The Polish poet and playwright Jan Kochanowski penned and presented The Dismissal of the Grecian Envoys to the court of King Stefan Batory in 1578, during a period of rising tensions between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Muscovy of Ivan the Terrible. In the fifth epeisodion of this undisputed masterpiece of Baroque drama, the Trojan counselor Antenor warns Priam, his king, that Greek saber rattling over the abducted Helen meant that “now is the time to fear,” and that “from such anxiety grows foresight and readiness.” Though the play was outwardly classical in nature, it contained a contemporary message from Kochanowski to his own monarch: never treat external threats as “lightly as a mindless fable.”
Kochanowski had long been sounding the alarm. Even during the Renaissance, with Poland at the historical height of its power, the aphorism mądry Polak po szkodzie (“the Pole is a wise man after disaster”) had already achieved widespread currency. Yet Kochanowski, fearful of the Tartar and Muscovite threats from the east, spat in response that “if that saying’s true, then here’s one more: afterwards, he’s as stupid as before.” As the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — increasingly as “tasty and weak” as the ruminant victim in Ignacy Krasicki’s 1779 fable “The Lamb and the Wolves” — was gradually devoured by its ravening neighbors, Kochanowski’s warnings were thoroughly internalized.
To this day, every hour on the hour in the Polish cultural capital of Kraków a bugler mounts the steps of the highest tower in the Church of Saint Mary to play a five-note tune called the hejnał. Each time this hejnał is played, the tune mournfully drops off before completion, in honor of the (possibly legendary) guard in the Mariacki tower who sounded the alarm during the 1241 Mongol invasion of Poland, only to be struck in the gullet by an arrow in medias res. This quotidian reminder of geopolitical uncertainty is but one of many in modern Poland, and in modern Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. The poet Zbigniew Herbert perhaps put it best when he wrote: “the siege continues for so long a time the enemies have to change/they have nothing in common but the desire to annihilate us/when some hordes depart others immediately appear/Goths Tatars Swedes imperial legions.”
To some, this sentiment seems out of place in a purportedly postmodern Europe. After all, Poland is a member of the EU and NATO, and has been lauded as an important player in the transatlantic alliance. Described in the international security literature as “America’s protégé in the east” and “America’s new model ally,” or less charitably as a “stalking horse for U.S. interests within the EU,” Poland was, until recently, reveling in its role as “a new power in transatlantic security.” This was before last week’s shift on missile defense by the Obama administration. Now Poland’s president Lech Kaczyński is left in the unenviable position of wondering whether his country once again exists in that tenebrous “gray zone,” as he put it, between west and east, between relevance and isolation, between security and peril.
Poland’s liminal status in Europe has always been an overriding strategic concern. The historical basis for this preoccupation is apparent enough, but even in the halcyon days of the post-communist “return to Europe,” Polish policymakers fretted about ongoing geopolitical insecurity. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, Poland’s former Prime Minister and then-UN Special Rapporteur Tadeusz Mazowiecki lamented NATO efforts in the Balkans, asking: “If NATO cannot even protect Srebrenica, what can it do? Can I, in Poland, feel secure in the wake of these events?”
“The towns of Srebrenica and Zepa have been abandoned,” Mazowiecki continued. “Who says Poland won’t also be abandoned one day?”
Echoing such sentiments, David Warszawski, editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza, saw “Bosnia as a test-case for the functioning of the international community” and claimed that the pre-NATO membership Partnership for Peace agreement provided Poland with “far weaker guarantees than those which the UN promised the inhabitants of Sarajevo, Zepa, Srebrenica and Bihac.” Even after Poland achieved NATO membership, the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita opined that “Poland has a tragic historic experience behind it, and it needs to have an ally on which it can depend.” That ally, Polish elites decided, would be the United States.
It seemed to be a good fit. Poland, after all, traditionally maintains a strategic posture somewhat more in keeping with Washington than Brussels. As Olaf Osica has noted, “Poland has a continued interest in preserving the traditional understanding of collective defence, that is, defence of the territory of the allied states. The mistrust of Russia, which from the outset treated NATO enlargement as a political attack on its sphere of influence, has continued.” Thus there has been little “change in the Polish perception of security, which the elites still perceive through the prism of military force.” The EU, with its chimerical Rapid Reaction Force, its de minimis military spending, and the Russophilia of some of its more prominent member states, is hardly in a position to satisfy Poland in this regard.
Instead, ideological and pragmatic factors combined to make the U.S.-Polish strategic partnership particularly strong. The former of these factors was evident in the famous October 5, 2004 speech by Paul Wolfowitz at the University of Warsaw on the “theme of courage and freedom,” wherein the quondam Deputy Secretary of Defense cited the Polish patriot Kazimierz Pułaski, who in 1777 informed Benjamin Franklin that “We Poles have a hatred for all forms of tyranny, especially foreign tyranny; so no matter where in this world someone is fighting for freedom, we feel it is a personal matter for us as well.” Cooperation in the War on Terror, given this ideological affinity, was natural. As for the second factor, the Bush administration made sure to allocate increased military aid to Poland, despite overall cuts to similar aid for much of the rest of Europe. The Bush-era missile defense shield was intended to be the next step in the strengthening of this relationship. Such hopes are now dashed, and Poland and the Czech Republic are left with the worst of both worlds, having antagonized Russia without gaining any security advantage.
There are numerous practical problems created by the present administration’s decision to cancel the missile defense shield initiative, all of which have been explored in detail elsewhere, ranging from the Panglossian approach to the Iranian threat (treated as “lightly as a mindless fable,” to quote Kochanowski); a naïve approach to a Russia whose General Staff Academy wall still bears Czar Alexander III’s dictum, “Russia has only two true friends in the world, its army and its navy;” the danger of the sort of strategic “understretch” of which the economist Niall Ferguson has warned; and, most relevant to this particular essay, the unfortunate impression made upon staunch allies that, as Lech Wałęsa recently posited, “Americans have always cared only about their interests, and all other [countries] have been used for their purpose.” (And given Madeleine Albright’s recent speech in Moscow, during which the former Secretary of State claimed that “We have been talking about our exceptionalism during the recent eight years. Now, an average American wants to stay at home — they do not need any overseas adventures. We do not need new enemies,” who could blame the former Solidarność leader?)
Wałęsa’s rhetoric is a long way from that of the 2003 “new European” Vilnius Group letter, which described a “special responsibility of democracies to defend our shared values,” and the need of the “trans-Atlantic community” to “stand together to face the threat” posed by the nexus between terrorists and dictators. The shared ideologies of the past have, to many observers in Poland, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, given way to the cynical bargaining chips of the present. In the eyes of the editorialists of the Czech daily Mlada fronta Dnes, the “Munich syndrome has been resurrected and, unfortunately, it is still alive among some allies.” The fact that the announcement was made on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland (following right on the heels of American diplomatic indifference of the Gdańsk commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Poland) shows the extent to which Polish and Czech sensibilities — attuned as they are to the historical and symbolic aspect of international relations — have been utterly discounted by current American policymakers.
The Obama administration’s decision on the missile defense shield, predicated as it was on a downgrading of the Iranian threat and an impulse towards defense cost-cutting, will have untold implications for the transatlantic alliance and for overall international security. But there is, to my mind, an even broader consideration to be made. Primo Levi’s final book, The Drowned and the Saved (1987), made the case that “to keep good faith and bad faith distinct costs a lot; it requires a decent sincerity and truthfulness with oneself, it demands a continuous intellectual and moral effort.” This is particularly true in the international sphere. Poland, the Czech Republic, and the other Central and Eastern European states that languished for so long as captive nations, and have worked so hard on their own behalf and with their American ally in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, have provided ample evidence of their good faith. Indeed Poland, the historian Norman Davies has maintained, “stands as a symbol of moral purpose in European life, and a warning of the dangers which beset the whole world.” (The same could be said of the Czech Republic, it should be added). It would be callous, and foolish, to forget this.
In the world of the Feiler Faster thesis, the recent repudiation of our model allies by way of unilateral abrogation of a negotiated agreement will gradually be forgotten by all too many, just as the lessons of the Ukrainian gas crises of 2005, or the Georgian conflict of 2008, seem to be well beyond the reach of most policymakers and mandarins. What will remain in the affected regions, however, is a creeping sense of American diplomatic bad faith, which will hinder current efforts and will doubtless hamstring future administrations. The historical experiences of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Central and Eastern Europe generally, provide useful lessons about “foresight and readiness,” not to mention “mindless fables.” It would be altogether lamentable if we were to become deaf to such lessons, and even more lamentable if our diplomacy, after so many successes in the post-Soviet sphere, ultimately failed “to keep good faith and bad faith distinct.”