Three Seas Initiative: Poland’s Historical Gambit

Abstract: This piece analyzes Poland’s recent foreign policy in light of President Trump’s recent visit. It points out historical precedents in Poland’s history that seem to have been revived under the Duda presidency. It suggests that Poland, like other Eastern European states, is pursuing less globalist and left-leaning policies that are more in accord with those of the Trump administration. This may have great implications for future relations between the Europeans themselves and the United States.

In Warsaw, Donald Trump’s first stop on his second foreign trip that included a meeting with Vladimir Putin, the President reassured the world of America’s commitment to Article V of the NATO treaty, admonished Russia for destabilizing Ukraine, and reaffirmed that North Korea was a “global threat.” In a fiery speech ostensibly addressed to the Polish nation, Trump drew an analogy between Poland’s turbulent past and the present situation in which the Western world finds itself. He asked whether the West still had “the will to survive,” implying that America and Europe need to reaffirm their traditional values of individual freedom, family, and faith if they wish to emerge victorious from the struggle against Radical Islam and repressive regimes such as Russia. Conveyed through Polish history lessons Trump defined his administration’s conservative philosophy and geopolitical policies. A closer examination of Poland’s past is necessary to understand its regional aspirations and affinities with the current administration in the United States.

The official occasion for President Trump’s visit to Poland was the summit of the Polish-Croatian “Three Seas Initiative,” whose objective is to create a series of infrastructural, technological, and cultural connections in East-Central Europe along the north-south axis. In addition, the leaders of the twelve states who gathered in Warsaw are keen to make their countries independent of Russian gas through imports from alternate sources such as the United States and Norway. Lastly, the initiative is related to military security, which explains the overnight deal struck concerning the sale of U.S. Patriot missiles to Poland. The current Russian menace does not alone explain the U.S. interest in the project, however. It harks back to a similar project from the 1920s and 30s called the Intermarium, a concept developed by Józef Piłsudski, the architect of the Polish victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920. He believed that a confederation of states would serve as a buffer zone between the twin threats of the Soviet Union and Germany. In addition, Piłsudski promoted the so-called “Promethean” movement, whose objective was to make the Soviet empire implode along national lines. The Intermarium was directed just as much against Germany as it was against the Soviet Union, as the two conducted joint covert military cooperation beginning in 1922.

The anti-German dimension of the Intermarium is necessary for understanding the present U.S. interest in the Three Seas Initiative. After Brexit, Germany is in position to become an economic hegemon, which is worrisome to both the United States and East-Central Europe. Germany’s deals with the Gazprom (e.g. Nord Stream II) make the region more reliant on Russian gas and seem to promote Russia’s interests over those of Eastern Europe. Moreover, an ever-growing E.U. bureaucracy has also become irksome to many Eastern Europeans. The reluctance to accept the E.U.-sanctioned quotas of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East has resulted as much from the fear of undermined national sovereignty as terrorist attacks, failed assimilation, and the subsequent cultural tensions. Poland’s ruling party (PiS) takes issue with the E.U. claims that its legislation undermines freedom of the press and the country’s constitution, pointing out that virtually all previous governments influenced the public television and constitutional court in subtle ways. It perceives the E.U. critique as a punishment for its ambitious policies that come at a cost to French and German companies, which have dominated Eastern Europe’s market for the past three decades.

The Polish government’s current wish to build a bloc that would steer the E.U. away from left-leaning globalist policies has created an ideological affinity to the United States under the Trump administration. In Poland’s right-wing circles, America is currently seen both as a military umbrella and an alternative to Western Europe’s left-liberal bent. While delivering his “Address to the People of Poland,” the U.S. President was interrupted by a Polish crowd chanting “Donald Trump.” Trump’s popularity in Poland was dismissed in many Western mainstream media outlets, which underlined that Poland’s ruling party encouraged conservatives from the provinces to come to Warsaw to cheer for Trump. The U.S. President enjoys a genuine popularity among conservative Poles, however, in part thanks to his hard stance on biased news reporting, especially by CNN. In this critique, Trump was joined by his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, who complained that major left-liberal Polish news networks have been biased against him. In addition, Duda later imitated Trump by using Twitter to dismiss the media suggestions that his wife Agata allegedly avoided shaking Trump’s hand. Beyond such single issues, Poland and the United States share a moderate conservative worldview. In his Warsaw address, President Trump did not use the “blood and soil” rhetoric associated with the Alt-Right or pursued the identity politics of “intersectionality” favored on the Left. Instead, he identified the West as a community of values such as individual freedom and freedom from bureaucracy, from which Russia is currently excluded due to Putin’s violation of those values.

The Three Seas Initiative is a historical chance for Poland to emerge as a regional player but rests dependent on the electoral ebbs and flows in the United States and East-Central Europe. Poland should take notice of the concerns of its partners to avoid the bickering which doomed the Intermarium project back in the 1930s. The choice of the Croatian president as the co-host of the Warsaw summit was one such attempt to create greater unity among these states. An ideological affinity between the participating states will also be necessary. The ideals expressed by President Trump in his speech appear to resonate with many Eastern Europeans. Conservatism is a potential candidate for such a unifying ideology. As Hamburg was shaken by left-wing and anarchist riots surrounding the G20 Summit, the positive reception of the U.S. President in Warsaw suggests that Poland is poised to work with the East-Central European nations to bring the E.U. back to the political center.

a Polish-American portfolio