Poland’s strategic awakening: a new leader appears

China's Foreign Minister visits Poland in 2011

When Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao participated in the founding meeting of the Central and Eastern European (CEE)–China Summit in Warsaw April 2012, it seemed few in Canberra asked why Poland was chosen by China as the leader of the grouping. With a population of 38 million citizens (the sixth largest European Union member) and an impressive economic performance of 2–3% GDP growth during the global financial crisis, Poland is surely a formidable European player. But the Chinese instinctively understand what many still do not: if a new leader in the European Union (EU) is to emerge, Poland is a safe bet. What can Polish leadership do for international security? And how can Polish interests dovetail with Australia’s?

In less than a decade Poland fought its way through to the very forefront of EU’s foreign policy. It has fostered greater EU engagement in its Eastern neighbourhood, called for energy solidarity to reduce Moscow’s dominance over European energy markets, and promoted the idea of a stronger transatlantic alliance based on enhanced economic cooperation and security guarantees. At the same time it has advocated for more, not less of Europe—a staggering 70% of Poles continue to believe in the relevance of the European Union project. It’s no accident that the European Council has elected as its new President former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Yet it’s the new geopolitical context characterised by growing uncertainties over Russia which is contributing to a ‘strategic awakening’ of Poland as an EU leader. With a more aggressive and unpredictable Russia in the east and a fragmenting European Union in the west, dark visions from the country’s not-so-distant tragic history reappear. However, instead of retracting, Poland is looking at ways in which it can contribute to the strengthening of both the EU and NATO as founding pillars of Europe’s prosperity and security. Furthermore, it is reaching out for instruments which will allow it to influence the broader international security order. Examples of Poland’s ambitions which go beyond the Euro-Atlantic cooperation include the country’s recent bid for a UN Security Council non-permanent member for 2018–19 or its endorsement of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And its leadership momentum, as never before, is being strengthened by three critical factors.

First is Poland’s sense of historic urgency. In just 25 years the country has become an integrated part of the Western institutional system. Thanks to its NATO and EU membership and its successful political and economic transformation, for the first time in centuries, Poland is secure and prosperous. Yet unlike many Western Europeans, Poles are hungry for more. There is a deep understanding that a quarter of a century of prosperity is not enough. And the benefits which have resulted from Poland becoming part of the liberal democratic order are worth fighting for—the fall of this order will hit Poland first.

Next is Poland’s strategic culture. Poland has developed a distinct strategic culture based on the understanding that security is not granted once and for all. Geopolitical concerns, as well as the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Polish nation, are defining factors of this culture. The country is a reliable NATO member and a strong US ally, evidenced by its readiness to send troops to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. But Poland also understands that the NATO alliance is only as strong as its member states are. Poland recognises the need to provide for its own defence, rather than relying on others. This is seen in the pursuit of its own missile defense and a ten-year rearmament program (worth US$42 billion), which will guarantee it’ll meet the 2% GDP NATO target for defence spending in the years to follow.

Lastly are Poland’s strategic alliances with the US, Germany and beyond. Poland holds a firm belief that the United States remains the ultimate guarantor of European security just as Germany remains the ultimate guarantor of European prosperity. Its partnerships with both countries remain at the heart of Polish foreign policy. However, disillusionment with the lack of US engagement in Europe, and Germany’s inability to solve the Ukrainian–Russian conflict is giving way to independent strategic thought. Poland is recalibrating its focus towards a more regional approach based on closer security cooperation with the Scandinavian and Baltic states—all of which form the ‘New Security Wave’ thinking in Europe.

As the European geopolitical and security landscape changes, it’s a good time also for Australia to look beyond its traditional interlocutors on the ‘old continent’. The striking closeness of Polish and Australian security culture (which resonates in both countries’ approach to the Ukrainian–Russian conflict and the importance of a military alliance with the US), shared values and economic interests (among others in the energy sector) form promising grounds for cooperation. Both countries, already perceived as possessing significant military capabilities, face a small probability of being attacked directly, but are becoming indispensable security guarantors for its direct neighbors (Poland for the Baltic States; Australia for New Zealand and the Pacific Ocean). Most importantly, dealing up-close with potentially revisionist powers (Russia, China) both Poland and Australia share a deep and strategic interest in assuring that a rules-based international order prevails in the long term. This needs to be done by cooperation but also by the ability to deter. In that sense, a like-minded partner, with a growing geopolitical and military weight, and at the core of the European integration process is surely a partner Australia would value.