Edward Lucas
AUTHOR:Edward Lucas
17 November 2015

The Dream of the Intermarium

The “Bloodlands,” as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder calls them, stretch from the Baltic to the Black Sea. A less gloomy name is the Intermarium—between the seas. But whatever the name, they share the same, mostly gloomy, story. These countries have no natural frontiers and two much bigger neighbors: Russia and Germany. So they have spent most of European history under the enforced sway of one or the other.

Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the Bloodlands have turned west. Their peoples want the legality, liberty, prosperity, dignity and other qualities of life that they missed out on under totalitarianism. They see these qualities when they turn West—not specifically to Germany, though, but to the European Union and NATO in which Germany is a strong, but not domineering, force.

They make this choice freely. They could turn east, for strong leadership, stirring messages, and a paternalist political culture. But they mostly do not.

For the first time in 25 years, another option is on the table. The new Polish government wants the Intermarium to speak for itself, standing up both to Russia and (to some extent) to Germany, whose political weight and economic self-interest make it (supposedly) an inherently unreliable partner.

The idea is to build the Intermarium around the core Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) but with strong ties to the Baltic states, to Romania and Bulgaria, and to Ukraine. This is superficially tempting. It echoes Polish greatness (actually Polish-Lithuanian, but never mind) many centuries ago, when a long-forgotten superpower stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

But in practice it is unworkable and counter-productive. The Intermarium countries are too divided to form a common front. Hungary is in the hands of the headstrong Victor Orbán who is besotted with the idea of strong leadership (especially his own) and enjoys increasingly warm ties with Vladimir Putin. The Czech and Slovak governments (and especially the Czech President, Miloš Zeman) dislike confronting Russia. Bulgaria is perennially unreliable.

The problem for Poland therefore is that it does not have enough allies in the putative Intermarium to create a critical mass for solidarity and decision-making. It can rely strongly on Estonia, usually on Latvia and Lithuania, and probably on Romania. Ukraine is more in need of help than able to contribute it. America can create this kind of magnetic pull. Poland can’t and should not pretend otherwise. History suggests that Poland’s greatest disasters come when it overestimates its strength.

Of course if Poland were a country of 80 million people, not 40 million, and had a German-sized economy, instead of a Dutch-sized one, the chances would be better. But it doesn’t.

In the real world, European security depends on constant push-back against two tendencies: American isolationism and German neutralism. The concept of the Intermarium is of no interest to the United States (as Polish envoys will find when they raise it). And it is actively harmful with regard to Germany.

It is quite true that German behavior—for example in diluting NATO’s response to the Kremlin threat, or in building a direct gas pipeline to Russia—is worrying. It is prudent to look at sub-regional security arrangements that can make up for German foot-dragging (such as the Nordic-Baltic-Polish nine increasing cooperation on Baltic Sea security). But Germany is not an unreliable ally. Angela Merkel is without doubt the Intermarium’s best ally in Western capitals. She has pushed through sanctions against Russia against huge obstacles.

If Poland snubs Germany, it increases, not diminishes, the danger. The answer to German wobbles is to work harder on reducing them, not pursuing imaginary alternatives.  

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

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