As history attests, geography and politics are closely interconnected. The geographical location of the state determines how it acts in the international system. Geopolitics deems to be either the curse or the blessing by several influential political theorists. History is replete with cases when geography helped countries to preserve their independence, territorial integrity, and national security, but most frequently, it derives existential threats and risks, which are often unbearable for small states. Poland is the prime example of the aforementioned geopolitical dualism. How geopolitical determinants shifted the history of Poland? What were the main geopolitical strengths and weaknesses of Poland throughout history? How does Poland cope with modern security challenges? In this article, I will try to answer these questions.
The Geopolitical importance of Poland throughout history – According to the founding father of geopolitical theory, John Halford Mackinder, the world is divided into three various parts. The first and the most significant part is the pivot area, also called “Heartland”, which involves almost all the lands on the Eurasian continent. That is the geographical pivot of history. The second segment is called “Inner crescent” or “Rimland” and includes all coastal areas from Western Europe to Eastern Asia. And the third fraction is the “Outer or Insular crescent”, which implies the rest of the world, starting from the Americas to Australasia. Mackinder deemed that the “Heartland” was the principal subject of confrontation between various kingdoms and empires throughout history. He encapsulated his vision into three laconic sentences:
“Who rules East Europe, commands the Heartland;
Who rules the Heartland, commands the World-island;
Who rules the World-island, commands the world”.
Consequently, whoever wants to rule the world, should control East Europe, where Poland is situated. Poland covers the North European Plain from the Westernmost to the Easternmost part of the country, which means no natural borders separating from its Western and Eastern neighbors. The majority of the Polish land consists of flat surfaces, that is why Poland was always susceptible to the aggression of regional powers. The history of Poland is a clear example of this geopolitical dilemma. The country was divided three times during the last 25 years of the 18th century (First partition in 1772 between Russia, Prussia, and Austria, the second partition between Russia and Prussia, and the third in 1795 between Russia, Prussia, and Austria again). Partitioning of Poland continued in the 20th century when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Russia divided the country in 1939. The convenient location transformed the country into the most desirable target for great European powers. By subjugating Poland, one has free passage between West and East Europe. Poland is the connecting bridge between all parts of Europe. Furthermore, the country has access to the Baltic Sea, by which Poland can link, on the one hand, to the Scandinavian peninsula, but on the other hand, three Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Because of the aforementioned geopolitical factors, Poland was always in the limelight of various European empires.
Geopolitics of modern Poland – Ascending European power in the making – Poland is the prime example of how easily a country can change the geopolitical narrative. After almost a half-century of communist rule, the revolutions of 1989 brought genuine independence from the Soviet Union. Starting from that, Poland implemented plenty of reforms, which aimed to enforce national security and achieve economic prosperity by joining Euro-Atlantic structures, like NATO and the European Union. In 1989, the country adopted the system of reforms, which is known as “shock therapy”. The creator of this plan was Leszek Balcerowicz – Poland’s leading economist and then, Minister of Finance. His reforms aimed to transform the centralized economy into a capitalist market economy. Until 2004, Poland was quite an ordinary post-socialist state with a relatively weak economy compared to its western European neighbors, such as Germany, France, Austria etc. After joining EU, Poland boosted economic development and transformed itself into a strong, wealthy European nation. To showcase Poland’s rise in the last decades, we can illustrate the difference in various macroeconomic indexes. In 2004, the nominal GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of Poland was only $ 255 billion, while it is approximately $ 600 billion today. In this period, GDP Per Capita has almost tripled (from 6.600 $ -2004 to 17. 800 $ – 2019).
Financial stability bolstered a security environment too. In 1999, Poland joined the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Euro-Atlantic alliance based on the collective security principle. NATO’s fifth article ensures the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its member states. By joining NATO, Poland, then an unprotected post-soviet state, has become one of the strongest and enduring European countries. Nowadays, Poland hosts a U.S. aviation detachment, military units from a rotational U.S. Armored Combat Brigade Team, and a NATO enhanced Forward Presence battalion. For the last years, strategic partnership between Poland and the United States has flourished. The real breakthrough between Poland and the United States took place in September 2019, when the president of the USA – Donald Trump, and the president of Poland – Andrzej Duda signed a joint declaration on expanding defense cooperation. The agreement included two fundamental changes: 1. To increase the number of American soldiers in Poland – American troops grew by 1000 soldiers and reached 5500 permanent personnel; 2. To establish an enduring American military base on Poland’s soil.
To sum up, we can safely say that the speed of Poland’s development indicates that it will supposedly become a regional power in the nearest future. Poland effectively managed to turn an unfavorable geopolitical situation to its advantage. To say this, we can also suggest that Poland is an ascending European power in the making, which has the prospect of becoming Europe’s new geopolitical center.
The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.