There will never be another summer like this one

02.05.2018 | By Marcin Kędzierski

The time of PR and politicians in shorts, whose thoughts are preoccupied with their public image, is apparently over. History counterattacks. If we want to be able to look in the eyes of our grandchildren without shame, we have to get ready for worse. 

The considerations about the international position of a state and its self-assurance date back to the first city-states in ancient Greece, but it was not until the World War I when the academic discipline of “international relations” has emerged. As a matter of fact, the essence of considerations about international relations has not changed much from Thucydides’ “The History of the Peloponnesian War” up until the 20th-century precursors of international relations theory. The fundamental question asked by the idealistic Normal Angell or realists like Edward Carr and Hans Morgenthau was: “How to avoid war?”. Or, in other words, “how to ensure state’s safe and peaceful development?”.

We live in interesting times

Then came the summer of 1989. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, thus ending the last proxy war of the Cold War, and Poland held its first partially free elections. Francis Fukuyama published his “The End of History” essay in “The National Interest” and proclaimed the eventual victory of liberal democracy. Three years later, in the spring of 1992, Joseph Nye, one of the fathers of neoliberalism and the person who first used the concept of “soft power”, published an article in “Foreign Affairs” which had a telling title: “What New World Order?”.

In the article, he analysed five scenarios, with the most probable of them forecasting so-called “multilevel interdependence”, which he compared to a three-layer cake. The first layer represented the military sphere, where the US had a hegemonic position. The second was the economic level with a rivalry between three principal actors – the US, Europe and Japan. Finally, the third was the cultural layer characterised by the interdependence of numerous state and non-state entities.

The articles by Fukuyama and Nye are becoming the dogma of the post-Cold War international relations, and it is not just in the academic dimension, but also in the social one.

In the sphere of culture, one could deem John Lennon’s “war is over if you want it” as the precursor of this new theory. War is becoming the topic of historical and psychological research, and the traditional international relations are losing their raison d’être, which is why the researchers are seeking a new justification for their discipline. The research on international security, which has traditionally been conducted in the institutes of strategic studies, is being transformed into the analyses of organised crime (including terrorism) and climate change mitigation. With the tabooisation of the concept of war, which has until now been inextricably linked to the (national) state entities, we are experiencing the end of the idea of the state as a key actor in international relations.

The September 2001 attacks, symbolically regarded as the start of the 21st century, haven’t changed the situation. They now don’t seem to be anything more than the death throes of fundamentalisms that are stuck in history. Admittedly, Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” is getting increasingly popular, but in reality, his book has only proved that the process of democratisation must go on. He admits that it will require some adaptation measures, as according to him it is the religion and tradition – not the state – which will play a significant role. However, fundamentally – the war is over. We can now discuss at most local conflicts.

Anyway, almost the entire first decade of the 21st century shows that the era of states and wars, both in the political and economic sense, is gone. Today’s international relations students learn about geopolitics as a historical concept during their introductory classes, just to not hear about it ever again. Later, they start an international economic relations course, during which they explore the challenges of economic integration. Just like geopolitics, the economic wars between states are hardly ever discussed as they are only briefly mentioned in historical context.

However, the phenomenon of the state doesn’t go entirely underground yet. To name an example, Tomasz Lis has in autumn 2003 published a book entitled “What’s with Poland?”, in which he wondered about the reasons for the decay of the Polish political class, whose weaknesses had been painfully exposed in the Rywin affair. His perspective (which is still shared by many) was of a very internal nature; he simply assumed that the EU and NATO were the answer to every single external problem a state could struggle against. Most Poles perceive their country’s participation in international anti-terrorist coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq as distant folklore; they also associate the concept of war with cool pictures and sounds from the Warsaw Uprising Museum. Nowadays, even the researchers appear to rather focus on the “out-of-area [military] operations.”

Then, there comes the 10th of February 2007, and Russian president Vladimir Putin takes the floor during the annual Munich Security Conference. All the saints of this world sit in the first row.

Putin delivers a speech, in which he accuses the US of striving for hegemony, excessive expansion and abuse of power. Although Putin was not the first to contest Pax Americana (leftist journalists like Noam Chomsky had previously challenged it in their writings), his words were interpreted as a sign that the global order was about to change.

It is flashing, and one can hear the iron clanking

The few years that followed have profoundly reshaped the scene – both globally and in Poland. Merely a month later, in April 2007, Poland gains the right to organise European Football Championships. Euro 2012, as it was called, becomes pretty much a leitmotif of the Polish strategic thought for the next five years. At the same time, the EU’s multiannual financial framework 2007-2013 starts, and Poland is about to be flooded with the European money. Self-centered Polish élites share a belief that the country is entering the golden age of peace and development. Just like it happened to Deng Xiaoping’s China in the 80s.

It turns out that Poland’s national ambition only amounts to spending 70 billion euros, building four football stadiums and constructing a few hundreds of kilometres of highway. Instead of doing politics, it builds bridges. Everything’s idyllic.

Moreover, the situation certainly can’t be described with words “There will never be another summer like this (…) it is flashing, and one can hear the iron clanking”, which had earlier been (prophetically?) sung out by actor Bogusław Linda while performing a Świetliki song.

The summer of 2008 finally comes and the day of 08.08.08 marks the real beginning of the new century. The Olympic Games in Beijing are launched. Despite widespread protests from human rights organisations, global leaders make an appearance at the opening ceremony in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest. The People’s Republic of China thus symbolically becomes a global power, even though it has already been one for a while owing to its dynamic economic development. (On a side note, The Second Reich’s economy surpassed Britain around 1900 just to wage war for hegemony – or, in other words, for new development opportunities – a decade later.)

One important leader is missing at the ceremony. That person is Vladimir Putin, who’s starting a war against Georgia. Not just some silly conflict, but a real war against another state.

Beijing launches fireworks, and at the same time, the post-Cold War myth is falling apart. The “golden age” ends with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the global financial crisis, which triggers the EU disintegration process. (On another side note: the Second World War broke out a decade after the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression it entailed.) Day after day, geopolitics is becoming more and more relevant, and it is followed by its youngest sister, geo-economics (for which Poland will have to wait for a little longer).

I don’t know whether Lech Kaczyński, who referred to Kiev as “[Putin’s] next target” during his 2008 speech in Tbilisi, was trying to make a rational forecast or simply allowed his emotions to get out of hand. However, his words, deemed exaggerated at the time, turned out to be prophetic. Before Poland managed to win its first gold at these Games, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was acting on behalf of entire European Union, had approved, in Kremlin, the six-point ceasefire agreement between Russia and Georgia.

Putin doesn’t implement a single point from the agreement, but the US still rushes to announce a reset in its relations with Russia. Washington will not be dying for Georgia, especially considering how valuable Kremlin’s support might be for the US in the event of an America-China conflict. China taking over as a leader of the 2008 Beijing medal table appears to be the first modest preview of that conflict. The big game is about to start.

To gain a proper understanding of this game’s battlefield, one has to follow the events in the Middle East. The region pretty much serves as a litmus paper of the global state of play. At least it did so until 2011 and the start of Arab Spring, which resulted in Syrian Civil War and the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS). These events have shaken the global order as we knew it.

The US responded by publishing its 2012 defence strategy with a telling title Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership. The document underlined the need for the US to further pivot in the direction of Asia and Pacific, even though the US had already been gradually withdrawing from Europe. Few people have, however, associated its contents with the failure of the Eastern Partnership summit that the Polish presidency in the Council of the EU organised in the autumn of 2011.

But the presidency comes to an end. Poland accepts congratulations and moves on to final frantic preparations for Euro 2012, another remedy for our national inferiority complex. In the meantime, Poland finally holds a real public debate about China. It is only too bad that the main topic is the Covec company quitting the A2 highway construction project and thus embarrassing Poland in front of Europe. In the face of all controversies surrounding this withdrawal, it is easy for everyone not to notice Putin’s announcement in May about deploying Iskander nuclear-capable missiles to its Kaliningrad exclave. The missiles are pointed at Poland and other European NATO members.

Finally, the time of the European Football Championships comes. On the 27th of June 2012, Poland and its Ukrainian partner hold a joint conference in a Benedictine monastery in Tyniec. After some fierce discussions, their representatives sit together to watch a semi-final match between Spain and Portugal in Donetsk. It gets tense, as it takes a penalty shoot-out to determine the winner. Nobody suspects that in two years Donetsk will be the scene of regular warfare and Kiev, where the final match was played a few days later, will experience the Maidan massacre.

I must, however, admit that the war at Ukraine is a logical consequence of a sequence of troubling events. A consequence that we could – and should – have predicted. Would that be easy? Probably not. However, it does not change the fact that we were completely unprepared for the new situation. Both materially (economy, army) and intellectually. Apparently, it is easiest to blame this state of affairs on the ruling coalition of PO-PSL (Civic Platform and Polish People’s Party). Their term started at the exact moment when the world order as we knew it began collapsing like a house of cards. Although the Civic Platform was responsible for the first significant revision of Poland’s post-1989 foreign policy (so-called “neo-Piast turn”, which took the form of Weimar and Kaliningrad Triangles), it failed to identify and address the changes in its transforming geopolitical surroundings. It wasn’t until 2013 when the Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski realised that something was not right and made a desperate attempt to revive the Visegrad cooperation, which had for years been limited to valuable, but politically irrelevant initiatives. He even organised The First Visegrad Bike Race (the diplomats, who helped to put this initiative in place, recall the minister “acting crazy” before the event). Unfortunately, he then struggled with the lack of ideas and time. By the time Russia joined the conflict and annexed Crimea, Poland’s time for preparation has run out – now it has to adjust to the new reality.

We all bear responsibility for the way our state deals with such changes. In 2009 we published an article about “The New Middle Ages” in our quarterly, “Pressje”. Then, we explored the changing paradigms of social studies, as well as implemented several international initiatives aimed at strengthening the Central European dimension of foreign policy (examples include Visegrad Plus or the Polish-Romanian Round Table Dialogues). We have, however, failed to come up with a proposal for Poland’s foreign policy that would be more responsive to the challenges of the 21st century. We also failed to make people realise that successes like the presidency in the Council of the EU, Euro 2012 or having a Polish “president of Europe” are effectively distorting our perception of reality.

To put it simply, Poland is at least a decade behind, which is why it now has to ask itself five fundamental questions. The answers to them must consider both the short-term (2-3 years ahead – a possible reform of the EU and NATO) and long-term (the year 2050) perspectives. We’ll assume that Poland is a state of medium size and power rather than a superpower or everyone’s vassal. We’ll also strive to avoid the gap between our expectations (dreams) and capabilities, while also remembering that the 2050 context will be radically different from the one that we’ve got today. What are these dilemmas?

Let’s answer a few questions

First and foremost, how profoundly will the international situation change until 2050? What are the possible transformation scenarios? A thorough vision of Poland’s future foreign policy should take into account many variables so that the state is prepared for different scenarios. Without conducting such analysis, it will be impossible to engage in the reform of the EU and NATO effectively.

Secondly, how do we guarantee Poland’s security? How do we reconcile the development of our independent military capabilities with cooperation within the NATO alliance? How do we maintain the cohesion of NATO, which remains the main guarantor of our security? Was the 2016 Warsaw NATO Summit our opportunity to redefine NATO’s modus operandi? Moreover, what about the doctrine promoted by Sir Hastings Ismay, the first NATO Secretary General, who believed NATO’s Cold War strategy should be based on keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down? Is it still possible to keep the Americans in Europe (or make them come back to Europe)? What is China’s role in this jigsaw puzzle? Would it be better for our security if China stayed out?

Thirdly, what should the reformed EU look like? We are deeply convinced that Poland’s potential is insufficient for the country to matter globally, which is why the EU membership should serve as a tool for realising the country’s national interests. We must, therefore, know how to counteract disintegration processes in the Old Continent. We must also figure out how to reform the EU in a way that boosts the potential of both Poland and the Union (which, naturally, does not necessarily imply pursuing the political union).

Fourthly, how do we shape an effective regional policy in Central Eastern Europe? A policy that makes use of available capabilities and resources to generate new tools aiming at strengthening the potential of Poland and other countries of the region. Should the idea of Intermarium (Międzymorze) coalition, which remains appealing to many, be further pursued?

Fifthly, how do we shape our relations with emerging powers? We’re referring particularly to China, but we also urge to remember about other Rimland powers like Iran or Turkey.

Let’s face it – the task that our authors received is challenging and requires prophetic rather than just analytical skills, but we take their considerations very seriously. It would be pretty irresponsible to do otherwise considering how often the concept of war gets mentioned. The time of PR and politicians in shorts, whose thoughts are preoccupied with image problems, is over. History counterattacks. If we want to be able to look in the eyes of our grandchildren without shame, we have to get ready for the worse.

Translation from Polish: Aleksandra Wróbel.