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Rzeczpospolita , Poland

Time for a Change in Strategy

By Jacek Bartosiak & Tomasz Szatkowski

Translated By Matthew Matyjek

1 January 2013

Edited by Molly Rusk

Poland - Rzeczpospolita - Original Article (Polish )

Barack Obama’s victory in last year’s presidential election cements the fundamental shifts that have been on the horizon for American foreign policy. Knowledge of this change must prompt Poland to reconsider its position in the Polish-American alliance.

From the Polish perspective, the most important developments during Obama’s second term will be America’s shift to the Pacific region and an inward focus on domestic economic problems at the expense of international engagement. America will most likely focus its energies on forging alliances to counterbalance China and, if possible, on the redeployment of troops to that area of the world. This situation will require nations in other regions to develop their own power and take on greater responsibilities in defense.

In other words, regions in which America would formerly have seen its presence as necessary will be left to their own devices.

The Chinese Challenge

The first signs of the new strategy can be seen in the approach that the United States has taken regarding the Syrian civil war and the events that have unfolded in Iran and Georgia. It is still not clear to what extent the United States will be willing to support “placeholder” nations to help facilitate a “return” at a later date. These developments may significantly alter the geopolitical climate around Poland in the long term, as these changes will probably outlast Obama’s second term in office.

With the United States wanting to retain its superpower status and the position of leader of the world, this shift toward the Pacific is completely warranted and has probably come later than it should have. In lieu of heavy American involvement in Asia, China has emerged as the most likely candidate for superpower status. China’s economic and military might threatens to push America out of that continent for good unless concrete preventative steps are taken. China’s supremacy in Asia might also threaten America’s global superiority. The Chinese have already taken steps to undermine confidence in the dollar as the global trading currency.

Simultaneously, China has been developing technology and military capabilities that could threaten the U.S. Navy’s control over shipping lanes in Asia. While America was distracted with counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East, it failed to defend its position in the region, which will in turn decide whether or not America retains its position in the international community. By concentrating on the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents, the U.S. failed to invest in technologies that would be necessary to defeat the Chinese in an air and sea campaign.

America’s Pacific reorientation is not America’s choice — or Obama’s whim — but a strategic necessity. Many Republican commentators have criticized Obama for not taking the threat seriously enough, however. They allege that the president is using the Pacific threat to draw down forces in Europe and the Middle East, with units from those areas being disbanded instead of redeployed to the Pacific. Many Americans are not sure that the showdown with the Chinese will be successful.

Levels of Ambition

The most visible sign of the Pacific realignment in America’s military strategy is the change in the so-called "Levels of Ambition." For many decades, the U.S. military doctrine called for a readiness to fight two separate wars simultaneously. Starting in January of this year, this will be modified to a readiness to fight one war while holding back the enemy on another front. This change is a result of the economic hardships that the United States is going through — the worst since the Great Depression — as well as the ballooning deficit.

Cuts to the defense budget are therefore inevitable. Though existing cuts do not lower the funding levels below those prior to Sept. 11, 2011, percentage-wise they are the largest since the end of World War II.

These cuts, combined with the likelihood that a potential conflict with China would be fought primarily on the sea and in the air, will result in cuts to the land-based portion of the United States armed forces. In the eventuality of a conflict in Europe, the U.S. will not be able to take upon itself the brunt of the responsibility. At best, it will play a supporting role in naval and air operations or in providing infrastructure and intelligence support. Even this might not materialize, depending on how sequestration turns out in March.

A great unknown is the effect that these changes will have on relations between Washington and Moscow. On one hand, we could see a warming of relations similar to the overtures made to China in the 1970s, which were designed to weaken the USSR. Russia, which currently is much weaker than China, does not come close to challenging the American superpower status economically or militarily. Russia might be a sought-after ally in the conflict against China due to its geographic position as well as its influence in central Asia. In the event of a war with China, Russia would be essential to the countering of a Chinese naval blockade.

Given Russia’s value in a conflict with China, the process of “reset” might be pulled along at the expense of the European missile shield. The consequences of the Exxon-Rosneft joint venture are still unknown as well. However, thorny issues such as the Magnitsky Act have shown that U.S.-Russian cooperation is far from assured.

Transatlantic Troubles

Given the oncoming changes, it is impossible not to see the growing level of concern in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in Poland. The Americans have been making overtures to allay fear, including the extension of U.S. involvement in the Air Policing mission and the cyclical visits by the U.S. Air Force. Many of Poland’s neighbors, such as Germany, seeing the writing on the wall, have already changed their attitudes toward transatlantic cooperation. The most recent example was an unwillingness to participate in some key NATO war exercises.

The Germans have a clear alternative to NATO, since their needs dovetail with those of Russia. They also have the option of leading some sort of EU-wide defense pact in the future. The latter gives Poland a chance to create space between Germany and Russia. In the case of a collapse of the EU, Poland would be stuck between two power-hungry nations with no real ally in the international community.

This worst-case scenario should be taken seriously in Poland, since the probability of it happening is at an all-time high. The first order of business would be to accelerate the modernization and expansion of the Polish armed forces in order to be better able to defend the homeland as well as project regional influence. Poland has few other options. The EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy cannot be taken seriously as a NATO alternative. In addition to the lack of a cohesive foreign policy, the EU is also hampered with legal and structural barriers, not to mention that many EU nations are in the process of demilitarization.

A recently published study from the Eastern Studies Center shows that Poland can put little faith in a regional alliance. The Baltic states not only lack significant military capabilities, but have done nothing — Estonia excepted — to rectify the situation. The same is true when it comes to our southern Visegrád Group neighbors, though the political willpower might be a bit stronger there. To the north, our Scandinavian neighbors definitely have the capabilities and technology, but no significant historical ties to make a regional alliance work.

Shared Interests

In this situation, it is important to gauge how interested the U.S. is in maintaining Poland as a reliable ally that will represent its interests until a future American “comeback.” It is crucial that the Americans see Poland as indispensable in maintaining a favorable balance of power in Europe. It will all boil down to whether the Americans need us — whether or not they will find it worthwhile to have a strong ally in Eastern Europe. If the answer is yes, it will be up to the Polish politicians to make it work on both the domestic and EU levels.

If the Americans do decide to help, it should come in the form of helping Poland become energy independent, upgrading the Polish military and supplying Poland with military deterrents. The Americans should also be willing to put some muscle into building a military alliance stretching from Scandinavia to the Danube.

Everyone who wants Western ideals to survive and thrive should root for the United States in the Middle East right now. However, the time is coming for a significant geopolitical shift. This shift is a reflection of American interests, but it affects the security and interests of Poland as well.



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