Poland and America: Together Forever?

"Poland’s tragic history commands sympathy, but Americans should object strenuously to the offensive ambitions the alliance has lately embraced."

The illegally obtained transcripts detailing the undiplomatic remarks of Poland’s chief diplomat, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, have cast an intriguing light on the place that America occupies in Poland’s imagination. They also raise important questions about the future of NATO. The conversation occurred at a Warsaw restaurant in January—that is, before the big descent in U.S.-Russian relations brought about by Ukraine’s February 22 revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Sikorski was chatting with Jacek Rostowski, a member of the ruling Civic Platform party who left his post as finance minister in 2013.

The alliance with Washington, held Sikorski, is “bulls***.” It “isn’t worth anything. It is downright harmful because it creates a false sense of security. . . . We'll get into a conflict with the Germans and the Russians and we'll think that everything is super because we gave the Americans a *******.” “The problem in Poland is that we have shallow pride and low self-esteem." In describing Poland’s attitude toward the United States, Sikorski used the Polish word "murzynskosc"—a derivative of "murzyn" (reports The Guardian) that “denotes a dark-skinned person and someone who does the work for somebody else.”

After the excerpts from the transcript were released, Sikorski said that his words had been taken out of context and that he was “caricaturing” the Polish opposition’s attitude toward the United States, not expressing his own view. Poland’s Ambassador to the United States also weighed in, calling Sikorski’s comments “distorted” and complaining of an essay in TNI by Doug Bandow. Ambassador Schnepf also reminded us—a very important point—that “the quoted words were from many months ago during a specific moment of uncertainty as to the stance of our allies towards the Ukrainian crisis.” A lot has happened since then, but not nearly enough to ease Poland’s anxiety.

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Sikorski’s fulminations raise two basic questions about the Polish-American alliance: First, what has the United States forced Poland to do that should make it feel humiliated? Second, wherein lay the betrayal? Why did Sikorski think in January that the U.S. guarantee was worthless?

Neither question is easy to fully answer. There is, to be sure, plenty of evidence that Poland has in fact been quite compliant to the United States for more than twenty years. Poland did the United States’ bidding by contributing forces to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, commitments that were unpopular at home. (Poland’s peak contribution in Iraq was 2500 soldiers; the full Polish contingent was withdrawn in October 2008). As the chief U.S. ally in Eastern Europe, more generally, it has felt an especially strong obligation to be loyal to U.S. wishes. But that complaisance obviously rankles. What Poland is forced to say in public in deference to the United States is not what it feels in private.

This sort of complaisance is actually a hidden cost of the cult of American leadership and its dogmas of unity under Washington’s benign hand: the weak states, though justly proud of their independence, are in no position to say what they really think. That is a loss.

And what of the betrayal? In the classic trade-off justifying monarchical rule, obedience was given in exchange for protection. (It was only after King George had thrown the American colonists “out of his protection” that they threw off their obedience in 1776; such was the immediate justification of the decision to declare independence.) With the United States supplying some 70 percent of NATO expenditures, the language of protection and obedience is a better overall fit for NATO than the official depiction of an alliance of equals not directed against anybody. It is especially true for the newer members. Poland, in Sikorski’s reckoning, had done the distasteful thing expected of it, burying its heart on bended knee, but all for nothing.

Sikorski probably didn’t believe in January that the American guarantee was “worthless”—we all have a tendency to exaggerate when hot—but his remarks attest to a profound anxiety that the Poles find difficult to keep down. In 2006, Sikorski likened Germany’s Nord Stream gas deal with Russia as a revival of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact of 1939. In 2008, he allegedly accused Germany (in a conversation with U.S. official Paula Dobriansky released by Wikileaks) of being a “Trojan horse in NATO” after Germany blocked a NATO “membership action plan” for Ukraine and Georgia.

In 2009, Polish opinion was irked by the Obama administration’s decision to cancel plans for missile defense installations on Polish soil. In the American reckoning, of course, the NATO missile shield was directed against Iran, not Russia, but just about everybody else, including Russia and Poland, saw it as an anti-Russian system. In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, American politicians urged that it be deployed to Poland as punishment for the Russians. Question: how could it reassure the Poles if it wasn’t even directed against the Russians? Answer: the public rationale linking it to Iran was not exactly the truth of the matter.

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