Leszek Sykulski has a PhD in political science, specializing in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe. He is president of the Polish Geostrategic Society and former international security analyst in the Office of the President of Poland during Lech Kaczyński’s presidency. Excerpts of Adriel Kasonta’s interview for Asia Times with Sykulski follow.
Adriel Kasonta: During the press conference with Latvian Foreign Minister Gabriel Landsbergis last month, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau reiterated that Poland perceives Taiwan as an integral part of the Middle Kingdom and Warsaw supports the policy of “one China.” Moreover, Rau also declared that Poland does not want to follow in Latvia’s footsteps. What do you make of this?
Leszek Sykulski: After the recent US presidential election, the Polish political establishment is now confused. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US, signed on August 15, 2020, gave the Polish government hope of creating a “Fort Trump” in Poland. Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election was met with disappointment among Polish decision-makers.
Accusations of Poland’s violations of democratic principles from the US, especially from Democratic circles, reinforce the sense of dissatisfaction with Washington’s policy towards Warsaw. Therefore, the attempt to develop bilateral relations with other regional powers, such as Turkey (for example Poland’s purchase of Bayraktar TB2 drones), is not surprising.
The reorientation of American policy and the strategic “turn to Asia” took place in the shadow of an attempt to rebuild the international order from Western Sahara to Afghanistan. The effort to create a new security architecture, build a so-called “Greater Middle East,” and introduce Western standards of liberal democracy in the Maghreb, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia resulted in protracted conflicts in the area of the “global Balkans.”
This area has already been the scene of geopolitically significant clashes since the 1980s. In the current geostrategy, it is part of one of several “geostrategic faults” that will determine the future international order.
We are currently witnessing events that, in my opinion, are part of the process of preparation of the Israeli-American coalition for a major war in the Middle East. The primary direct opponent of this alliance is the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, the indirect target is the Chinese economy, which is currently dependent on hydrocarbon imports from the Persian Gulf area.
AK: Poland recently sent 400,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to Taiwan, making it the fourth EU country after Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to be known for this gesture. President Tsai Ing-wen thanked the country on Facebook, saying that Poland and Taiwan share the same universal values as they also “strove for democracy” in the past. Interestingly, Poland deleted its tweets about sending vaccines to Taiwan. What may be the reason behind this move?
LS: Polish authorities do not want to alienate Beijing. Taiwan is an important business partner for many countries globally, but it is not a geopolitical partner. Figuratively speaking, no one in Warsaw is going to die for Taipei.
Nowadays, Warsaw is distancing itself from the Indo-Pacific disputes. Poland has no interest in getting involved in conflicts that are not its own, given that it cannot project power over such distances. When it comes to importing goods to Poland, the People’s Republic of China ranks first among our trading partners. Taiwan is not even in the top 10.
AK: Knowing the current track record of Poland concerning topics of democracy and human rights (at least as it is portrayed by the European Union and the current government in the US), wouldn’t you not consider it more prudent to set your own house in order first, before engaging in, what it seems to be, the hybrid war against China rooted in the international liberal messianism?
LS: Poland today has its own problems connected with the interference of other countries in our internal affairs. It is not only the United States which is beginning to tell us how our domestic policy should look like but also Germany, for example. This is based on the neoliberal paradigm used by parts of the Western European and American elite. This can be seen very clearly in the various kinds of pressure on Warsaw from the European Commission and the EU Court of Justice.
It is worth stressing that China is a country and civilization poorly known among Polish society. The average Pole does not understand either social relations with the PRC or the geostrategic complexities of East Asia. I think that any interference in China’s internal affairs is not in Poland’s interest.
AK: After the messy withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US seems to be accelerating its “pivot to Asia” at least try to contain Beijing. With the recent announcement of the AUKUS security pact among Washington, London and Canberra, the US will increase its presence in the South China Sea region. The new EU-China strategy also suggests that Brussels is slowly embracing a tougher approach toward China. What is Poland’s raison d’état in all of this? What strategy approach should the country adopt?
LS: There is no political consensus in Poland on the ultimate shape of the European Union, of which our country has been a member since 2004. There is a dispute about whether Poland should join the construction of a European federated state or opt for a Europe of homelands, of sovereign nation states.
Within the EU itself, there is a significant dispute about a unified policy toward China. In the case of the Polish state, given our geographical location, a sensible approach would be to concentrate on the economic benefits of Poland’s transit location.
In Polish geopolitical thought, there is, in fact, a concept, which was created before World War II by Włodzimierz Wakar, based on the assumption of building economic power based on Poland’s location at the crossroads of important trade routes in Eurasia.
AK: The trade war between the US and China is indeed intensifying. So far, Angela Merkel has been able, more or less, to balance Europe’s interests between Washington and Beijing. This year marks her last term as German chancellor, and it is said that the recent elections will determine Poland’s approach to China. What are your predictions?
LS: Berlin’s policy toward Eastern Europe will, in my opinion, be based on the idea of Mitteleuropa, only implemented with economic instruments. Germany aims at a rapid energy transformation of its own country and Central and Eastern European countries.
Rejection of nuclear energy and quick closure of mines may result in subordinating the economies of the countries in the region to Berlin, which, thanks to Russian gas (Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2), will be able to redistribute energy and also to transfer technologies related to renewable energy sources.
Currently, Germany is Poland’s leading economic partner and the main political force in the EU. The new political coalition in Germany, in my view, will continue the strategic energy alliance with Russia, promote the region’s energy transition and pursue a climate and energy partnership with the US.
Poland’s position toward China will be a product of Warsaw’s position in the EU, ability to diversify energy sources and capacity for strategic autonomy.
AK: Up to now, the Franco-German tandem believed that deeper economic relations with China would counterbalance American unilateralism. Poland plays a crucial role in President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, and Beijing is the second-largest trade partner (after Berlin) to Warsaw. Knowing that, should the “It’s the economy, stupid!” motto still be valid, or perhaps not?
LS: In addition to the priority of economic development, what is also important is the appropriate strategic culture of the decision-making elites, the right political decisions, the building of strategic autonomy based on our efficient secret services and modern armed forces, as well as high morale of the army and society.
After joining NATO (1999) and the EU (2004), Poland’s foreign and security policy is based on trust in the collective security system, based mainly on the US military umbrella. It is Washington that is still seen in Warsaw as the leading provider of security.
Even the most beneficial economic contacts with China will not change the current mentality of the Polish elites, who see Washington as their primary protector unless Beijing decides on a more active policy in distributing not only goods but also security.
AK: How would you assess Viktor Orban’s approach to China? Has Poland anything to learn from Hungary in this regard?
LS: The multi-vector policy pursued by Budapest, but also by Turkey, for example, is a viable policy and one which is in line with current geostrategic trends. I am referring to the formation of a new international security architecture based on a polycentric world vision.
The ability to respond flexibly to dynamically changing global environments, technological transformations, recent trends in globalisation requires the ability to talk to everyone, as well as doing business in many different directions. This is the Hungarian lesson for Poland.
AK: Being situated between Russia and Germany has been historically perceived as a geopolitical curse for Poland. Would you not agree that with the rise of China, this is now the best possible location that one can imagine?
LS: I believe that Poland, situated on the axis of both the New Silk Road and the New Amber Road, has a unique opportunity for economic development. It is worth taking advantage of the flows of modern technology and the creation of Eurasian connectivity. Poland could be a crucial logistic hub.
AK: Poland is historically known for its affinity for, to quote Stanisław “Cat” Mackiewicz, “exotic alliances.” Do you envisage this trend continuing, or perhaps there is some chance for an independent, multi-vector foreign policy? How, in your opinion, should the foreign policy for Poland look, which would best serve the country’s national interest in the coming years, and rapidly changing geopolitical circumstances?
LS: In the face of the US turn to Asia, Polish foreign policy will, in my view, face two fundamental dilemmas: joining the EU as a federal state or opting for a multi-vector policy aimed at strategic autonomy.
AK: What are the possible challenges to Poland’s independent foreign policy and implementation?
LS: The most significant current strategic dilemma for Poland is the question of the direction of European integration. We are observing a tendency to build a federal Europe. Relinquishing sovereignty to Brussels would end Poland’s chances for any strategic autonomy.
It is worth emphasizing that Central and Eastern Europe is increasingly becoming not so much a geostrategic pivot but a crushing zone for the superpowers. Along with the rest of the former Warsaw Pact states that joined NATO, Poland is being treated instrumentally by Washington. This is due to its increasing submission to the political will of the US and its assumption of a role that George Friedman called a “cordon sanitaire.”
Donald Rumsfeld even coined the term “new Europe,” which is offensive to Poles and Hungarians. The countries of our region were not, nor are they now, any “new Europe,” but part of the traditionally understood “old Europe,” based on the values of Latin civilization. The attempt to divide and play off members of the European Union is a standard element of the modus operandi of American diplomacy and services.
One of the critical challenges for Poland is to emerge from its role as an American junior partner and be able to pursue a multi-vector policy.