international analysis and commentary

The new politics of Poland’s foreign policy

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This election has represented a turning point in Poland’s political history. Polish voters went to the polls in a vote that could have long-term repercussions on Poland’s domestic and foreign policy, as was widely understood and anticipated by observers and voters alike. Governed since 2007 by a Civic Platform-led coalition, a centrist-liberal party, Poland was already shaken-up in May by the unexpected victory of the right-wing Law and Justice (PIS) party in the two-round presidential elections.

The main opposition force took its candidate, Andrzej Duda, to the presidential palace. The role of the president within the Polish political system is not limited to a largely ceremonial office. On the contrary, it has relevant constitutional powers such as the right to initiate and veto legislation, although the executive powers lie with the prime minister and the government.

The current Civic Platform party has focused its political narrative on positioning Poland within the so-called “European mainstream” by portraying the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a pragmatic and constructive approach in the relations with the main EU powers, especially Germany. Promoting the country’s interests in the international arena, the party claims Poland has become a “model” European state at the forefront of the EU integration project, by promoting Polish interests in a cooperative manner. This was presented as a crowning achievement by then Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorski during the Polish presidency of the EU Council in the second half of 2011.

Although it supports continued EU membership, Law and Justice is a broadly anti-federalist coalition, underpinned by euroskeptic inclinations, strongly committed to opposing further European integration and aiming at strengthening Poland’s “sovereignty”. This would especially apply to the moral-cultural sphere: the EU liberal-left hegemony, in the view of the party, undermines the country’s traditional values and national identity. At the cornerstone of the party’s political strategy are concepts such as self-reliance, robustness and assertiveness in advancing national interests within the EU and NATO – as an alternative to simply aligning the country with the German-led politics of the Union. 

“The geopolitical situation around Poland worsened in recent years”, argues Jarosław Gowin, candidate for Defense Minister for Law and Justice, and a figure who will certainly drive Poland’s foreign policy decisions in the near future. This rhetoric has gained considerable support in Poland and the differences between the two main parties’ foreign policy narratives may widen in their approach towards Russia and Ukraine.

Polish foreign policy will not be impacted by a radical shift as a result of the elections, as there is strong support for an active role in shaping a vigorous international response against Russia’s illegitimate intervention in Ukraine and a favoring of a larger NATO presence in Eastern Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that its political counterpart, Civic Platform, has been constrained in recent years by its unwillingness to move far beyond EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers. Profound diffidence toward Moscow is likely to form the backbone of future foreign policy decisions by Warsaw.

In line with the Law and Justice narrative, President Duda actively supports the idea of carving out a more assertive and independent foreign policy, using the NATO 2016 Warsaw Summit in July as an opportunity to secure a greater military presence in the country. A specific goal is the permanent stationing of US forces, military bases or defense weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank, which was often opposed by Germany as too provocative toward Russia.

It is against this backdrop that we can better evaluate the significance of recent developments for Poland. In particular, the adoption of NATO’s Readiness Action Plan (RAP), the centerpiece of the 2014 NATO Wales Summit, is regarded as a belated strengthening of security guarantees to the Alliance’s Eastern flank. RAP’s main operational measures – i.e. the establishment of NATO Forces Integration Units (NFIUs) in six NATO countries, including Poland – will constitute a visible and persistent NATO presence to respond to the unstable security environment on the Alliance’s borders. These small headquarters are part of the biggest reinforcement of NATO’s collective defense since the end of the Cold War and are designed to facilitate the rapid deployment of forces to the Eastern flank, support collective defense planning and assist in training and exercises. It is, in short, NATO’s updated deterrence posture, with Poland as a major actor.

In this context, however, a continued emphasis on self-reliance is also likely to permeate the Polish political debate in the face of a perceived Russian threat, in line with the ruling coalition’s commitment – made a few months ago – of boosting defense spending by 18% to meet the 2% of country’s GDP NATO target in defense spending. A Law and Justice government is expected to continue nurturing this pledge: “Poland needs a very well-equipped military which will be able to effectively deter, so that every potential aggressor thinks four times before taking military action against Poland”, President Duda argued.

In addition, we can expect renewed diplomatic efforts to forge a coalition of Eastern European countries under Poland’s leadership to help keep Russia at bay. This would mark the most significant difference between the Law and Justice political narrative and that of Civil Platform, where ties with its Western ally, Germany, were the priority. This key divergence may get in the way of pursuing Poland’s core security and defense interests – assuming a general consensus on the main goals under a Law and Justice government, Warsaw will likely refocus its gaze on its own immediate region, become more outspoken vis-à-vis the US and NATO, and push for a greater NATO/EU engagement in Georgia and Moldova.

Poland was looking for a change at the top to partly adjust its external policies to changing circumstances. Civic Platform appeared exhausted and out of ideas. However, Law and Justice will have to produce a strong executive team in order to implement tangible changes. The complex international challenges that Poland and Europe are facing will not make this an easy task.