It may come as a horrifying shock to many enlightened and progressive citizens of the Old Europe and in the US, but Donald Trump, already “the worst President in US history” according to our truly caring-for-the-good-of-humanity elite, just received a very warm welcome in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, where he stopped on his way to the G20 summit in Hamburg. Cheering crowds frequently interrupted his 40-minute speech on Krasiński Square, with the monument to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 in the backdrop, to chant enthusiastically “Donald Trump, Donald Trump”. The President talked at length about the special relationship between Poland and the United States, from the days of the war of Independence, when the Polish hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought alongside Washington against the British, to Ronald Reagan, who has a special place in Polish memory for “winning the Cold War” and ending the much hated Soviet occupation of Poland. Hardly anyone remembers Reagan with some special sympathy in the US now, but history is often charged with symbolic values rather than simple deeds and policies, so that sometimes a few words or an affected gesture (Khrushev’s shoe, Thatcher’s “no, no, no” or Reagan’s “Tear down this wall”) can go down to history to form people’s memories more than many years in the public eye. So Donald Trump, a catastrophe for the “liberal” world order, has become a hero in Poland.
Indeed Poland seems to always have had a special affection for the United States, beginning from the Polish mass emigration which brought millions of Poles to America from the late XIX century to form the largest Polish community outside of Poland. Poland, a member of the NATO alliance since 1999, only a few months ago welcomed 4,000 additional US troops on its soil, and the current President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, asked the troops to stay “as long as possible”. Some commentators in Poland were very quick to note that Poland was the first European country Donald Trump decided to visit, and the third foreign country after Saudi Arabia and Israel. But in the global chess board, Poland is not willing to play just the untamed and self-sacrificing knight serving its righteous and powerful master: it has its own geopolitical plans, and they certainly do not lack ambition.
Since 1989 Poland has been on a path of almost uninterrupted economic growth (although its GDP per capita is still less than $ 15,000 a year), and increasingly sees itself as great historical power, a bastion of European civilization, deprived of its due greatness only by the brutality, cynicism and immorality of its partition between Germany and Russia, which started in 1772 and ended with the disappearance of the Polish state for more than a century between 1795 and the second Polish Republic that emerged from the ruins of World War I. While the relations with Germany have certainly improved, one cannot say the same for its relations with Russia; and relations with Germany are certainly less than ideal, in spite of a great deal of economic integration between the two countries. In the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004, Poland of course does not represent a threat to the German leadership, a leadership that now is seen by many as a fact of life. The Poles, especially since the coming to power of the conservative party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (“Law and Justice”) in October 2015, have expressed malcontent at a Europe following the German diktat in more than one occasions, and the controversy of the allocation of Middle Eastern and African refugees (which Germany invited, but Poland did not) had made these disagreements only worse. In Germany, only a few days after the government by Prawo i Sprawiedliwość was formed, the German press compared this event to Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, while another commentator wrote that this new government represented for the liberal Europe a danger greater than ISIS: the tone is not always so trenchant, but in general Germany is not happy with Poland’s being the largest fund recipient from the European Union and not willing to be an ally in Germany’s mission to save the world. In France, theoretically Europe’s other leader, the newly elected President Macron promised economic sanctions on Poland during his Presidential campaign if Poland did not agree to the resettlement of Middle Eastern and African refugees.
So Poland naturally looks East to the lands that historically belonged to its mini-empire, the Rzeczpospolita, a union of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, created in 1569. At the period of its maximum extension, the state embraced almost entirely the lands that now from Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia and Lithuania. Polish historiography after the partitions would later refer to these territories as ziemie zabrane, “stolen lands”. Donald Trump’s visit to Poland was interpreted by many enthusiastically as “now the United States will help us build the long desired Intermarium (Miedzymorze in Polish or between the sees)”. The United States would support the Polish project, on one hand to build a defense line against Russia’s potential aggression and on the other one to contrast Germany’s leadership in Europe. In Germany, understandably, the project of the “international alliance of autocrats”, like a commentator just labelled it, has been saluted with great discomfort.
The Intermarium idea has a long history in Poland, first conceived by the national leader of Poland Josef Pilsudski in the interwar period, with the plan to rebuild a new Poland within the borders of 1772, and then revived, at least in terms of projectuality, by the current Polish President Andrzej Duda in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis. Pilsudski envisaged the Intermarium not only to encompass the land of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commenwealth, but to stretch to the Adriatic including Yugoslavia too. In a recent article by George Friedman, the US geopolitical guru who has been writing about the Intermarium for more than a decade, the potential alliance is shown to include not only Romania and Bulgaria, but to extend as far as Turkey. At the moment, however, the Intermarium project remains just a guiding idea and has not been institutionalized in any way: the Visegrad Group is probably what comes closer to a larger alliance of Eastern European countries, but the Miedzymorze is project of a very different nature. Just like in Pilsudski’s times, at the moment it seems to be little more than a projection of Poland’s unbridled ambitions.