendman writes that it would, but in certain contents, such a loss may not matter.
Which brings us back to the first solution, the most optimal one, that of a buffer that both Berlin and Moscow respect. But how to create such a strong, independent Poland?
Perhaps becoming such a buffer means a nuclear arsenal? Marek Jan Chodakewich writes in Radek and Berlin, his analysis of Poland’s geopolitical problem, “Poland should help itself by developing its nuclear energy potential and procuring its own nuclear weapons in lieu of American protection. It needs to learn how to play the game of strategy.”
There are, of course, enormous international political problems with the nuclear strategy. But holding all those potential issues constant, the most important question is this: would a nuclear deterrent force really make Poland safer and better off? Or would another strategy be so much more beneficial?
Poland can do better by pursuing a technological superiority strategy. Such a strategy makes supreme sense because technological superiority equals economic prosperity and the ability to create a significant military strategic advantage. A Poland that is a leader in key technologies would certainly be respected in Berlin and Moscow without having to resort to the kind of confrontation that a nuclear deterrent idea would likely create.
One key component of this strategic focus on technological and scientific superiority would be the reorienting of Poland’s long term priorities to emphasize the creation of an environment that privileges advanced research and development as a top policy priority. Poland could, in this context, work toward the goal of becoming the most important research and development location in Europe (and latter the World) in one or two specific areas of scientific and technological research. The first step would entail the creation of world-class academic research programs in a chosen area. Such a policy of investing in the creation of world-class academic research centers would have a highly desirable subsidiary effect, that of creating a magnet for the world’s best and brightest who wanted to do cutting edge work. This, in turn, would attract venture capital, for it always follows the talent. The inflow of talent and money would dramatically increase the Polish GDP as startups and innovation would make Poland a destination site for research and investment. The second step would involve integration of effort across various labs and research centers across the country toward one centerpiece project, such as a disruptive superweapon of a defensive nature.
It is important to note here that this superweapon need not necessarily be a classical military weapon such as stealth aircraft or a ship or a nuclear submarine. According to US Gen. (Ret.) Walter Jajko, writing in StrategicSurprise: “Novel, unconventional or nontraditional application of a technology also can produce surprise, sometimes with strategic effect.” Using Jajko’s framing, we live in an age when clever and visionary thinkers can take off the shelf components and create a disruptive system to change the rules of the game. Because, according to Jajko, “ in the conduct of contemporary warfare, the traditional tactical, operational, and strategic levels are inseparable; each one may have an effect on another, rather than only at its own echelon. This flexible “interoperability” allows for opportunities to cause strategic surprise.” An ingenious application of extant state of the art technologies in a revolutionary configuration could be so dramatic and disruptive in its effect that it could create a strategic surprise. An asymmetric capability can also be rooted in a significant scientific breakthrough. Whether based in existing technologies configured in new ways or in a fundamental breakthrough, it is clear that a technology disruptive enough can have a profound force multiplier effect.
One objection to a superweapon strategy is that Poland is too poor to make the required investment. But Poland’s state budget, according to analysis by Poland’s Republican Foundation, is filled fluff items such as media and cultural spending, items that are, for a nation such as Poland, given its existential security problems, as Friedman calls them, hard to comprehend. Rather than spend billions of zlotys on sports, recreation, culture and media wouldn’t Poland be better off investing these funds into the development of state of the art science and technology capability? Priorities need to change. Change, however, is unlikely to be easy as the Poles themselves are more likely to be skeptical of such significant projects, not only due to potential financial costs, but also because such a projects may seem too assertive for Poland to pursue.
Regardless of objections that may be leveled, the reality is that whatever the costs would be of creating a well-funded research program with the context of an area of research and innovation, not attempting to come up with such a disruptive defensive technology will carry even greater costs: the costs of losing the great game, of being invaded again, carved up or otherwise rendered from the world stage by aggressively imperialistic states could mean the Polish people and an independent Poland forever cease to exist. To survive and thrive in its unique geopolitical reality, Poland needs to innovate in science and technology, make a breakthrough, and force a paradigm change that balances geopolitical security threats with technological solutions.
Unlike the security guarantee strategy, which requires nothing of the political elites of Poland, the technological superiority strategy requires significant effort and determination by succeeding governments of Poland. And Poland simply doesn’t currently have nor is likely to have in the future the kind of leadership it would need to reorient priorities. Friedman suggests one reason why Poland is more likely to chose a less optimal guarantor strategy: Poland lacks a “national will” to undertake a serious effort. Poland’s elites have a historical record of profound complacency and disunity (the latest bone of contention and hostility is the matter of the 2010 Smolensk air crash) and, as they did during the 1930s, are therefore more likely to seek security policies that require little of them but are ultimately catastrophic and costly strategic failures than to seek outside the box solutions to Poland’s geopolitical security dilemma.