History is back and is running its course, impacting the future. Just two weeks after the US Vice-President Mike Pence’s speech delivered on 4th October considered by numerous commentators on both sides of the Pacific – to herald the start of a grave escalation of the US-China dispute potentially evolving into a new Cold War, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, A. Wess Mitchell, confirmed and expanded his theses on the Old Continent, including the CEE region. While barely a handful of Polish commentators noticed the Pence’s speech, the Mitchell’s one probably remained entirely unnoticed (in Poland, while scarcely noticed in Europe), with a notable exception of people voicing their opinions in the burgeoning world of social media. Yet, the importance of this speech is paramount. At Washington based Atlantic Council, Mitchell apparently outlined a new US grand strategy towards Europe premised on the new, cold war-like circumstances.
Mitchell strongly emphasized the importance of sovereign nation states as an unjustly depreciated, but still the most important forms of organisation
End to European dreams about Belt & Road
First, Mitchell’s speech confirmed the American perception of China (and Russia) as fundamental global challenge to the West. This challenge undermines the leadership of the United States along with the values of the free world. Second, the Assistant Secretary advocated strongly – in line with what Ludwik Dorn, in his piece published in “Nowa Konfederacja”, named “the “Trump vision”; and based upon the idea of the West being not only a community of security and prosperity but also constituting one civilisation. This means, among other things, a clear transition from a Fukuyaman (“the end of history”, faith in a universal triumph of liberal democracy) to a Huntingtonian (“clash of civilisations”) concept of foreign policy. Mitchell also delivered a strong critique of the world order based on international institutions, which “came to be seen as ends in themselves rather than instruments that must bring security and relevance to the lives of the citizens they serve”. America will, therefore, continue its policy of rebuilding the international institutional order, so it can serve Washington’s interests, including rendering meaningless the organisations, which America considers to be unamendable . Finally, Mitchell strongly emphasized the importance of sovereign nation states as an unjustly depreciated, but still the most important forms of organisation. It is on them, not on the multilateral institutions mentioned above, that further American policy is to be based.
The American message is becoming clearer and clearer: Europe, put an end to hesitating and demanding. If you want to continue enjoying the benefits of the alliance with the USA, you have to choose a side
Third, and most importantly, Mitchell paid much attention to the issue of alliance loyalty. Faced with the threat from China and Russia, America expects a clear commitment from European allies that are dependent on Washington in terms of security and in other areas. While the political dimension of the problem was somehow taken for granted, and the military aspect (repeatedly discussed for years) was only mentioned, the deputy secretary focused on the economy. He clearly warned Europe against continuing to do more serious business with its opponents, with particular emphasis on energy cooperation with Russia and infrastructure cooperation, as well as financial cooperation (loans and debts) with China.
The Chinese New Silk Road project (Belt & Road Initiative), absent in Pence’s speech, was mentioned this time. Very bluntly – as a hostile undertaking, serving a competitive superpower to increase political influence abroad (also among America’s allies) by means of infrastructural investments and other accompanying economic incentives. In a similar context (although we should remember about the much smaller strength of Russia) Mitchell mentioned the TurkStream II pipeline.
America’s leadership or oriental despotism
Fourth, the Americans are aware that they must respond to these challenges also in terms of “soft power”, i.e. economic incentives for their allies. Mitchell pointed, among others, to the BUILT ACT , supporting the development of infrastructure in the so-called developing countries, and to an additional contribution of 31 billion dollars to the OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation – a government fund supporting American private investment abroad), compared to 29 billion today, with a particular reference to Central and Eastern Europe as a region “sensitive” to Chinese and Russian influence. He openly and clearly mentioned the assumption that the new wave of American investments is to build not only economic interdependence but also to increase the political and strategic influence of the USA.
Fifth, Mitchell confirmed that America’s commitment to Article Five of the Washington Treaty (to assist NATO members in the event of aggression) remains “ironclad”. This is particularly important in the context of Trump’s repeated questioning of the meaning and future of NATO.
Judging by various declarations or soaring visions of “sovereign Europe” (Macron, Juncker, Maas), the EU still wants to be the third force in an increasingly bipolar world
Sixth, the Assistant Secretary of State mentioned, as one of the (four) main principles of the new policy, protection of the rights of the “great despots’ neighbours” by the USA. Thus, he suggested supporting the independence of Ukraine and Georgia, “and even Belarus” against Russia. But he also – inconsistently – pointed to the Chinese penetration of Central and Eastern Europe, which suggests either treating both powers as a political monolith (which they are not), or a rather deep instrumentalisation of axiology for political purposes. The context of this principle was an idea of protecting the sovereignty of nation states, so it is undoubtedly a foundation of the new international order, and at the same time – a tool for combating the hostile influence not only in the region of Eastern Europe, but also in South-East Asia, perhaps also in the area of the so-called Russian “near abroad”, or in Africa.
Seventh, returning to the starting point, Mitchell stressed the matter of choice between the “free” American leadership and the despotic eastern leadership. Underlining the attachment to the Western tradition, which is being renewed by the present administration in the abovementioned sense, he argued that America is the only global leader today that gives smaller countries respect for their independence and national differences between them. He described as “unthinkable” the idea that these values are to survive under “authoritarian” Chinese or Russian leadership.
Trump like Truman
Mitchell’s speech should be seen together with Pence’s speech, Trump’s communiqués, October’s avalanche of geostrategic, geo-economic, espionage, technological, commercial and financial events, crowned by exercises of NATO forces and Mitchell’s visits to Belarus and Lithuania, which I discussed in part on other occasions. It is already rather a clear transition from the former policy of appeasement toward China to a new policy of containment. Russia, with its eight times smaller economy, plays an important role here (mainly for other than economic reasons), but – from Washington’s point of view – its role is secondary to China. It must be emphasized, though, when it comes to more detailed calculations of the USA, concerning Europe or the Middle East.
The Chinese New Silk Road project (Belt & Road Initiative), absent in Pence’s speech, was mentioned this time. Very bluntly – as a hostile undertaking
For many years, USA has been idly watching China reverse the logic of the international order, designed by the States China, with its phenomenally growing economy, large trade and capital surpluses as well as ability to steal technologies, over time, has become rich and powerful enough enabling to shift the boundaries of the territorial waters across the sensitive South China Sea, to push away the American influence not only from Central and South-East Asia, the Western Pacific, but also from Africa and even Europe. When, in 2014, China actually explicitly announced that it intended to replace the US as the world’s largest power, Washington did virtually nothing. One might have thought that the US had no strength or will to answer, or that it just wanted to make a peaceful and voluntary handover of the world’s crown , just as Britain did to their hands at the time.
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However, the belated response has arrived, and more elements of that response are likely to come . Announcement of the new policy of containment seems to be analogous to Truman’s policy towards the Soviet Union. Both then and now the basis for this policy are the actions in the field of security. The recent geostrategic offensive of the USA (“total reversal” of the Philippines’ position towards China, boosting military ties with Japan, reactivation of QUAD, enlargement of the “Five Eyes” alliance etc.) confirms this. The offensive is also followed by an economic containment.
Determining the exact composition of this mix is a separate story. Nevertheless, it is clear that the USA want to prevent China from achieving economic and technological leadership. Visible ways of accomplishing consists in changing the rules of trade , as well as the strategy of strategic encirclement. Contrary to some negationists” of geopolitics, these issues are closely related: there is an increasingly fierce fight for control of the main communication lines in the Western Pacific (also called “the 21st century Mediterranean Sea”). These routes can be used both for military and commercial purposes. The South China Sea alone accumulates, according to different data, from about one fifth to one third of the world trade. China is much more dependent on it (nearly 40% of the trade exchange) than the USA (almost 6%). Only very naïve people – who, unfortunately, can be often met among the Western elites, especially the Polish elites, who still feed largely on globalist or liberal illusions – can think that it does not matter who controls the South China Sea.
It is already rather a clear transition from the former policy of appeasement toward China to a new policy of containment
Europe must decide
What are the implications for Europe and Poland? First of all – there is a growing pressure for them to stand up and take sides. It is understood not only as maintaining formal alliances, but also as a real support for the USA in competition with China and Russia. Not only in military and strategic terms but also in economic, especially technological, infrastructural and commercial ones.
Europe’s attitude is ambiguous. On the one hand, the countries that make up Europe are formal allies of the USA and are increasingly bringing their policies closer to those of the USA, imposing restrictions on trade with Beijing or preventing further Chinese technological takeovers. On the other hand, European leaders sometimes (e.g. at the last ASEM Euro-Asian summit) speak with one voice with Putin and Xi Jinping about the need for a multipolar world, or even – in fact – call for a fight against the hegemony of the dollar. Europe has practically disarmed itself, largely failing to meet NATO’s spending obligations, and is at the mercy of America in terms of security. However, judging by various declarations or soaring visions of “sovereign Europe” (Macron, Juncker, Maas), the EU still wants to be the third force in an increasingly bipolar world (although there is little real action in this direction).
The American message is becoming clearer and clearer: Europe, put an end to hesitating and demanding. If you want to continue enjoying the benefits of the alliance with the USA, you have to choose a side and contribute much more to the common fight against the continental Eastern threat.
Poland has a critical geostrategic location, it is a key element of NATO’s eastern flank, without which, for example, it is practically impossible to defend the Baltic States effectively, not to mention run any policy toward Belarus or Ukraine
Poland, by contrast, had answered the question before it was asked. While the current “Atlantic pivot” in Poland was a very good decision, one-sidedness and naivety in the past weaken our negotiating position today. The new wave of American investment and other incentives will have to go, above all, where the losses due to the suspension or even collapse of business with China will be high. The same applies to the general reorientation towards Washington by countries that have so far relied more on Berlin and Brussels.
The Polish role
However, there is still something to achieve. We are not insignificant. Underestimating our meaning is a symmetrical mistake in the face of our (not uncommon) delusions of grandeur. Poland has a critical geostrategic location, it is a key element of NATO’s eastern flank, without which, for example, it is practically impossible to defend the Baltic States effectively, not to mention run any policy toward Belarus or Ukraine. We are the keystone of Central and Eastern Europe, which is important not only in military and strategic terms, but also of economic and political ones.
The Americans are currently increasing pressure on Russia. There are clear signals of increased support for Ukraine and Georgia, a possibility of warming USA’s relations with Belarus, and even attempts to drag Armenia, which is crucial for the Kremlin in the Caucasus, away from the Russian sphere of influence. Between the lines (but clearly) Mitchell announced a pressure on those countries in our region that have “romances” with Russia and China – i.e. Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Baltic States are another story because of their strong ties to Moscow (whether they want them or not). Poland itself is a very useful tool of American pressure on Russia; it is worth trying to make sure that in this newly emerging network of influence it is the most useful helper and intermediary, and not only a spectator. It is important however to remember not to be “more papal than the Pope”, and that at other stages of the global gameplay, the role of the Kremlin may be completely different from the current one.
Our government should prepare a detailed description of the options for the development of both conflicts – global (with China) and regional (with Russia); the goals to be achieved in each of them, and the possible areas of compromise. We should bargain professionally. We are in a bad need for investment in infrastructure, military and dual-use technologies as well as in modern military equipment. If the conflict in the Western Pacific is likely to exacerbate, we should strive for the (already visible today) transfer of American (and – generally – Western) supply chain from China to Poland.
If the conflict in the Western Pacific is likely to exacerbate, we should strive for the (already visible today) transfer of American (and – generally – Western) supply chain from China to Poland
Let us add that, especially in the face of US-EU and US-Germany tensions, we can also use this situation to raise our status in relations with Berlin. The American political and strategic leverage is one thing, but the American capital and technological assets are another. Germany, especially seeing more competition around, could try to locate more advanced production in Poland, and to be more open in terms of technology than before. It could as well do more for Poland in the forum of the European Union when the fate of the budget or important laws (such as the Posted Workers Directive) are at stake.
First version of this article was published in Polish on November 2 2018.