Turning the Eagle’s Head: Polish Nationhood and the Global War on Terror

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Timothy Borden


This thesis explores the intersection of nationhood and global terrorism by examining the responses of Poland’s political leaders to a series of terrorism-related events during the last decade. In doing so, this work demonstrates the crucial importance of analyzing Poland’s contemporary experience with terrorism through a particularly Polish sense of nationhood, one rooted in Sarmatism. It is only by understanding the influence of Sarmatian ideals and practices that one can comprehend the actions of the current leadership of the Polish nation. Moreover, it is through this understanding that a more effective set of foreign policy security initiatives can be fostered with Poland and the other nations of the Visegrád Group: Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
Focusing on the Sarmatian concept of Polish nationhood also alleviates the confusion endured by Western observers of the country, who have largely failed to comprehend the wild swings of the nation’s foreign relations in the past decade. As a constant feature in the discourse of the modern Polish state since its founding as the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania in 1569, Sarmatism remains a powerful influence over the nation’s psyche and its leaders’ political rhetoric. By focusing on contemporary events through the framework of Sarmatism, then, a view of modern Poland emerges that is more illuminating than one derived through Western concepts of nationhood. This comprehension is vital to implementing a more effective set of Western foreign policy initiatives geared toward Poland, especially in the area of security against global terrorism and military threats.
This Sarmatian description of nationhood, as applied to Poland’s contemporary experience with global terrorism, is used as an analytical tool to explore the three most significant contemporary “terrorist” events to touch the country: the 2008 plane crash at Smoleńsk, Russia, that killed the president and 95 others; the 2015 European Union migrant crisis that brought millions of refugees to Europe (although none were known to be traveling to Poland); and the 2016 slaying of Polish truck driver Łukasz Urban, who died in a terrorist attack on a Berlin Christmas market. The analysis of each of these events shows how the manipulation of Sarmatian values by the leaders of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość in Polish, or PiS) continues to influence the nation’s domestic politics and foreign relations, with significant implications for its most important alliances: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
Using a Sarmatian analysis also helps Western policymakers better tailor their foreign policies toward Poland to counter the sometimes toxic strain of xenophobic nationalism that can be found among Sarmatian values. At a time when the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization face great challenges to their internal unity and possible external conflicts with an unstable Russia and an ambitious China, retaining Poland in these Western alliances is crucial. This goal will not be accomplished without first understanding the values that underlay Polish nationhood and then analyzing how they are manipulated by PiS to its advantage.
In pursuing its current path of isolationist, xenophobic, and autocratic policies, the current ruling party in Poland has destabilized the entire region, which benefits its rulers in the short term despite disastrous implications for the future. Offering a better understanding of the essential elements of Polish nationhood and applying them to the proclaimed counterterrorism policies of the current administration, this thesis calls for reengagement of the West into an active dialogue with Poland’s leaders and citizens. This new discourse, focusing on Poland’s understanding of itself instead of projecting Western values onto it, echoes similar efforts to bolster the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement of the 1980s and 1990s. That effort was successful in restoring a vibrant civil society and active democracy to a nation that has always treasured both among its founding ideals. Ceding the creation of this discourse on nationhood in contemporary Poland risks the perversion of these ideals in the name of a more toxic version of nationalism that serves neither its nor the West’s long-term interests. In the nation’s coat of arms, Poland’s white eagle faces west; now the West must make an effort to ensure that the eagle’s head does not turn.

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