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Poland's Surprise Election Augurs a Geopolitical Shift
Is the Berlin-Paris-Warsaw axis finally ready for prime-time?
A quote attributed to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger goes, "Who do I call when I want to call Europe?" The purported quote has come to be shorthand for Europe's lack of a unified foreign policy. Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the largest war on the continent since World War II, the question has become urgent.
Paris and Berlin have different approaches to security. French President Emmanuel Macron has advocated for a policy of "strategic autonomy" from the United States, replacing Washington with Paris as the chief guarantor of European security. Unsurprisingly, this policy idea has fallen flat outside of France. In contrast, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has had a close relationship with President Biden. Scholz also called for a Zeitenwende ("turning point") in German security policy immediately after the invasion, abandoning the idea of cooperating with Moscow. While Berlin has become the biggest European provider of military assistance to Kyiv on the continent, it has been far slower to revamp its military.
Poland has economic and strategic claims as a European power, but has been isolated due to its populist-nationalist government's clashes with Brussels over the rule of law. Poland's economy has been growing fast, and if current growth trends continue, is on pace to be larger than the United Kingdom's in 2030. Zuzanna Nowak, director of the Opportunity Institute of Foreign Relations, recently told me in Warsaw: "Logistics is why Poland matters. Everyone has to go through Poland if they want to reach Ukraine." It became somewhat less isolated in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion: Warsaw softened its relations with European countries and announced its full-throated support of Ukraine. However, ahead of the Oct. 15 parliamentary election, ruling party Law and Justice (PiS) picked a fight with Kyiv over grain and unleashed a torrent of familiar anti-German rhetoric.
The surprise Polish parliamentary election result offers a chance to change this dynamic. On Oct. 15, a majority of Poles voted for three coalition parties to oust the ruling party, Law and Justice. The potential new prime minister would be Donald Tusk, who served in the role from 2007 to 2014 and president of the European Council from 2014 until 2019. While he is unlikely to take office before mid-December, his ascension could lead to cooperation between Warsaw, Berlin, and Paris on European security as the United States faces the prospect of geopolitical isolation under a possible second Trump presidency.
In 1991, the foreign ministers of France, Poland, and Germany gathered to form the "Weimar Triangle," named after the former East German city where they met, and pledged to meet every year to develop a "common security concept." Like many ad hoc geopolitical groupings which hold meetings but don't do much else, this one has had about as much relevance as fantasy football teams have to the N.F.L. After Russia's 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea, the United Kingdom voting to leave the E.U. in 2016, and Russia's full-scale invasion of 2022, various commentators have proposed the grouping become a real guarantor of European security. However, Poland's former foreign minister under PiS, Witold Waszczykowski, said in 2016 the grouping had lost its relevance for Warsaw.
Tusk, who the ruling party has portrayed as selling out the country's interests to Germany, offers the chance to make the grouping viable. He is not a German stooge as portrayed. However, as prime minister from 2007-14, Tusk pursued good relations with Germany, and spoke out in favor of reviving the Weimar Triangle. He is also a known quantity in Brussels, where he worked for five years.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has an infamously frosty relationship with Macron and is weak domestically. Scholz has approval ratings hovering under 20 percent and his so-called traffic-light coalition named after the colors of the parties -- composed of his own center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the environmentalist Greens, and libertarian Free Democrats (FDP) -- is beset by fierce infighting. Tusk's former foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, quipped in 2011: "I fear German power less than German inaction.” Lacking power at home, Scholz would be wise to lock arms with Warsaw to develop a unified security policy as Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine.
The grouping offers particular importance as the United States remains a question mark on further aid to Ukraine. On Oct. 19, Biden gave a rare Oval Office address making the case for supporting both Israel and Ukraine while they are at war. The Biden Administration is set to link the two countries in a $74 billion package. However, the Republican-held House of Representatives has no speaker to shepard the package through, and there is no telling when there might be one. The prospect of Donald Trump returning to the presidency in 2025 is real, and he is unlikely to approve more aid to Kyiv. In a second term, he might make good on his threats to leave NATO.
In 2020, Biden called himself a "bridge" to a new generation of leaders in the Democratic Party. The Weimar Triangle could be a bridge to a new security grouping, not replacing NATO and its nuclear umbrella outright, but supporting it. Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, has called Biden the "last bleeding heart trans-Atlanticist to occupy the White House." Sooner or later, contra Kissinger, Europe may have nobody to call in the United States and will have to manage European security more or less on its own. The Weimar Triangle will have to be ready for prime-time.
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