Poland, Our Great Strategic Partner

Is this worth poisoning the well?

Is this worth poisoning the well?

Naturally, there’s been a lot of neocon frothing about the Obama administration’s decision to scrap the the controversial missile defense system, an expensive, ineffective boondoggle, whose primary virtue to conservatives was that the Russian’s don’t like it. Of course, even if it the project did work, and was cost-effective, there would still be little strategic rationale for its existence, as Michael Goldfarb inadvertently points out here (delighting in the fact that Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk didn’t take Secretary Clinton’s call):

Tusk, of course, denies that the Obama’s capitualation [sic] is a defeat for his country. And what else can he say? But the fact that he turned down a call from both the secretary of state and the president last night tells the whole story — the Poles aren’t happy, and no one can say otherwise with a straight face (not even Tusk). Tusk did subsequently talk to Obama, but Hillary is still waiting for a call back. I’m sure he has your number Mrs. Secretary.

Leaving aside for the moment that Tusk did eventually talk with President Obama, since when are we basing our foreign policy around what makes the Poles happiest? This isn’t the Cold War, so we’re not trying to explicitly contain communist Russia; by our own admission, the system wouldn’t have by itself done anything to defend against Russian aggression; and it’s not exactly like Russia is about to march on Europe, so we’re left with the rationale of pleasing Poland. On the other hand, we actually do need Russia to work on issues of actual strategic importance like Iranian containment  (the putative raison d’etre for the missile system in the first place) and nuclear non-proliferation.

I mean, I’m not trying to be callous — just channeling my inner realist here — what do the Poles provide for us that their “being happy with us” is worth worsening relations with a legitimate strategic partner? European academic Dr. Olaf Osica makes the case:

By the same token, the Obama team would make a major mistake if it ignored America’s role in European security. The American presence, be it military or political, delineates West from the East and defines geopolitics from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Rather than providing a shield against rough states, Europe views the Missile Defense project as a vehicle for extending America’s influence on – and commitment to – the continent.

Participation in the Missile Defense system therefore represents status and power in a changing Europe – not just the security of allies. In this way, Missile Defense should be viewed, as W. Wohlforth has described, as “an existential threat to the status (but not the existential security) of other traditional Great Powers. To the extent that they prize status above material rewards, policymaking elites in other states may be willing to forgo potentially beneficial regional cooperation with the United States if it comes at the expense of their collective self-esteem.”*

In other words, the American rationale for strategic partnership is that Poland is positioned to be a proxy for the United States to flaunt strategic interests out of spite. You know, piss everyone off and show them who’s boss just because we can. The basic idea being that once recognizing who’s the boss, the entire world will just bend to our will, or something. (You might recognize this strategy from such neocon foreign policy successes like The War In Iraq: Transforming the Middle East and We’re All Georgians: Mucking Around in Russia’s Sphere of Influence)

Anyway, in addition to having a sort of inane circular quality (we piss them off because we can, and because we can, we piss them off), wouldn’t it just be a lot simpler to achieve strategic goals by working with the relevant countries?

NB: I don’t mean to diminish Poland’s contributions in Afghanistan, where it has sent 2,000 troops as part of the NATO fighting force, but it does highlight a few issues. One, Poland is a NATO ally — if Russia were to attack Poland, we’d be obligated by the terms of the alliance to defend them. So, in addition to other missile deployments the Obama administration has committed to, it’s not exactly like we’re leaving them defenseless. Two, if Russia is cooperative in working on the Iranian issue and on reducing the world’s level of nuclear warheads, would it be worth 2,000 less Polish troops? That’s the question.

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