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Neither Poland nor Israel Can Afford Their Fixation With the Past

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Participants at the annual "March of the Living" at the memorial site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland. April 12, 2018
Participants at the annual "March of the Living" at the memorial site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland. April 12, 2018Credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP

Yielding to immense international pressure, the Polish parliament has hastily repealed an outrageous law, passed only in January this year, that attempted to criminalize much of the discussion about Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust.  

A lesson from this resounding foreign policy fiasco of Poland’s nationalist ruler, Jarosaw Kaczyski, should be taken to heart by political elites in countries, from Turkey and Russia to Thailand and Iran, which try to aggressively push national historical narratives in the international arena.

Too often, even progressives in those countries seem to agree with the underlying objectives of this kind of "historical" foreign policy, questioning at most the skillfulness of its implementation.

This peculiar intellectual consensus must be challenged. Employing history as a source of international soft power is, in fact, a distinctly bad idea.

Compared to available alternatives, history helps little in winning geopolitical allies, attracting commercial partners, and creating an appealing national brand – the three essential conditions of foreign policy success for a country like Poland.

By its very nature, a historically-based foreign policy is a zero-sum game. Our heroic self-portrayal inevitably challenges the collective memories of others - often our neighbors or key allies. Worse yet, that immediate cost is rarely offset by winning friends elsewhere.

The international audience interested in such issues is limited. For countries that are not part of our narrative, our history competes for attention with numerous dramatic events that happened, or are happening, closer to home. Acknowledging the historical uniqueness of our geopolitical partners often accompanies diplomatic meetings, but it is a ritual exchange, not a true confirmation of importance or exceptionality.

Israel, with that same love-hate foreign policy model of many nationalist governments, is paradoxically a perfect example of the above-mentioned challenges.

United Nations General Assembly votes on Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, December 21, 2017.Credit: SPENCER PLATT/Bloomberg

While the Jewish people's uniquely tragic and heroic history was surely pivotal in securing international support for the country’s establishment, it is difficult to find concrete ways in which that history wins Israel many new allies today. The 2017 "null-and-void" resolution on the U.S. administration's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital passed 128 to nine in the UN General Assembly, with 35 abstentions - despite Israel’s intense opposition. 

We in no way underestimate the role of anti-Semitism as a source of opposition to Israel on the international stage. Yet, even in the United States, the respect for Israel’s uniqueness as a Middle Eastern democracy, or for the entrepreneurial spirit of its people ("the startup nation"), is increasingly overtaking historical recollections as a dominant theme.

International capital is indifferent even the most successful or poignant historical foreign policy. A glorious past is not taken into account while investment decisions are made. But a country fixated with its past fights and grievances risks being seen as both unstable and not sufficiently adaptive. The past, especially for most businesspeople, is the opposite of the future.

An overly backwards-looking foreign policy can be self-defeating when it vilifies the home countries of important investors and trading partners. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is a case in point here, trying to clumsily woo German investments while at the same time ratcheting up anti-German sentiments.

An intense focus on history may also create other problems, such as attracting talent from abroad, increasing the risk of regional crises that can affect supply chains, or simply complicating a country’s pro-business messaging.

Ireland, for instance, would have had trouble positioning itself as a dynamic European headquarters destination for American companies if it emphasized its historical grievances towards Britain. After all, the widespread use of the language of its former occupier has been among Ireland’s key competitive advantages.

Which brings us to our final point. History is not a good foundation for the positive branding of a country—mainly because it is always complicated. If you tell the whole story, it may no longer be particularly unique or appealing. If you try to whitewash it, like Poland, you face a myriad of voices that will gladly take your narrative apart, using the controversy-craving 24-hour news cycle.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia's then-president, speaks during the Wirtschaftsrat conference in Berlin, Germany. June 9, 2015Credit: Bloomberg

Estonia, for instance, could have built its international reputation on highlighting the victory of a small state against the Bolsheviks in 1919, and on harrowing years of Soviet occupation that followed. But that would, sadly, be hardly distinct from the stories of many other countries, including Estonia’s two Baltic neighbors. In addition, such a narrative might have brought more international attention to the vexing problem of a large and partly stateless Russian minority living in Estonia.

It is thereby a true stroke of genius of Estonia’s political leaders to reinvent the country as a "digital nation" or "E-stonia." Its pioneering e-residency program, introduced in 2014, has attracted glowing coverage in major international media. The country’s then-president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has become an influential figure in global e-governance forums -something otherwise unthinkable for a head of a micro-state of 1.4 million people.

Other countries, most notably Germany, Japan or Austria, have proved to be effective international actors despite having a distinctly unappealing recent history. Their success leaves one wondering if the perceived historical moral high ground is not yet another "resource curse" in international relations.

History should surely be studied by scholars, commemorated in museums and taught in schools. Yet when it comes to foreign affairs, progressives are conceding too much when they accept the historical fixation of authoritarians and their regimes.

Instead, they should have courage to inspire their compatriots with attractive, alternative sources of future-oriented national power, prestige and success. 

Maciej Kisilowski is Associate Professor of Law and Public Management at Central European University and author of Administrategy: A Guide to Strategic Management in Public Administration. Twitter: @kisilowski

Anna Wojciuk is Associate Professor of International Relations at University of Warsaw and author of Empires of Knowledge in International Relations: Education and Science as Sources of Power for the State. Twitter: @awojciuk