History has proved that alliances are never permanent. Subject to an ever-changing environment, the interests of countries within an alliance will inevitably diverge. Despite that fact, the Polish and Lithuanian media were recently buzzing over a meeting between the two countries' leaders that appeared to elevate the bilateral relationship to a formal alliance. Last week, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius met with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk in Warsaw and said that Poland is Lithuania's “strategic partner.”
That term is thrown around a lot in the
international relations community. Politicians from various countries
boast of such partnerships, even amid mutual suspicion and
competition for resources and influence. It is a useful diplomatic
tool and an attractive soundbite for the media, but the term can
prove quite hollow on closer inspection.
What is a strategic partnership?
Take Russia and China for example. Their political and economic competition in areas such as Central Asia, and Russia's
military posturing in the Pacific, have not prevented officials on each side from characterizing the other as a strategic partner. Many other countries have used the term loosely, when in reality there is little that is strategic, much less binding, in a partnership between two nations. In other cases, strategic interests align countries at a particular time or within a particular context, but that doesn't mean the two countries don't have significant differences or disagreements between them.
The relationship between Poland and
Lithuania is an example of the latter. The two countries have a long
history that goes back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an
alliance created in the 16th century that at the time gave rise to
one of the biggest and most powerful states in Europe. This
relationship was formed in a unique geopolitical context. The
divisions of the Germans within the Holy Roman Empire and the Mongol
sacking of Russia had created a power vacuum in Central and Eastern
Europe that Poland and Lithuania were in a prime position to fill.
Long history of Polish-Lithuanian disputes
But even at the peak of its power, the Commonwealth was marked by disputes between Poland and Lithuania over power arrangements and territorial administration. At the heart of this dispute was nationalism, which has endured in Europe and elsewhere throughout history. Partnerships and alliances – whether bilateral or multilateral – have not been enough to overcome it.
By the end of the 18th century, the re-emergence of Russia and the unification of Germany (along with the growing strength of another Germanic state, the Austrian Empire) undid the alliance. These states grew in strength and, through a series of partitions, eventually ended the Commonwealth. In the ensuing 200 years, Poland and Lithuania were overwhelmed by these other powers, sometimes separately and sometimes together, but neither country was ever fully in control of its future.
The two nations finally emerged as
independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end
of the Cold War. They were united when the European Union and NATO
expanded into Central and Eastern Europe in 2004. But even then,
issues like the treatment of the Polish minority in Lithuania and
disputes over economic and cultural issues served as a source of
bilateral tension. Energy was a particularly sore subject; both
competed for EU funds on energy projects and had ownership disputes
in commercial projects, like the PKN Orlen refinery in Lithuania.
Reaction to Russian presence in the region
The strategic context has once again changed. Russia has re-emerged as a legitimate regional power and regained its ability to project power into Central and Eastern Europe. One tool Russia has is its military. It sent a message to all countries in its periphery with the 2008 invasion of Georgia and its expanded weapons and offensive military capabilities in areas like Belarus and Kaliningrad. Energy is another essential tool for Moscow; Russia has used it to exert political pressure on countries like Ukraine via cutoffs and on other countries via price manipulations. All these moves have affected Central and Eastern European countries like Poland and Lithuania, who rely heavily on Russian oil and natural gas.
It is this dynamic that has spurred greater cooperation between Poland and Lithuania in recent years. Russia's energy tactics have pushed the two countries to pursue energy diversification projects more adamantly and effectively than any other states in Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than compete for EU funding, both countries have unilaterally pursued their own projects in the form of liquefied natural gas import terminals, which are set to come online by 2014. They have also cooperated on issues like shale gas exploration, and Poland is pursuing a natural gas pipeline project to link the two countries' energy grids. The countries have also pursued greater collaboration on security matters in NATO (with Poland participating in the patrols over the Baltics' airspace), and in regional security initiatives between the Nordic and Baltic states.
In this case, the argument can be made that Poland and Lithuania have a strategic partnership, despite recurring diplomatic disputes. But this does not necessarily make the partnership successful or permanent. A fundamental tenet of geopolitics is that there's no such thing as permanent allies, only permanent interests. With whom a country pursues an alliance and the manner in which it pursues that alliance can vary depending on geopolitical circumstances, which can change over time. Poland and Lithuania's interests have in the current geopolitical context aligned for close cooperation in very specific areas. But as history shows, this so-called strategic partnership can be disrupted from within, or – as is more often the case – by external factors.