EXPERT’S COMMENTARY: The 2023 exposé: Poland’s diplomacy at the crossroads (Miłosz J. Cordes)
Information on the principles and objectives of Poland’s foreign policy (the so-called exposé), delivered by Poland’s Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau on April 13th, points at the strategic vacuum that Warsaw has been in. The goals related to the changing security architecture after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not be fulfilled unless Polish diplomacy steers the country back to the European mainstream. It is, however, unlikely to happen because of political limitations.
The exposé is traditionally delivered annually by the Foreign Minister in the Sejm (the first chamber of the Polish Parliament). In 2023, however, it took place for the first time in three years. Mr. Rau focused on issues pertaining to security (war in Ukraine), relations with key transatlantic and European partners, future of alliances, as well as regional cohesion. The choice of topics and the way they were presented points to a number of structural deficiencies that the Polish foreign service has to challenge. They relative weight is bigger as they occur in times requiring unity, determination, and willingness to play as an important member in the Western team, facing the biggest conventional war in Europe since 1945.
No security without solidarity
Minister Rau is right in pointing out the need for assuring that the international community continues responding to Russian invasion of Ukraine adequately. Central Europe with Poland as its largest country has a special role to play in this regard. This view is, however, tainted by Warsaw’s shrinking ability to build alliances based not only on interests, but also on values. Over the last years, the cohesion of such groupings like the Visegrad Four has decreased mostly due to democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary. According to the 2023 Freedom in the World Index, the former’s aggregated score decreased by 12 points, whereas the latter went down by as many as 22 points. Poland is still marked as free, but Hungary is already only partly free.[i]
This trend has a direct impact on Central Europe’s ability to act united and to build interest-based coalitions with other partners. It also leads to the region missing an unprecedented opportunity to reconstruct security architecture in Europe. In a world where the West’s main challenges are related to nations with populations exceeding 100 million or a billion people, Poland with its 38-million population has very little to say on its own. Without more cooperation it will be impossible to pursue the goal set out by Mr. Rau of exerting ‘the strongest possible impact on shaping the policies of the free world, democratic Europe, and the North Atlantic Alliance (…) [and] the creation of a security architecture that is fit for the current, ever-increasing threat level in the region.[ii]
The weakness of this logic stems also from the realist perception of the nation-state. It seems that the Polish diplomacy wishes to take advantage of all the benefits offered by the country’s presence in the European Union and NATO without admitting that the reason for their success in providing peace and prosperity has been their members agreeing to cede some of their sovereign rights to those supranational bodies. The last decades in Europe have shown that there can be no security without solidarity based on a similar understanding of values. Without it, there is no possibility to ‘derive political potential from its activity in the region’.[iii]
This hurdle becomes blatantly visible in the ongoing process of NATO enlargement. Although it lies in the best interest of the whole CEE region to admit Sweden into the alliance and complete the unification of security architecture around the Baltic Sea, Hungary is still side-lining with Turkey to prevent it from happening.
Back to the roots
Given all those limitations, Mr. Rau still pointed out some goals that, once fulfilled, will contribute to increasing soft security of Central and Eastern Europe despite the political limitations. Paradoxically, they are all related to the same integration structures that the Polish Foreign Ministry seems to express reservations about: admission of Bulgaria and Romania into the Schengen Agreement, which is tightly connected to the EU, strengthening the Three Seas’ Initiative or the Lublin Triangle. They will only bring measurable benefits to the region if they manage to create a synergy effect between their purely regional dimension and their pan-European context. Yes, the voice of Central and Eastern Europe needs to be heard more, but it can only happen if the region once again becomes the avantgarde of democratic changes and universal values, just like it was at the turn of the 90s.
Coming back to the roots is essential for Polish and Central and Eastern European foreign policy also if it wants to increase the country’s security by anchoring Ukraine in the community of Western democracies. Much has been done in this regard since the Orange Revolution of 2004/2005 when Polish politicians supported the occidental vector of changes in Ukraine. Yet the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24th, 2022, is a gamechanger also when it comes to long-term assistance for Kyiv. Structural problems like corruption, indolence and oligarchization of the economy have to be eliminated if Ukraine wants to avoid becoming a failed state. Advocacy for the Ukrainian cause can only come from those who themselves are on the path to strengthening the rule of law and democratic pluralism. One could have serious doubts if it is the case of all CEE countries in 2023.
The Chinese angle
Only a small part of Mr. Rau’s speech touched on the rising concerns over China and its foreign policy. In fact, the Polish Foreign Minister used a rather conciliatory, perhaps even lenient, language towards Beijing. He underlined the role to continue dialogue given China’s role in maintaining international peace. Mr. Rau, however, did not mention growing differences in perceiving the global order by China and the West, which is of particular importance in times of growing ruptures. Instead, he spoke highly of “intensification of Spanish, German, and French policies towards China”.[iv]
One can have serious doubts, especially after looking at the steps taken towards Beijing by the Baltic States, if such a perspective will be beneficial to Central and Eastern Europe and if it is in line with the value-based brand of the region. On top of that, the relatively small space dedicated to such global challenges suggests that Polish diplomacy is not willing (or is not ready) to take a more active stance in matters going beyond Europe.
This year’s exposé, although it contains interesting notions, has not provided answers to the most urgent questions related to Poland’s foreign policy. How can the nation navigate through the troubled waters of international security when the Russian aggression against Ukraine is still ongoing? How can it increase the leverage of whole Central and Eastern Europe in European and transatlantic integration structures? How to make sure that the space of peace, democracy and human rights in the region stops dwindling? The diagnosis in many areas, such as the relations with Belarus, is right. What the exposé lacked is even a general sense of direction.
Part of the explanation of this deficiency is the declining position of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the structure of Polish public administration. For at least 9 years, the consecutive foreign ministers were either uninterested in creating and not only carrying out foreign policy, and coming up with ideas that would allow Poland to improve its international standing. Increased polarisation and politicisation of Polish public life have also diminished the importance of foreign ministry as a centre of thought and action regardless of the current political climate.
One might get an impression after listening to the exposé that there is very little strategic thought when it comes to Poland’s role in the rapidly evolving international security architecture or the system of global economic co-dependencies. The horizon of the Polish diplomacy has rather been aligned with the current political calendar. One can seriously doubt if it will change after the upcoming general election.
[i] Freedom in the World 2023, source: https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2023-03/FIW_World_2023_DigtalPDF.pdf
[ii] Information on the principles and objectives of Poland’s foreign policy, p. 16, source: https://www.sejm.gov.pl/media9.nsf/files/MPRA-CQUBZR/%24File/Information%20on%20the%20principles%20and%20objectives%20of%20Poland%E2%80%99s%20foreign%20policy.pdf
[iii] Information on the principles and objectives of Poland’s foreign policy, p. 17, source: https://www.sejm.gov.pl/media9.nsf/files/MPRA-CQUBZR/%24File/Information%20on%20the%20principles%20and%20objectives%20of%20Poland%E2%80%99s%20foreign%20policy.pdf
[iv] Information on the principles and objectives of Poland’s foreign policy, p. 38, source: https://www.sejm.gov.pl/media9.nsf/files/MPRA-CQUBZR/%24File/Information%20on%20the%20principles%20and%20objectives%20of%20Poland%E2%80%99s%20foreign%20policy.pdf