Whither Poland?

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September 11, 2017 – 

By Jafe Arnold for The Greanville Post – 

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In the wake of the terrorist attack in Manchester in May 2017, the US State Department-trained Prime Minister of Poland, Beata Szydlo, theatrically inquired before the Polish parliament: “Where are you headed, Europe?” Once accompanied by English subtitles, the video of Szydlo’s speech railing against “European political elites” and their “going hand in hand with terrorism” made its rounds throughout alternative news groups, even being met with praise as “evidence” that Poland is one of Europe’s “last bastions” against the perilous domestic and foreign policies pushed by Brussels and Washington. 

In general, attention to the situation in and around Poland has only grown over the past year. Showdowns between the new Law and Justice government and the European Commission, the immense hype generated around controversial judicial reform, the arrival of US troops onto Polish soil coupled with fierce political repression against anti-NATO activists, the occasional headlines hinting at a rift in in Warsaw-Kiev relations, and other developments have all confirmed the prescience of our thesis from January 2015 that the “Polish question” is back with a vengeance in the larger geopolitical context of the crisis of Atlanticism and the challenge of materializing multipolarity. 

Amidst the ongoing chain of events, the role and trajectory of Poland within the greater, changing geopolitical architecture of Europe has been the subject of much confusion and mistaken appraisals. It is indeed high time to pose the question: “Where are you heading, Poland?”

The geopolitics of the Third Republic

The current position and trajectory of Poland cannot be understood without recognizing the glaring fact that Poland’s political establishment is thoroughly Atlanticist in its origins, apperception, and policies. The praise of Poland as a “model” for Europe’s post-socialist states which one frequently encounters among Atlanticist analysts and the relevant concerns and criticisms that have been voiced on the part of the EU and US establishments over Poland’s trajectory are inseparable from this context. With the collapse of the Polish People’s Republic and the subsequent “transformation” period, Poland was relatively quickly inducted into the EU and NATO to play the paradigmatic role of the staging point and main platform for the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe along Atlanticist lines that had been formulated approximately a century earlier by the Anglo-Saxon school of geopolitics and which found attempted expression in the interwar Second Polish Republic. 

The official christening of post-1989 Poland as the “Third Republic” as opposed to the “Fourth Republic” (a title which would have recognized socialist Poland as the Third Republic) is not merely an expression of the profoundly anti-communist predication of Poland’s new statehood (which equates socialism/communism to Russian occupation), but in fact represents a continuity with the raison d’etat of the Second Polish Republic which, as the Polish-American analyst Andrew Korybko has pointed out, was the first state in modern history to, in violation of the post-1648 Westphalian order, “officially decree a foreign policy based on supporting ethnic, religious, historical, and regionalist separatism in a targeted nation”, i.e., the Soviet Union. This doctrine, known as Prometheism, established an existential antagonism between the Polish and Soviet states insofar as it made the former’s explicit foreign policy goal the dismantlement of the latter into numerous states incapable of sovereign existence. 

The second foundational policy vision of the Second Republic was establishing the Intermarium, or the foundation of a network of states between the Black and Baltic Seas under Polish hegemony in one form or another which would effectively cut off Russia from any contact with Europe, and in particular Germany. This project, like Prometheism, was identical to the proposals put forth by the Atlanticist or Anglo-Saxon school of geopolitics at the time. While the twin aspirations of Prometheism and the Intermarium were never realized, they represented a formulation of Polish statehood and geopolitics which integrated particular historical experiences of Polish statecraft with the theses and aims of the Atlanticist paradigm of geopolitics. 

The current Third Polish Republic is gradually drifting in the direction of pursuing revised versions of Prometheism and the Intermarium. This time around, however, such ambitions are backed by an exploitation of the benefits of EU membership, a firm commitment to the NATO bloc, the presence of several thousand US troops in Poland, and an overall strategy of being the “best client” of Washington in exchange for certain economic and political resources and for lobbying the most adamantly Russophobic policies out of all of “New Europe”. The Three Seas Initiative recently hosted in Warsaw is a clear sign that the Intermarium is back on the agenda in a new form which, just as in its classic geopolitical formula, is detrimental to both Russia and Europe as a whole. 

To be clear, while its ruling class may be of the same nature and origin, 21st century Poland is not a monolithic political entity bent on pursuing such long-term objectives. This in part explains the relative blandness of Polish political discourse beyond domestic issues. While the Polish elite is wholly Atlanticist, it is divided over how best to conform to and bargain within the framework of 21st century Atlanticism, a fact which underpins the hyperbolized opposition between the new ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), which can be said to have its bets hedged on fidelity to the Trump-Washington pole and an “illiberal”, Catholic nationalist model for Poland, and the Civic Platform (PO), which is oriented towards Brussels and the liberal EU model. The worsening crisis of the European Union’s present model, the corresponding general trend towards “Euroscepticism”, and certain social elements of PiS’ domestic platform can be said to be decisive factors in the largest democratic margin in modern Polish history which Law and Justice won in 2015. 

The latter, however, relate to the category of temporal factors and the democratic simulacrum. The real significance behind the victory of PiS is to be sought in the broader geopolitical context of the crisis in which US hegemony and the contemporary EU find themselves. The Atlanticist US Empire is in a stage of profound decline and the American establishment is increasingly incapable of formulating a coherent, long-term foreign policy for maintaining the Atlanticist project which the US has anchored around itself alone in unipolar fashion. Over the past decade, even the US’ own top analysts and policymakers have evermore honestly admitted that the globalization of Atlanticism proclaimed in the 1990’s as the “End of History” (Fukuyama) predicated on unipolar US hegemony is on the decline in the face of emerging multipolarity, and that US geopolitics is faced with essentially two options for survival: (1) minimizing losses across the board through “geopolitical austerity”, most commonly known in the American lexicon as “cutting back”, or (2) completely rethinking the US’ identity and strategy. The latter, of course, implies a Trump figure in the least or short term and a qualitative policy revolution in the most or long term. 

To recall, much of US President Trump’s pre-election platform and rhetoric centered around “geopolitical austerity”, including rapprochement with Russia in order to focus on thwarting the rise of China, relieving the “burden” of NATO, and overall re-adjusting US policy along an “America First” model which would theoretically over time allow the US to re-bargain its commitments and relationships in the interest of extracting the greatest possible profits out of imperial decline and perhaps even maintaining some of the remnants of the US Empire. Poland, as the US’ main beachhead in Europe, would have been faced with such austerity.

While on the symbolic level the figure of Trump himself was met with sympathy by PiS, by all accounts the Polish elite, much like the Ukrainian regime, was genuinely panic-struck by his proposed policies. Reneging on NATO and seeking rapprochement with Russia would undermine the entire Polish establishment’s strategy and raison d’etat. Hence why the deployment of US troops to Poland was expedited – in Obama’s last days – to present Trump with a fait accompli. A thousand US tanks rolled into Poland in January when troop deployments were scheduled to begin only in February. 

The fact that the presence of US troops in Poland as part of NATO’s crusade against Russia threw a wrench into Trumpian geopolitical reform and coincided with Trump’s about-turn on much of his foreign policy plans is a testimony in itself to the crucial position of Poland in 21st century geopolitics. 

Having successfully established Poland as a US military base in the pivot of Europe, or as  “NATO’s Eastern Flank” as Polish Defense Minister Macierewicz has re-named the country, Law and Justice now boasts a sort of carte blanche. It is for this reason that we believe it to be no coincidence that the government has embarked on a number of ambitious initiatives, including court reform which would effectively render the country’s judiciary dependent on the ruling party for the foreseeable future, increasingly unabashed rhetoric in response to European Commission criticism, open (albeit hypocritical) rhetoric against Ukrainian Banderism (which the Polish state, as a token of its anti-Polish trajectory, helped bring to power in Kiev in 2014), the wholesale demolition of all Soviet memorials, and blatantly imprisoning such a crucial opposition figure as Mateusz Piskorski on no official charges and exacting fierce political repression against his party, etc. 

Poland’s elite has thus bound Poland’s future to the fate of the declining unipolar world, and the ruling party is seeking to entrench itself for the long haul. To this end, and in line with visions of a 21st century Intermarium, the ruling party has sought to cultivate an image of being a member, and emerging leader, of the “anti-Brussels” EU, portraying itself as a kind of Polish knock-off of Orban’s Hungary, whose resistance to certain EU policies has earned it the reputation of a bastion of anti-liberalism or “illiberalism” within the EU and, as such, a kernel for a future “European Europe” (as opposed to a liberal and Atlanticist Europe). The Law and Justice Party has in this vein been falsely depicted as a fellow member of the rising tide of “populist” parties  dedicated to re-formatting the European Union away from the present crisis-ridden liberal model that is the legacy of the post-war American structuring of Europe. This point, however, deserves closer examination. 

Ill-liberalism in context 

Rather paradoxically, now that Poland’s fate as an Atlanticist beachhead within Europe hellbent on stalling the declining order is being sealed, otherwise brilliant analytical voices have suddenly purported that the current Law and Justice regime harbors some kind of kernel of pragmatic opportunity which, if allowed to play out, would ultimately gravitate in the service of multipolarity. The impressively astute Polish-American analyst, Andrew Korybko, has argued that PiS’ anti-Brussels thrust represents a unique factor which, despite its virulent Russophobia and pro-American schemes, could ultimately contribute to “spelling doom for the EU as it’s presently configured.” For this reason, Korbyko says, advocates of multipolarity would only gain if the “pro-German and Soros-backed Color Revolution” against Law and Justice is thwarted. In other words, Korybko writes: “While by no means arguing that PiS is the ‘best that Poland can get’ in these regards (which it’s definitely not), one should acknowledge that Kaczynski’s party is poised to be remarkably effective in positioning Poland as the leader of the Eurocautionaries’ pan-EU reform project, which could ultimately be highly beneficial to the multipolar objective of weakening Brussels’ brutal grip over the bloc.” 

On a similar note, the Polish political analyst and anti-liberal activist Bartosz Bekier has suggested that the ongoing consolidation of power in Warsaw along “non-liberal” or “illiberal” lines presents an “unprecedented” opportunity for a steady transition towards a form of populist Poland eventually capable of taking charge of Polish policy away from foreign centers of power (Washington and Brussels), one early sign of which is supposed to be Warsaw’s latest rhetoric against Ukraine joining the EU “with Bandera.” 

Bekier’s analysis also suggests that Law and Justice’s, although “highly popular”, lacks any mass organizations or cadre, which leaves open the chance for non-establishment groups to influence the political sphere in ways that are difficult, if not impossible under the conditions of “democratic, plutocratic spectacle.” 

While both of these perspectives have some merit, not to mention the reliability of their authors, and while these analyses do rightfully leave important hypothetical room for allowing for opposite trends to be reinforced, we must make a crucial clarification. Law and Justice is not part of the growing trend of anti-Atlanticist European populism, and judging the trajectory of PiS Poland according to archetypes is a dangerous abstraction from the glaring geopolitical reality that Poland’s current course is aimed not at the “liberation of Europe”, as the so-called “populist” parties across Europe are, but at the maintenance of the unipolar framework by dint of American troops on the ground and recycling classical Atlanticist geopolitical models which are just as inherently detrimental to European geopolitical sovereignty as they are intrinsically aimed against Russia. While PiS may have rode the “populist wave” to power, it did so as a carefully calculating cynic and freeloader, not a pioneer or honest representative. The non-liberal facets of PiS policy do not annul the larger Atlanticist architecture which the present Polish regime is striving desperately to retain and on which it has rested the entire Polish raison d’etat. 

While there is no determinism in geopolitics, geopolitical processes and paradigms do not change by virtue of individual policy tokens. Moreover, it cannot be forgotten that the entire Polish elite is by birth and nature Atlanticist, and this is not the first time that PiS has been in power. 

In this regard, the present Polish regime should be seen as “ill-liberal” rather than “illiberal”. Its corrections to certain domestic policies and its opposition to certain dead-end EU policies are but reflexive responses to the illness of the failing liberal model. Be that as it may, any “consolidation of power on the Vistula” and any thwarting of “Soros-backed Color Revolutions” remains currently channeled in one direction – the preservation of the American domination of Europe with Poland as its main base with a regime in power which has demonstrated its commitment to preventing multipolarity at the cost of potentially turning Poland into the battlefield of any future hot conflict desperately waged against Russia. 

In the best case scenario, some of the worst excesses of Polish Atlanticism might be shed, such as blind support for Ukrainian neo-Nazism and an obsession with fomenting chaos in Belarus. But all in all, it is the current government that is doing everything in its power to ensure that the path which Poland is on, is its only one. Meanwhile, the question of whether there is any possibility that the “atmosphere” of PiS Poland could be conducive to anti-Atlanticist and anti-liberal forces working in Gramscian style to hegemonize increasingly Eurosceptic Polish masses in any constructive direction has been answered in the case of Zmiana and Mateusz Piskorski

Whither Poland?

Identifying the Polish elites’ strategy in no way connotes that such a strategy is acknowledged as realistically attainable. In fact, the indices of Poland’s present trajectory vis-a-vis global geopolitical processes seem to suggest that the Polish elite is grasping at straws. The onset of multipolarity, birth-pangs included, is an indisputable, empirically and dialectically attested fact, and only questions of form, content, and time remain in question. 

Any successful realization of the Intermarium or revised implementation of Prometheism under Polish hegemony would require that there be a Western axis capable of and interested in expending the resources to qualitatively engage with and support such a project. In present circumstances, however, such a factor is absent, and the dead end of Poland’s foreign policy, juxtaposed to the larger geopolitical trends underway, assures that things will never even get to this point. Here it is worth recalling what happened in the mid 20th century when Western powers promised Poland their backing in the event that its contentious policies came home to roost. 

In spite of all of this, the Polish elite has boldly set Poland down a dead-end path which increasingly threatens to cut the country off even from the option of cynically exploiting the opportunities presented by multipolarity which Poland’s geographical position could by all means afford it. 

Instead of basing its security on good relations with its neighbors, Poland has invited US troops and missile systems to militarily buttress its antagonizing foreign policy, indeed positioning Poland as a primary target in any conflict between the US and Russia. Instead of engaging in constructive economic partnership with the rising multipolar powers or striving to turn itself into a vital economic hub for all of Europe and Eurasia, Poland has opted to pay for American gas from Louisiana. Instead of seeking fruitful relations with its ethnically, culturally, and historically close eastern neighbors, Poland has trained, armed, and funded Ukrainian radicals who just half a century ago committed genocide against the Polish population and whose representatives not too long ago promised their acolytes a “Second Katyn Massacre for Poles”… This list alone is long enough to be an article in its own right. 

It is extremely difficult to imagine any scenario in which Poland’s present course proves beneficial to its people’s livelihood, security, and reputation in the sustainable long term. Rather, it is all the more likely that Poland will either (1) face geopolitical liquidation upon either (a.) a rapprochement between Russia and Europe or (b.) a conflict between Russia and the US in which Poland would be none other than a frontline; or, alternatively, (2) Poland will face a humiliating cold shower when, later in this century, it will find itself isolated, its American partner having retreated back to its hemisphere. Indicatively enough, it seems like the Polish elite has gambled on the former against all logic. 

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While the argument can be made that contemporary geopolitical circumstances are more conducive to pragmatic shifts and cautious re-adjustments than potentially chaos-spawning and manipulable revolutions, it is hard to imagine any alternative for Poland besides a revolution in Polish political discourse and a wholesale replacement of the Polish establishment whose preservation is irreconcilable with the survival and prosperity of Poland in the turbulent 21st century. 

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