Oh, Me! Me! Shoot Me! A Summary of Contemporary Polish Foreign Policy

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The United
States government went to war on the Korean peninsula, in Vietnam
and, on a much smaller scale, in Cuba, ostensibly to overthrow communist
tyranny and establish representative democracies which would honor
basic human rights. To this day, despite the fall of the Soviet
Union, despite the end of communism in Eastern Europe, and despite
the general liberalization of almost all of the above mentioned
communist states, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba remain formally
communist, having essentially won wars against the United States
either by reaching a stalemate (North Korea), surviving (Cuba),
or actually winning a conventional war (Vietnam). Meanwhile, those
states which were communist, but never engaged in warfare with the
United States and — to be very precise — were never invaded, bombed
and occupied by the United States, managed to throw off communism
without any mass warfare or mass violence.

The lesson
is clear, and it is clearly not the lesson purported by the
fantastic myth that American military might and perseverance ended
the Cold War. In fact, if anything, the greatest American contribution
to bringing down communism was the might of American ideals of individual
freedom and limited government, and the perseverance of a civil,
peaceful society in the United States which served as an inspiration
to millions behind the Iron Curtain. This inspiration would no doubt
have succumbed to disillusionment, had Poland, then Czechoslovakia,
Hungary and the Soviet Union experienced the other side of America:
carpet bombing, atomic bombing, occupation.

In Poland,
communism was brought to an end peacefully. The government recognized
that millions of people were starving and that central planning
was incapable of satisfying their basic needs and ambitions. The
opposition, guided by the spiritual teachings of Pope John Paul
II and the Catholic Church, opted for protests, strikes, demonstrations
— in short: peaceful civil disobedience and open dialog with the
communist government. This process was not, of course, without its’
tragic, violent moments. Yet even when the communists imposed martial
law and began rounding up dissidents, there was no mass call to
violent revolution. When communist tanks shot at protesting workers;
there were no mass calls to violent revolution. When communists
murdered a well-known Priest whose sermons and life inspired anti-communist
resistance, there was no mass call to violent revolution. Instead,
the opposition movement, although often divided in terms of particular
goals and tactics, was always united on one extremely important
point: it was a non-violent movement.

Ultimately,
negotiation, dialog and — above all — political moderation on all
sides, brought about the famed "Round Table" negotiations
between the communist government and the opposition. These negotiations
led directly to the first free democratic elections since long before
the second World War, and, ultimately, to the end of communism in
Poland.

Today, nineteen
years after the end of communism in Poland, historians and critics
engage in heated debates and arguments regarding those times. Blame
is heaped on members of the communist government and on the Solidarity
opposition for a number of blunders and indiscretions, for often
collaborating with Soviet authorities, for lying, for plundering,
for stealing, and for a host of other reasons. This wave of critical
revisionism is, of course, all a by-product of the onset of the
very free society that people dreamed of living in nineteen years
ago. A society where the police would not come to arrest you for
speaking your mind. A society which openly accepts that there is
no such thing as a homogeneous understanding of human history.

Yet no one
seems to notice the one, striking and dangerous difference between
the recent past and the present: namely that the idea of non-violent
political action, an idea adhered to by almost all parties during
the contentions against communism, is now adhered to by no one.
After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Poland immediately put its’
armed forces to the disposal of the United States, and since then
has actively participated in the war on Iraq and Afghanistan. This,
despite the fact that Pope John Paul II, still alive prior to the
onset of the Iraq war, spoke openly against the war and made it
clear that international problems ought not and cannot be solved
by a resort to organized mass violence.

John Paul II’s
message of peace fell on deaf ears in Poland. One might find this
shocking to learn, but such was the case. Why? The answer reveals
a hideous truth about Polish national psychology. Of course, when
speaking of something as abstract as "national psychology"
or "the character of a nation," it must be remembered
that we are speaking in generalities verging on stereotypes; that
there is no such thing in fact as a "national psychology,"
because a "nation" is a mere historical construct; like
"ethnicity" itself. Nevertheless, it is often useful to
engage the archetype of a "national psychology" to explain
certain tendencies in popular thought and action; that is to say
— in politics. What, then, is it, about Polish national psychology
that would cause the entire people to be inspired by Pope John Paul
II and guard against any type of violence in their domestic struggle
with communism, but which causes this same people to ignore that
very same Pope and pledge their support and armed forces to a war
in Iraq and Afghanistan — even long after it has been revealed that
the causus belli for war in both of those countries was a
lie?

The sad answer
is, alas, simple: nationalism. Nationalism dictated that Poles;
all Poles; even if they were members of the communist secret police,
even if they were driving the tanks that were trying to run over
protesting dock workers, even if they were collaborating with Moscow
were still — at the end of the day — Poles. Suddenly, the
innocent words of Lech Walesa, who once noted that he made every
effort to calm the workers he was leading so that "Poles would
not be lifting arms against other Poles" take on an ominous
tone. Pope John Paul II advocated non-violence primarily because
he believed in the universality of the right to life of all human
beings; and violence against human beings is the ultimate contradiction
of this right to life. Yet in practice, in Poland, it seems that
Polish nationalism made it easier for Poles to accept the Pope’s
teaching with regard to their fellow Poles, but completely disregard
it with regard to foreigners, and hence, foreign policy. This is
also probably why Pope Benedict XVI’s pacifism is ignored: after
all, Benedict is a German.

While there
is no justification for this line of thinking, there is, of course,
an explanation for it: Polish national mythology is highly nationalistic
and focused on the notion of Poland as a nation of virtuous people,
constantly wronged by history; constantly being invaded and conquered
by others. This national mythology is taught from (government controlled)
primary school onwards. I recall a wonderful example from my seventh
grade music class, where we sang patriotic songs, with lyrics about
how "No Germans will ever spit in our face" and "no
Russians will ever" – do something bad, I can’t really
recall what. When I pointed out to my teacher that the song was
racist because it purported to assign collective blame to all Germans
and Russians for historical wrongdoing of particular governments,
I was told to shut up. Of course, being ethnically impure, I should
have realized that the best course of action for me was suicide:
after all, I am Polish, German, (Soviet) Georgian and American.
I ought to hate myself for everything I’ve done to myself over the
course of history.

Of course,
as Pat Buchanan rightly points out in his recent book reassessing
Churchill, Poland, before World War II, was ruled by a military
junta which came to power after a bloody (albeit short) civil war,
wherein "patriotic" Poles seized power, suspended the
constitution, wrote a new, national-socialist constitution, and
then consolidated all authority in Marshal Pilsudzki, who, other
than the fact that he had a larger mustache than Hitler, was really
no different in either appearance, or political philosophy. This
same said Poland was more than happy to attempt to carve out a piece
of Czechoslovakia when Nazi Germany invaded the country in 1938,
only to then cry "foul" when they themselves were invaded
by the Germans and Soviets in 1939.

But such assessments,
if ever they were made by Polish politicians, historians or commentators,
would get them labeled a Nazi sympathizer, or worse. In Poland,
Marshal Pilsudzki is to this day a national hero; and, in an ironic
and tragic twist of fate, Poland’s independence day is the exact
same day that the West mourns the Death of Western Civilization:
Armistice Day. November 11, 1918, saw the final end to the senseless
carnage of World War I, which laid waste to Europe, which paved
the way for an even bloodier World War II, which was bemoaned by
poets like T.S. Eliot, as a marker of the depravity to which the
West had sunk. This same day is celebrated in Poland. It is a happy
day. No one in Poland takes even a moment to consider the millions
murdered in senseless trench warfare, the introduction of ever more
horrific weapons of war like Mustard Gas, the mass slaughter and
hysterical stupidity which drew millions of men to their death for
absolutely nothing.

All of these
frightful consequences of the First World War are wholly ignored
in Poland: because Poland was the greatest beneficiary of the suicide
of the West during World War I: Poland was granted status as an
independent state at Versailles. This, according to Polish national
mythology, is all that matters. The rest — the whole "horrors
of World War I" business — is an afterthought. Marshal Pilsudzki,
of course, was the brave founding father who secured Polish national
independence at Versailles, and thus, despite later also securing
dictatorial power, curtailing democratic elections and presiding
over the creation of a national-socialist Polish state — he gets
a statue and a free pass. He was, after all, Polish — and being
Polish absolves you of all sin.

Being Iraqi
or Afghani on the other hand — this makes you beneath notice. Thus
Polish soldiers, clearly demonstrating that they can match any atrocity
the United States Army can commit, have bravely gunned down women
and children in the Afghani village of Kandahar. Poles, so righteously
resentful of their victimization at the hands of history, of the
idea that "great powers" often ignored the will of Poland
and decided to carve up the country in accordance with expedience,
now seem to relish their chance to avenge themselves by being a
party to the invasion and destruction of two foreign countries.
Finally, Poles are becoming respected members of the European community
by getting a chance to engage in and profit from colonialism and
military adventurism. As Poland’s Minister of Defense recently noted,
on balance, Poland has "made a lot of money" by helping
invade and conquer Iraq.

Yes, that’s
right. That is the depravity to which the people that produced someone
like John Paul II have sunk. The Polish government openly and casually
insists that the Iraq war has been a great boon; a cash cow, all
about the profits. This, in their mind, justifies the war. They
make no pretense, as the Americans do, of pretending that the point
of the war is the installation of democracy and the securing of
the rights and freedoms of the Iraqis, nor do they ceaselessly seek
out connections between Saadam and Al Queda. The representatives
of the government of Poland, a country often ravaged for plunder
and profit by others, now casually speak about how much the Treasury
is gaining from the plundering of Iraq and Afghanistan. Polish soldiers,
on the other hand, see the war as a great, albeit risky, opportunity
to make some quick cash.

With this in
mind, we turn to the matter of the new Russian-Georgian war. Naturally,
Poland has taken the side of Georgia. However, while the Americans
are careful to bemoan an "excessive" Russian response
to Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia; and thereby placate Russia
while calling for a general cessation of hostilities and insisting
on respecting Georgian territorial integrity. Poland has literally
taken the side of Georgia. The difference here is key: the Polish
government seems to simply not wish to take into account the remote
possibility that some people in South Ossetia don’t want to be ruled
by Georgia and would rather be independent and make their own alliances
— even possibly with Russia. The Polish government also refuses
to treat this, or any other matter of global politics, as a purely
theoretical affair. When you combine this fact with the imminent
installation of a Missile Defense Shield in Poland, and with the
continual arming and expansion of the Polish military, it becomes
clear that Polish foreign policy can be summed up with a new battle
cry of my own creation: "Oh me! Me! Shoot me!"

"Oh me!
Me! Shoot me!" foreign policy, as pioneered by recent Polish
governments and continued today, can be summed up as adhering to
the following basic tenants:

  1. Where there
    is war, there is always good and evil, and Poland must consistently
    be on the side of good.
  2. The notion
    that war itself is evil is mere moral relativism.
  3. War is,
    of course, profitable, and only the good side profits, and rightly
    so!
  4. Poland must
    necessarily take part in any and all armed conflicts, whereever
    they may be held.
  5. Secretly
    hope that in response to running round the world engaging in armed
    conflicts, Poland itself is finally invaded again, allowing you
    and your generation the chance to patriotically defend the homeland!

In short, it
is a foreign policy that is not only inconsistent with freedom and
peace, but wholly, ideologically, masochistically even, opposed
to the notion of peaceful coexistence. For instance, I am sure that
today, numerous Swiss scholars are debating who is in the right:
Georgia or Russia? I am equally sure that all sides of this debate,
while perhaps differing in their assessment of the war, agree that
Switzerland should have no part in it. Poland, in accordance with
its’ national mythology, should have a part in everything.

As numerous
commentators have pointed out, the idea of the United States risking
the nuclear annihilation of its people over the military adventurism
of the Georgian President is preposterous; but it is exactly what
a series of entangling global alliances leads to. It is ironic that
Polish politicians criticize the response of Germany, France and
England to the Georgian-Russian war as exceedingly slow. After all,
the last time the major powers of Europe responded swiftly to a
small war was in 1914, when the little Balkan states, warring senselessly
over ethnicity, pulled in their larger Allies; and Europe suddenly
found itself spilling vast amounts of blood over the petty feuding
of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. Perhaps then, in retrospect, it is
good that European countries no longer treat their military obligations
so literally. Perhaps it is good that rather than rush to war, they
first ask perplexing questions and request a cease fire when it
does not become immediately apparent that Martians have landed and
are using death rays to roast babies, rather than that inherently
imperfect men have blundered into a pointless military conflict.

Poland does
not want to fathom this type of thinking, because it presumes the
opposite of Polish national mythology: it presumes that even a self-governing
people are prone to acts of tyranny and aggression, it presumes
that racial attributes alone do not a virtuous nation make, it presumes
that ultimately government itself; not only occupation government,
but even "self-government" is a systematic problem; a
cauldron of iniquity and injustice that must constantly be held
in check by a vigilant people.

Above all,
Poland cannot think this way because Poland is only now beginning
to experience the cultural revolution that the West made its way
through in the 60s and 70s. For the first time in centuries, Poles
have their own government and their own free and independent country.
It is little wonder then that they cannot yet imagine the depraved
lengths to which their own government can go in lying to them, stealing
from them, and sacrificing their children on the alter of pathological
ambitions. Poles cannot conceive of repeating after Jefferson "I
love my country, but fear my government." Not yet at least.

But slowly,
as CIA torture prisons in Poland, Polish military atrocities against
civilians in Afghanistan, and the constant stream of domestic political
scandals that are the norm in any democracy erode public faith in
the government, Polish national psychology will change: the mythology
of a pure and virtuous Poland that has always been wronged and itself
can do no wrong, will give way to the reality of petty politicians
trying to make careers at the expense of the peace and prosperity
of the people. Either that, or it will give way to the raw nationalism
and amoral chauvinism that has always been just beneath the surface
in Poland: the resentment that cursed Russia and Germany not for
barbarically conquering others, but for having the audacity to not
be conquered by Poland.

None of this
is to say that the Russians were right in instigating war
on Georgia, even if in defense of South Ossetia. None of it is to
say that Baathist Iraq was a model community. None of it is to say
that the Taliban were wonderful people. But let us not forget that
Georgia was the aggressor which shattered a fragile, imperfect peace,
that Saadam Hussein committed his atrocities with help from the
United States, that the Taliban were guests of honor in George W
Bush’s Texas so long as they were open to doing business with American
oil companies. In short: let us not forget that in politics, there
is no such thing as the "good government" of one country
as opposed to the "bad government" of another, because
all government, by nature, is raw force — a fire to be contained,
tamed by people of good will.

If anything,
Poland would do well to look to Switzerland — a European country
surrounded by historically aggressive and hostile states, which
has opted for neutrality, trade and peaceful relations with all.
But in order to do this, Poles must first shed their pathological
nationalistic psychology lest they once again find themselves participants
in a war that only ends in their own ruin.

August
21, 2008

Peter
S Rieth [send him mail] is
an American citizen, born in Poland and educated at Hillsdale College,
Michigan.

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