Recent weeks have demonstrated that Poland is rudderless and bobbing around on the waves of international politics with no clear course.
Poland’s foreign policy can’t find its compass. The Western world is about to experience a redistribution in the global game, but Warsaw is more disoriented than ever. When it attempts to rise up from its knees, it ends up drifting out of control.
After 1989, the trajectory of Poland’s diplomacy was set by Western values and the desire to join NATO and the EU. Later on, the strategic aim was to strengthen both structures and to sail a course through increasingly choppy waters that would prevent the need to choose between the US and the EU.
It was only in 2015 when Law and Justice (PiS) changed the bearing, placing the alliance with Donald Trump atop the hierarchy of priorities, simultaneously setting a collision course with Europe. This change was deservedly viewed as controversial, but at least it was clear what it was guided by. At present nobody knows anything.
Recent weeks have demonstrated that Poland is rudderless and bobbing around on the waves of international politics with no clear aim or direction.
When the countries of the EU were preparing for US President Joe Biden’s crucial visit to Europe, Poland’s foreign minister travelled to China. Beijing is currently the main area of interest in transatlantic affairs. The G7 summit in Cornwall, the NATO summit and the US-EU summit — all these recent crucial events have been centred on the Chinese question. The US wants to build a Western counterweight to China and the EU is currently hardening its stance towards it. The EU has recently imposed sanctions for repression against the Uighurs, it has withheld the ratification of an agreement on investments and is working on a range of instruments to counter the economic pressure coming from China.
Yet Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, along with his most pro-Chinese counterparts in Europe (in Serbia and Hungary), bucked this trend and praised the intensification of cooperation with China. He also strongly supported the agreement on investments that the EU is now stalling on.
Rau has spoken about respecting China’s legitimate interests, but did not utter a word about human rights. In May, Lithuania accused China of genocide and withdrew from the 17+1 China-CEE regional cooperation format, but the Polish government rediscovered its love for this grouping. President Andrzej Duda was one of the few leaders to participate in its recent summit. This sudden interest is noteworthy, since it had been markedly weaker during the Trump presidency. The US views China’s inroads into the countries of CEE and the Balkans as the construction of influences that threaten America’s long-term interests.
Poland’s visible warming of relations with China is intriguing for two reasons. Above all, it comes at a time when the West is preparing to ramp up its rivalry with China. However, it is also incompatible with another of Poland’s diplomacy goals currently being pursued: the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). Strengthening the north-south axis in the EU by developing infrastructure and economic links between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas is the apple of the PiS government’s eye. And political and financial support from the US to that end is a strategic goal.
Two weeks after the escapade in China and just before Biden’s visit to Europe, Rau and his Romanian counterpart mentioned this goal in “American Purpose”, a publication of the world-renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama. In their text, both ministers urged the US administration to financially support 3SI, which could serve as a counterweight to the “actors who do not share our democratic values and interests.”
3SI fits in wonderfully with the US strategy to resist China’s influence (because that is of course what it’s all about). But it seems that Rau has been making eyes at China, proffering cooperation on the so-called Polish Deal (a new economic development program announced by PiS), leading him to overtly ignore both Biden’s sensitivity on China and the hesitant first steps at working out an transatlantic approach to the country.
U-turn if you want to
There were other surprising U-turns recently. Poland signed a deal with Turkey on the purchase of military drones. There was nothing out of the ordinary in this, since Turkey produces one of the best products available. But the acquisition of this kind of equipment is not like a trip to a fruit-and-veg market. Turkey is annoyed with the EU and NATO (which it is a member of), in part due to access to gas deposits in the Mediterranean. It is negotiating with Russia, is courting China, has irritated the US by purchasing Russian rockets and accuses Washington of supporting President Erdogan’s political opponents. No other European country has decided to make a politically significant purchase of drones from Turkey, yet Poland did this right ahead of President Biden’s visit to Europe.
For good measure, Poland surprised all those who recall its recent opposite stance by declaring it was opposed to the US’s promoted idea to introduce a minimum tax rate for international corporations. Rau initially spoke out in favour of this at the G7 summit. However, in a much-discussed interview with the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, he complained that America’s withdrawal from the imposition of sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline equates to it making decisions without taking Warsaw into account. He then accused Biden of causing “embarrassment” by meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and told him it would have been wiser to first meet the president of Ukraine.
It’s not only the compass that’s missing – something has also happened with the helm.
A few years ago, the then-foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski’s remark to the German newspaper Bild that he did not want a world made up of “cyclists and vegetarians” became a symbol of PiS’s Poland moving away from the West. Zbigniew Rau’s interview carries a similar accent in relation to the Biden administration.
One can only speculate about the causes of this strange course. Perhaps it lies in the desire to show the US that loyalty to an ally has its limits and its price. Or perhaps it is a case of wounded pride, because the new US president can only find a few minutes to talk to the Polish head of state while on the way to the elevator.
PiS may also be assuming that they can wait Biden out. His time will soon pass and everything will then return to Trumpian “normality”. In fact, this would not be so strange if Poland’s foreign policy compass was only mildly off kilter. Today, however, no one is really sure who is holding the compass.
Politics in the EU is being held hostage by the head of a small party (Zbigniew Ziobro), who is acting out his vendetta against the judiciary and leading Poland into the path of further mines. The president is creating a separate path for the implementation of foreign policy, but his communication with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is deafening in its silence. And this week will see the launch of a new law on the foreign service, which will replace experienced boatswains with deckhands loyal to the party. Meanwhile, crucial steps such as Rau’s interview are undertaken without the knowledge of the diplomatic corps and with no consultation.
Thus, it’s not only the compass that’s missing – something has also happened with the helm.
However, it may be a greater error still that the navigators of Polish diplomacy appear to be misjudging the wind on international waters. Above all, it seems clear that PiS believes its own propaganda – that Poland under its leadership has become an indispensable strategic partner for the US, playing a particular role.
Certainly no one doubts Poland’s significance as an important NATO pillar and a good ally. However, the exceptionally close friendship during the Trump era was not the result of convictions about an exceptional community of interests. Poland’s elevated significance came about due to an ideological affinity, above all due to Trump’s hostility to the EU. Poland, in conflict with Berlin and Brussels, was the perfect piece to the jigsaw designed to weaken Europe.
President Biden has defined his priorities entirely differently. In spite of all the differences (for example on economic issues) that cropped up at the US-EU summit, he is counting on close cooperation with the EU in the areas most important to him: China, defending democracy, human rights, fighting climate change. An ally’s value is mainly measured by how engaged they are in pursuing these aims.
Even under Biden, though, the US has not shied away from taking unilateral and arbitrary measures without consulting its allies. This was how troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan and it was no different with extending the START obligations with Russia. The expectation that the US would make an exception for Poland and consult on its actions regarding Nord Stream 2 was a misunderstanding from the beginning. Poland’s complaints in public when this did not happen merely prove how PiS has come to believe its own propaganda about “rising up from its knees”.
Desperately seeking a strong partner
A new breeze in transatlantic relations has tangled Poland up in the rigging for another reason. For years, Poland saw itself as a country which could help the US curb the excessive ambitions of France and Germany to develop strategic autonomy for the EU or European sovereignty. These concepts represent, for example, attempts to strengthen Europe independently of the US and NATO in terms of the ability to act in security policy, and Poland treated them exclusively as a caprice of the French. With Trump consumed by the conviction that Europe is more rival than partner to the US, this stance helped Poland win points in the White House (less so in the broader American establishment). It is now completely useless.
Biden’s main fear is not that the EU will break from its American protector, but that its weakness as an actor in security terms represents a risk to American interests. The US now wants the EU to be a strong partner with not only economic power but also one able, for example, to take independent military action in North Africa and the Middle East. The cost of having a “tougher” EU freer of US policy is, in this regard, of secondary importance.
The problem with this is that the US, as Jeremy Shapiro wrote in Foreign Affairs, almost wrote the EU off in this role. Its (last-remaining) hope is not currently a Poland capable of stopping Europe from – allegedly dangerously – breaking its chains, but rather the election in Germany. Some in Washington are counting on the Germans electing a new government coalition containing the Greens, which would push the country towards a more active and decisive policy in areas important for the US.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prefers to talk… directly to Biden and Merkel because Poland has little to offer him.
Poland is unprepared for this new distribution, in part because the Nord Stream 2 issue has eclipsed its entire broader context in international relations. Instead of serving Washington up some invective about it pursuing policy over our heads (NB. exterritorial sanctions against European entities is a dangerous precedent which could – with a less fair wind – be applied against Poland), Warsaw could have joined in the discussion about how to mitigate any potential negative effects of the pipeline.
One such idea is to enter into cooperation with Ukraine regarding exporting hydrogen to the EU. Hydrogen will become a more important fuel than natural gas and its production will change the balance of power on the European market. Germany is currently betting on the development of that industry and on hydrogen imports from all possible sources. It is plain that Poland could play a key role in lending cooperation with Ukraine a strategic character and could find an important place for itself there. But now Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prefers to talk about these and other issues directly to Biden and Merkel because Poland has little to offer him.
Finally, recent events and Biden’s meetings with European partners have confirmed that it is a mistake to assume that values and the rule of law are nothing more than a pretty flower in the lapel of a jacket made of hard interests. That may have been so some time ago, but it is undergoing a sea change – not because of principles, but because of pragmatism.
The confrontation with China in large part concerns technology, artificial intelligence, internet, cybersecurity, data and regulation issues, and separating values from economic interests is impossible. The next few years may be decisive as to whether the West will be able to co-create a new international order where democratic and liberal values will continue to have a strong position. This is Biden’s mission and there is no room for hesitation regarding whose side we are on.
Rau’s text we quoted from above is entitled “Setting Sail on the Three Seas”. Poland has genuinely done this in its foreign policy and is beginning its journey into deeper waters. Unfortunately, Biden’s recently concluded visit to Europe has demonstrated that Poland is adrift and the rest of the fleet is headed in a different direction.