Independence Day

“Friendship is but another name for an alliance with the follies and the misfortunes of others. Our own share of miseries is sufficient: why enter then as volunteers into those of another?” Or, if you prefer: “Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto.” The words of Thomas Jefferson, author of the US constitution and later president, were probably not on the minds of either man when President Komorowski attended the 4th July Independence Day celebrations at the US ambassador’s residence in Warsaw. And, to be fair, much has changed in the meantime but I wonder whether some of that Jeffersonian spirit is not once more abroad in US foreign policy thinking (resisting a reference to oxymoron).

The foundation of Polish-US relations is a “shared love of freedom and independence,” President Komorowski said, thanking Ambassador Stephen Mull for President Obama’s visit to Warsaw in June to mark the 25th anniversary of the end communism (please see Freedom). “I would like to say today, on this important anniversary of American independence, that we want to be a good ally, we want to feel the proximity of the United States, we want to cooperate to build together a better world based on the principles of liberty,” President Komorowski said. Repeating President Obama’s words during his visit (please see War and Peace) the US ambassador said that Poland is one of the United States’s most important allies and that the two countries shared much in common, including “a noisy democracy, liberty, pride in history, patriotism, a belief in hard work and innovation and citizens’ willingness to stand up for their friends.”

Which is all very reassuring but for the little matter of the Polish foreign minister being heard saying on an illegal recording, the transcript of which was published by Wprost magazine, that the Warsaw – Washington alliance was “worthless” (please see Shattered Reputations).

Of course, the alliance is not worthless and membership of NATO – to which the major contributor is the US – provides Poland with a military guarantee of great value. That of itself is worth having and should, on a rational examination, outweigh whatever other irritations might arise from the US alliance. And the most notable of these is the US visa waive programme which has not been extended to Poland, despite Poland’s contribution to US led adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problem for Poland and, indeed, for virtually every other country is that the US is large, wealthy, economically dominant, virtually self-sufficient (to extent it chooses to be and increasingly in energy) and, geographically speaking, a long way from trouble. Marginal assistance in wars which should not have been thought without a clear plan of what to do afterwards simply does not seem to the US a good enough reason to deviate from its policy of doing what suits it.

At a time when the US is shifting its focus from Europe to the Pacific rim, Poland’s demands, prompted by events in the Crimea, for permanent NATO (i.e. US) bases in Poland – Komorowski’s “we want to feel the proximity of the United States” perhaps – is simply not on the agenda, irrespective of whatever understanding may or may not have been entered into with Russia at the time NATO moved eastwards. While the benefits to Poland are clear, those to US – when looked at from the US strategic interest – are less so. The US has long been frustrated by NATO members’ apparent unwillingness to commit a sensible proportion of GDP to defence and while Poland may be among the best of bad bunch that is still not good enough. For the US, the sense of entitlement assumed by Poland and others is unattractive.

Nobody is suggesting that the US will not meet its NATO commitments to Poland (and others) but from the US strategic interest viewpoint that is a long way from saying that the US should somehow garrison Poland as if to prepare for a forthcoming war with Russia. Remembering the help that Poles such as Kosciuszko gave to the US during the American Revolution does not, as one commentator has written (see Cato.org), justify the US going to war with a nuclear power, if necessary, over 200 years later. According to this view the promise to go to war should be limited to cases where the American people have fundamental, vital interests at stake, and neither the fact that Poland is in a bad neighbourhood nor that there is much to appreciate about Polish-American ties is a compelling argument to defend Poland.

Be that as it may, Poland is in NATO, the US has sent some men and equipment on a rotating basis and Poland is in a better position now than it has been for centuries and perhaps the Jeffersonians are wrong. Happy Independence Day.

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