The Republic of Kraków (1815-1846) and the Republic of Montenegro (2006-2018): The Ghost of 19th Century Europe’s Greatest Foreign Policy Dilemma Has Returned

by Anthony J. Bajdek, PAC V.P. for American Affairs

I begin this article with Britain’s view on the matter of Poland precisely as reported in the Niles’ National Register in its September 11, 1847 issue, pages 27-29:

“ENGLISH ELECTIONEERING. The following address of Lord Palmerston to the electors of the borough of Tiverton, on the occasion of the last election to the new parliament, besides being very amusing, and withal a very favorable specimen of English electioneering speeches, is deserving of perusal for the information it affords on European politics, and the exposition which it gives of the views of a leading member of the British government. It is only necessary to explain that the Mr. Harvey who is repeatedly referred to in the speech, was an opposing candidate, who preceded Lord Palmerston in a long address, in which he had impugned the whole policy of the administration, for which he held the noble lord responsible, as the secretary of foreign affairs, both under the present, and under the late Whig administration. After the speeches were ended, Mr. Harvey withdrew from the canvass, and Lord Palmerston and Mr. Heathcoat were declared chosen without a poll.”

Lord Henry John Temple (1784-1865) had been the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, and began his lengthy speech referenced above by stating that his “view of government is that there are two objects of which it should aim – those objects are truth and justice. Then object of all science is truth; and the science of government is the investigation of truth…,” an example of which he applied to the Republic of Kraków as follows:

“I think that I have now touched upon nearly every topic to which my opponent referred, except the subject of Poland. I am far from under-valuing the great services, which, in former times, the Polish nation rendered to the Christian nation[s] of Europe. By the partition of Poland, I consider that a heinous crime – a great political offence – was committed, but it was consummated many years ago, and long before I had anything to do with public affairs. The practical question that was recently discussed in the House of Commons, to which Mr. Harvey referred, related to Cracow, a small republic, placed between three military despotisms. The position was certainly one of great danger; because when the lamp of freedom was placed in the midst of despotism it was hardly to be supposed that despotism would not, sooner or later, extinguish the sacred flame. So it happened. We protested against the proceeding. Mr. Harvey complains that our protest was couched in too civil terms – that we did not threaten more – that we did not show ourselves more angry. I must say that in the case of nations and governments as well as of individuals there is no dignity or wisdom in threatening to do what you are not prepared and may not be able to accomplish. (Hear, hear.)  Much as we deplored the extinction of the free state of Cracow, and much as we condemned the act as a violation of the treaty of Vienna, I put it to you, what do you think would have been the verdict of the House of Commons, or of the country, if we had proposed to go to war with Austria, Russia, or Prussia, for the hopeless purposes of re-establishing the republic of Cracow. (Hear, hear.) The only way by which we could have compelled the restoration of the independence of Cracow would have been making war against these three great Powers, with such success that, in order to purchase peace, they would be ready to re-establish the republic. I would like to know how many millions of money must have been expended, how many thousands of lives must have been sacrificed, and what torrents of blood must have been shed before we could have brought those three Powers on their knees before us, prepared to sue for peace on terms of our own dictation. Why, it is childish to talk about it; and if it was out of the question to go to war with three great powers for re-establishment of the republic of Cracow, it would not have been dignified, wise, or becoming the honor of this country to threaten what it was not prepared to execute. (Hear, hear.).”

Just think today in 2018 what Poles in the Republic of Kraków, 19th century’s final European concession to allow for the existence of a veritable morsel (population under 150,000 souls) of Polish freedom and independence, must have thought upon learning of the details of Lord Palmerston’s facts-of-life speech. Fast forward to President Trump’s recent remarks about Montenegro  (population under 630,000 souls) which, in principle, could be equally applied to each of NATO’s three Baltic states, as well as to Poland, for that matter.

As reported by and other sources as well, when a Fox network TV commentator queried President Trump saying, “Membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other member who is attacked. So, let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that?”, President Trump replied, “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked myself the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people…. They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III. Now I understand that — but that’s the way it (i.e., NATO) was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year ago.”

What is remarkable here is the basic similarities of statements by Lord Palmerston in the 19th century and President Trump in the 21st century, particularly on two points, the first being that each of them remarked that the respective foreign policies had been concluded prior to their involvement, and especially on the second point of major concern, that being, to go to war with a Great Power to defend a tiny republic.

Sadly, the Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas I in the 19th century and the Russian Federation today under President Vladimir Putin in the 21st century respectively, had enjoyed and continue to enjoy the benefits of knowing of the West’s lack of enthusiasm for engaging in a war with Russia principally, to defend Poland (and Montenegro), despite the noblest attributions being acknowledged to Poland’s history as the knight defending Europe against the barbaric East.

Finally, given the 20th century’s painful episodic reality of France and Great Britain not having come to Poland’s immediate aid on and after September 1, 1939 despite treaty obligations, what are today’s bottom-line NATO realities to be in practical terms and actions as precipitated by President Trump’s shocking articulation of this lingering foreign policy dilemma in the manner and substance of Lord Palmerston 171 years ago?


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