Poland, Libya, and NATO

NATO Fogh Rasmussen Libya

Poland, an ambitious Central European state with aspirations to play an increasingly important role on the European stage, has reliably joined US-led coalitions of the willing even when faced with strong opposition from other members of the transatlantic family. Until the Libya crisis.

After unconditionally backing the US during the Iraq War in 2003, supporting the “War on Terrorism” in Afghanistan, where Poland represents one of the largest European contingent in the NATO force, and signing an agreement on hosting parts of the controversial American missile defense system on its territory, Poland’s “No” to a NATO military intervention in Libya definitely came as a surprise.

Polish officials presented essentially three motives for rejection. First, Poland has no direct interests in Libya. Second, Poland takes over the rotating EU presidency on July 1 and argues that a neutral position on the Libyan military intervention would enhance their mediation capacity between Western countries and the Arab world, which would be of advantage for the whole EU. Third, with its military presence in Afghanistan, Poland already reached the limit of its military capabilities. Left unstated was perhaps the most important reason: the critical Polish public opinion on this matter.

Military experts are divided as to whether Poland has sufficient military capabilities left to robustly support the NATO operation in Libya. But sending even a small number of Polish F-16 fighters would have been a signal of Warsaw’s willingness to support Washington. By refusing any kind of military involvement, Poland clearly placed itself alongside the Germans and Russians and against Washington, London and Paris.

Some have argued this decision could harm Warsaw’s position in the international arena. In particular, some claim that by declaring itself against two powerful European states, namely Great Britain and France, Poland has possibly weakened its position within the EU. Moreover, some might blame Warsaw for not only deepening the divisions within the Alliance, but also damaging relations with Washington in particular. These concerns are unfounded.

First, Polish politicians are likely right that non-participation in the military conflict in Libya could eventually improve Poland’s position on the European stage. Warsaw could use the upheavals in North Africa to pursue its own interests in two respects: On the one hand, by emphasizing its own transitional experiences, Poland could try to establish its successful transformation from an authoritarian regime to a democracy as a model, which is capable of being transferred into other regions of the world – a point, which Barack Obama during his two-day visit in Warsaw in Mai 2011 emphasized as well. Poland not only enjoys a worldwide respect for its own democratic achievements, but also does not have the stigma of a colonial state. As a result, Warsaw could help make the EU voice even stronger in Arab countries such Egypt or Tunisia, and, consequently, gain more importance on the European stage. On the other hand, by putting the Arab Spring question high on the European agenda as well as a competent leading and handling of this issue during its EU Presidency, Poland could gain more support for one of the essential concerns of Polish security policy, namely the EU Neighborhood Policy. The argument goes that for geopolitical reasons Warsaw is interested primarily in the “Eastern Partnership”. Showing, however, a lack of interest in the border problems of the southern European countries, Warsaw could later experience disinterest of such countries like France and Italy in its attempt to push forward with European help for democratization processes in the post-soviet Eastern Europe.

Second, there is no doubt that the US military presence in Europe remains one of the priorities of Polish security policy. Since NATO provides the main justification for the American military presence in Europe, the continuity and cohesion of the Alliance is of great significance for Warsaw. But claims that non-participation by several NATO members in the Libyan action was another contribution to splitting the allies are untrue. Rather, this alliance can be seen as a fiction used in order to accomplish a military mission initiated in Paris, and enabled in Washington. As Anne Applebaum rightly puts it, the Alliance has neither planned nor prepared and voted over a military intervention in Libya. So Warsaw was perfectly aware of the lesser importance of the Libyan military mission for the White House compared to those in Iraq 2003 and Afghanistan. Neither was the lack of a unified NATO position extremely disappointing to the U.S. Administration. Therefore, Poland could not expect to harm Polish-American relations in any significant way. After all, unlike in the case of the Iraq War, the Libya crisis was not meant to be used to express a state’s acceptance for the unipolar international system. If anything, the politics of a military non-involvement could at most be seen as an affront to the power ambitions of France.

The invitation for Poland to join the Libya-contact group in Paris March 2011 showed clearly that Poland’s position in the EU and NATO has not been weakened.. Poland was invited to Paris as the only EU member state of the 12 newly acceded countries. Unlike Germany, Poland took from the beginning a very moderate tone in its reaction to the Libya operation. Instead of stressing military non-engagement, high representatives of the Polish state put emphasis on Poland’s willingness to provide humanitarian aid, and help with building civilian structures in Libya. That reserved behavior surely contributed in part to the fact that the wave of criticism toward states, which refused military backing the Libyan operation, concentrated primarily on Germany, and not Poland.

Finally, the logic of survival in office dictates that Polish public opinion cannot be neglected when analyzing Warsaw’s decision on Libya. As the Polish opinion research center CBOS shows, the majority of those questioned believe that intervention in Libya to be right. 88 percent of Poles opposed, however, deploying of Polish military in the troubled region (CBOS, 7.4.-13.4.2011). Additionally, all relevant Polish political parties support the decision of the government on Libya. Since the next parliamentary elections in Poland will be held in autumn 2011, the Polish government would certainly be ill advised to take part in a military action in North Africa, if it does not want to upset its electorate.

Concluding, a foreign policy decision of a given country can always be analyzed from many angles and become subject to a number of pro and contra arguments. The Polish reaction to the Libya crisis is not an exception to this rule. But what can be taken as unlikely is that the Libyan decision would cause any significant impact for the Polish government – neither domestically nor internationally. Rather, Poland could even improve its reputation on the international stage.

Dr. Daria W. Dylla teaches International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne.

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