161. Current Issues In Polish Foreign Policy

By
Piotr Wandycz

A historian tends to look at current foreign policy problems from a long-range perspective. Such an approach appears particularly relevant when dealing with Poland, and this presentation begins with a sketch of historical background up to 1989 followed by an analysis of developments during the last decade up to the present.

Poland was reborn in 1918 after 124 years of being partitioned between Russia, Germany, and Austria. What was Poland after this long period of unfreedom? How were the borders of the state to be drawn, necessarily at the expense of the partitioners? The result of the territorial settlement--from the Paris peace treaties and the treaty of Riga--was that Poland's population now contained more than 30 percent national minorities, and its borders were contested by virtually all its neighbors. The only option for foreign policy was neutrality between inimical Germany and the Soviet Union (the so-called balance principle) and alliance with France. But once Germany and the USSR combined against Warsaw and the French abandoned it, Poland was doomed. All that the foreign policy makers could claim was that they had avoided isolating Poland and that the German onslaught had started a world war.

The wartime foreign policy of the Polish government--operating in exile from France and then Britain while Poland was occupied--was even more difficult. Once the Soviet Union, which had divided Poland with Germany in 1939, became part of the Grand Alliance, the Poles faced a near desperate situation. Menaced by postwar Soviet domination, their only chance was to convince Roosevelt and Churchill that Moscow's designs on Poland were part of a Soviet bid for the domination of Europe. Such arguments fell on deaf ears, and the West accepted at Teheran and Yalta the Soviet right to retain former Polish territories and establish a de facto sphere of influence in East Central Europe.

Anglo-American and Soviet concepts of what a sphere of influence implied were far apart, and consequently the West faced the emergence of a closed Soviet-dominated bloc. In the Cold War that ensued, the post-World War II communist Polish state occupied a special position. Geographically, Poland's borders were pushed several hundred kilometers to the west. This meant the loss of ethnically mixed provinces to the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, and the acquisition of former German lands up to the Oder-Neisse Line. Poland became a nearly homogenous country, more viable economically and strategically than in 1939. Border controversies in the east disappeared. The West refused, however, to recognize the Oder-Neisse boundary which made Warsaw more dependent on Moscow. In these circumstances, can one speak of a Polish foreign policy? At best it was a satellite that could not change its orbit. Attempts to gain some elbow room came via the Rapacki Plan of 1957.

The collapse of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991 created a completely new situation. As a result of a domestic compromise, the first non-communist-led government took over in Warsaw, and Poland began its "return to Europe." The phases of this return were marked first by mainly negative moves: leaving the dissolving Warsaw Pact on 1 July 1991 and having Soviet troops withdraw in 1992. Poland also left CEMA which implied a major economic reorientation. The biggest achievement was international recognition of the Oder-Neisse border, resulting from Poland's admission to the last stage of the 2 Plus 4 negotiations over the reunification of Germany. It was confirmed by two German-Polish treaties of November 1990 and June 1991, turning over a new leaf in the relations between Germany and Poland.

By 1991 Poland was once again a sovereign nation. Although its borders are secure, Poland is part of a "grey zone" stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Positioned between the NATO states (now including united Germany) and an unstable Russia (which is emerging from the disintegrated Soviet Union and seeking to recover its power through the Commonwealth of Independent States), Warsaw has attempted to foster better regional understanding in Central Europe through the so-called ViŠegrad quadrangle (Poland-Hungary-Czech Republic-Slovakia). It has also pursued a cautious "dual" policy toward Moscow, Kiev, and Minsk, and promptly recognized an independent Lithuania.

Turning west, President Lech Walesa made overtures for Poland's accession to NATO; the quest for admission became the central task of Polish diplomacy during the last four years. It was crowned by the recent ratification of the eastern extension of NATO by the US Senate. Poland is also seeking admission to the European Union--a more controversial issue given its economic implications.

Where is Poland now? Poland's western policy has thus far been successful, as is its growing and unprecedented cooperation with Lithuania, Ukraine, and to some extent Belarus. There is the ongoing entente with the Czechs and Hungarians as well. But a major problem remains, namely, reconciling Polish eastern involvement while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow, which is ever suspicious of Poland's role in this area. Accommodation with Russia is essential for all concerned, but not at the expense of Ukraine or Lithuania. This is the most difficult task facing Polish foreign policy today, and it seems to be appreciated in the West. Poland's chances of successfully coordinating its western and eastern policies within a new international order of Pax Americana permit guarded optimism about the future.

Dr. Wandycz spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on May 27, 1998.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant