Lech Wałęsa reminisces on the tenth anniversary of NATO’s membership invitation to Poland.
16 March 1999, NATO Headquarters: The Polish flag is raised during the ceremony to mark the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to the North Atlantic Treaty (© NATO)
The path of Poland and other countries of the former Eastern bloc towards membership of the North Atlantic Alliance was neither easy nor short – and the journey did not go smoothly, either.
The biggest obstacle was posed by the fact that the West was not psychologically prepared for us. For a long period after 1989, it remained focused on the old times and on an outdated, confrontational way of thinking. The West failed to notice that the geopolitical environment had changed dramatically and that, with tearing down of the Iron Curtain, we had symbolically begun a new era. A global era, governed by different rules, where we all live increasingly close to each other.
The West could not at first comprehend that the enlargement was not to be directed against anyone; that it needed to be an answer for new global challenges. It was also meant to be a contemporary expression of international solidarity. During the time of the Cold War and confrontation between the two blocs, the dominant perception was the following: what was good for us had to be damaging for our adversary; and the other way round: what was good for the adversary had to be damaging for us. Statisticians call this a zero-sum game. In a game of cards, for example, one can win only as much as the opponent loses.
Yet politics is governed by different rules. There are cases where both sides win. In the new global era this has a specific and tangible meaning.
Politics is governed by different rules – there are cases where both sides win
That round of the Alliance’s enlargement – and I hope, the subsequent ones – was not carried out to pose a threat to anyone, but rather was meant to leave no space for confrontation, to take control of the situation and to expand the area of security. For a no-man’s land is the worst possible thing. Various parties always fight for a no-man’s land. The no-man’s land tempts all to take it over; to conquer it. It becomes a bone of contention. And contention can easily evolve into a conflict.
Does it mean that we are totally secure now? Of course not. In North Korea and in Cuba there are still islands of communism. And yet, we are not only menaced by external threats. The Chernobyl disaster has shown us how threatening our own technology can be for our ecology – and those kinds of threats do not ask for passports or visas. Nevertheless, to estimate their true scale, we have to think globally. The world without borders in which we now live must have as its foundations as precise rules as possible, on necessary regulations. This is also a role for the Alliance. The more countries it encompasses, the better and more effectively it will do its job.
NATO’s enlargement was not, is not now and will not be directed against anyone. Now, the old saying that ‘American boys will die for Gdansk’ is without foundation. On the contrary, had the enlargement process not continued, the situation could have evolved towards a confrontation, possibly resulting from a resurgence of the two old blocs. Then those boys might have had to die. We cannot let this happen. I live in Gdansk – and I do not wish anyone to have to die for my hometown.
At the time that NATO was being enlarged to encompass Poland and other countries, there were people who argued that the enlargement would entail expenditures and that the American or the western European taxpayer would have to bear the costs. None of this has happened – the decisions on further enlargement of the Alliance have been primarily political in nature.
This is of course not to say that there have been no economic effects. But let us look closer at them. The economic effects can be seen in the Polish armed forces. Willingly or not, they need to be modernised – this is inevitable for any military force, as equipment ages quickly, and it rapidly ceases to meet the Alliance’s requirements. So we have to buy new equipment. The question is where we buy it – in Russia or in the United States.
NATO’s enlargement was not, is not now and will not be directed against anyone
Any answer to this question must take into account more than only political and economic relations. It will also decide which country is to make money on the export, and whose employees will have orders, jobs and earnings. The enlargement process has been profitable for the American and the western European entrepreneur, employee, and – consequently – for the taxpayer. We live in a globalised world, a world of increasing interdependence. Therefore, all benefits are in the end mutual and even multilateral. I will not dwell on the strictly political or military dimensions of these benefits.
Finally, ten years after the decision to enlarge the Alliance, let me now reconstruct the context and true significance of the enlargement round that enabled Poland’s participation. Drawing from my personal recollections, I will remind you that the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland was a prerequisite for Poland’s membership, for it is impossible to admit into NATO a country in which foreign troops are stationed – particularly if they are the troops of a nation that had been the Alliance’s adversary for the last 50 years.
I remember a very emotional moment when, on 17 September 1993 (a symbolic date in its own right) the last Russian soldier was leaving our country. A dozen or so military men and women, having been bidden farewell at the courtyard of the Belvedere
Another memorable story relates to the so called Warsaw Declaration signed by Boris Yeltsin in August 1993. Especially today, when we are still mourning the first President of Russia, this anecdote is worth recalling. There he was, signing the document and – in front of cameras from all over the world – stating that Russia had nothing against Poland’s accession to NATO. The West did not grasp the full significance of this event, as it was not psychologically prepared for it.
Knowing this, the Russians later tried to back out of the statement, but we held tight to the words for several years, as we had to wait for some time yet to enter the security zone of the North Atlantic Alliance. Still, we already had our foot in the door. And, as in the past when the worker’s shoe, stuck in the doors of liberty, had finally kicked the doors open, then – after years of hard work and struggle – we were admitted to the Alliance as equals.
Today, ten years after this momentous and historic decision to enlarge NATO, our Allies can say with full confidence that it was worth doing. And we, Poles, are able to state with clear conscience that we have carried our share of the Alliance’s load. Together, we have to show determination to ensure that the Alliance’s lesson of solidarity continues to bear fruit for the world, responding to the challenges of the global era.