Poland's dilemma

  • 2004-07-22
  • 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 July 10 that Poland had been secretly talking with the United States for the past eight months about locating elements of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, including interceptor missiles, on its territory. It was then publicized that America has also been talking to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria about the issue, although Poland is definitely the leading candidate.

Poland's main problem has always been its geography: sandwiched between Germany and Russia, the country was regularly conquered by or partitioned between the two. Poland lost 20 percent of its population in World War II, mainly in Nazi death camps, and then spent the next 45 years under a communist dictatorship imposed by its Russian liberators. You can then see why it wants close links with a great power outside of Europe, and giving the United States military bases that Washington sees as important is one easy way of doing that.
The project aimed at protecting 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 U.S. political system has been to serve as a kind of social welfare system for needy aerospace companies and recently retired Air Force generals.
But the Poles don't care whether the missiles work or not. In fact 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 United States 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 Defense 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 United States seeking missile bases in East 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 Defense 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 East European states have sent token contingents to Iraq to curry favor 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 counterbalancing centers 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 East 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.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based
independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.