The President of the United States of America flies into Poland this month. Not to Germany or France or even the UK. There is great symbolism in this gesture, which goes further than Washington merely showing solidarity to the front-line states in Russia’s war against Ukraine. It is emblematic of a trend which has seen Europe’s geopolitical fulcrum shift eastwards.
Once upon a time Europe’s center of gravity was west of the Elba. This was underlined by the reality of the Cold War, by economic might, by western Europe’s military ascendancy reinforced by the United States’ physical presence, and by the western focus on European integration.
This remained so in the early post-Cold War era with central and eastern European states flocking to join the European communities. The asymmetry was reinforced culturally as an increasingly hegemonic western-led European Union spread its integrationist and progressive values across central and eastern Europe with little regard for national traditions, cultures and, more importantly, local peoples’ wishes. The result has been a stand-off in recent years between the cultural and political alliance of Visegrád states (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia) and western member states intent on maintaining a vision of post-nationalism that arguably disguises western dominance.
Poland has emerged as the spokesman of the Visegrád states. It has the EU’s fifth largest population (38 million); its sixth biggest economy; and has a dynamic pro-NATO, pro-US foreign and defense policy. This contrasts with the incessant and fruitless French-led wishful thinking about a common European foreign and security policy, and its desire for a European army. Poland has been increasingly forceful in contesting and counterbalancing the EU’s western domination. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Poland’s robust support of Kyiv contrasts with Macron’s ambivalence and Scholz’s evasiveness.
A correction is long overdue. In Cold War Europe in 1983 the Czech writer Milan Kundera published his seminal essay on “The tragedy of Central Europe.” Speaking of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland as Europe’s eastern border, he called it “a kidnapped West,” subsumed in an oppressive philosophically “anti-western” empire. Even before the Wall came down Kundera regretted that “Europe no longer perceives its unity as a cultural unity,” as a “realm of supreme values,” thus breaking with Enlightenment fundamentals. For Kundera Central Europe alone was struggling to defend Europe’s “past of culture, the past of the modern era,” while western Europe had lost its way, side-tracked by technology, the market, the media and an absence of values capable of unifying Europe. He lamented the western European elite tendency to see ‘culture and the people as two incompatible concepts.’
Since they emerged from Soviet occupation, Central and Eastern European states have retained their suspicion of Russia’s geostrategic intentions, with Poland and Slovakia pushing defense spending above NATO’s 2 percent. By contrast the western European continent hurried to reap the post-Cold War peace dividend by slashing defense spending, accommodating Russia, focusing on deeper integration and promoting progressive policies that have arguably exacerbated internal division and distracted from geopolitical realities. Russia’s war against Ukraine has exposed the impotence of the western-European establishment
Eastern Europe’s robustness towards dictatorial continental powers is not new. Following World War One and the Versailles settlement many European states wished to move on and bring Germany back into the fold. Great Britain led this trend. London turned a blind eye to Weimar Germany’s dissembling over the Versailles treaty, especially its clandestine rearmament. France, by contrast, retained a “realist” view of European interwar international relations. “This [treaty] is not peace. It is an armistice for twenty years’, former supreme allied commander Marshal Foch intoned. Abandoned by an isolationist United States and Britain’s refusal to commit to a continental alliance, France turned to the only states with a shared fear of a resurgent German nationalism: eastern Europe. France sealed military alliances with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Rumania in the early 1920s in the hope of containing both German revisionism of European frontiers and Berlin’s eventual return to power.
President Biden’s visit to Poland to mark this month’s first anniversary of the Russian invasion, when he will meet President Andrzej Duda and other Eastern European allies, is viewed locally as a tribute to their forthright support of Ukraine. But more importantly it is perceived as a correction to the overweening dominance of western member states in EU politics. The EU Commission has felt obliged to tone down its pressure on Warsaw for refusing to acquiesce to Brussels’ cultural diktats; Poland is seen as too crucial to European security.
Are we at a realignment in EU politics? Will chastened western member states now have to accept a more balanced partnership with Eastern Europe, rather than regarding it merely as backward and needing to be educated? The time when a French president like Jacques Chirac could tell the Eastern European states that they would be well advised to keep quiet has long passed.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.