Poland’s Dilemma

15 July 2004

Poland’s Dilemma

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’re interested in becoming a concrete part of the arrangement,” said Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Boguslaw Majewski, after it was revealed on 10 July that Poland has been in secret talks with the United States for the past eight months on locating elements of the US ballistic missile defence system, including interceptor missiles, on its territory. Then it came out that the US has also been talking to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria about it, but Poland is definitely the leading candidate.

Poland’s main problem has always been its geography: sandwiched between Germany and Russia, it was regularly conquered by them or partitioned between them. Poland lost twenty percent of its population in the Second World War, mainly in Nazi death camps, and then spent the next forty-five years under a Communist dictatorship imposed by its Russian liberators. You can see why it wants close links with a great power that isn’t in Europe, and giving the United States military bases that Washington sees as important is one easy way of doing that.

The project to protect the United States from ballistic missile attack is one of the great boondoggles of all time. After 20 years of development, there is still no evidence that it will ever work reliably — even though the Pentagon is going ahead with the construction of two missile interceptor sites in California and Alaska, presumably to shoot down the ICBMs that North Korea doesn’t have, tipped with the nuclear warheads that it probably doesn’t have either. The main function of ‘Son of Star Wars’ in the US political system has been to serve as a kind of social welfare system for needy aerospace companies and recently retired Air Force generals.

The Poles don’t care whether the missiles work or not, and most of them don’t even believe the story that the Pentagon wants a site in Eastern Europe to intercept nuclear missiles fired at the United States by Iran or Syria. (Iran and Syria don’t have missiles that could get even a quarter of the way to the US, or any nuclear warheads to put on them, either.) They suspect that Washington really wants to intercept Russian missiles just after they launch, but that’s okay with them, too. Poles mistrust the Russians almost as much as they do the Germans.

All the Poles want is an important American base on their territory, so that Washington doesn’t forget about them in a crisis. They’ll make do with radar stations if they have to, but, as former defence minister Janusz Onyszkeiwicz put it, “an interceptor site would be more attractive. It wouldn’t be a hard sell in Poland.” It’s a very understandable Polish reflex, given the history — but it could greatly complicate Poland’s foreign relations closer to home.

Germany and France are not at all pleased to see the US seeking missile bases in Eastern European countries that have become, since this spring, part of the European Union. They see it as part and parcel of Washington’s strategy of splitting off the recently ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe that Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld described last year with typical sensitivity as ‘new Europe’ (good and strongly pro-American), to be distinguished from France, German and other parts of ‘old Europe’ (bad and allegedly anti-American).

It’s working, too. Most of the Eastern European states have sent token contingents to Iraq to curry favour with the United States, and most of them would be happy to have American bases on their soil (though they’ll never outbid the Poles). And it’s practically a cost-free strategy at the moment: the Germans and the French haven’t been nasty to them, and the Russians have been positively saintly about it all. But it could get ugly further down the line.

If the United States remains on a unilateralist course after this November’s election, failing to consult with allies, ignoring the United Nations whenever it gets in the way, and frequently violating international law, all the other great powers will start to respond by trying to create counter-balancing centres of power. They are on hold for the moment, because none of them really wants to go down that road, but it’s clear what they will do if they conclude that it is necessary.

They will start building up their arms, of course, and in the case of China that is probably all they will do. In Europe, however, the great powers will also start to come together in what won’t be called an alliance, but will gradually become exactly that — and its chief members will be France, Germany and Russia. That’s the only combination big enough to say ‘no’ to overwhelming American power.

If it comes to that, five years down the road, life will get very hard for Eastern European countries that have become too closely bound to the United States — especially if they have American missile interceptor sites on their territory. And if you think that this scenario hasn’t already occurred to the chief American negotiator on the potential deal with Poland, Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, then you are seriously underestimating the man.

The real question is whether it has occurred to the Poles.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 3. (“The project…generals”)