49 (144) 2021


Baltic geopolitics at Cambridge and the UK-Poland relationship

By Prof Brendan Simms, Rt Hon Charles Clarke and David Cairns
Header centre for geopolitics logo

Poland and the whole of the Baltic Sea region have historically been an area of considerable importance to Britain. Diplomatic and trade links date back to medieval times. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was a vital trading partner and source of timber, furs and many other products. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Royal Navy drew most of its naval stores from the Baltic, watched jealously over the balance of power in that region and intervened against Russia. In the 20th century Britain encouraged the independence of the Baltic states in 1918-19 and fought both the Bolsheviks and the Nazis there.

The human contacts between Britain and Poland are also historic and substantial. Migration from Poland to Britain was high in the 19th century after the uprisings of 1831 and 1863 while a number of Polish exiles fought with Britain against Russia in the Crimean war. At the end of the century many Polish Jews fled oppression to Britain. In World War 2 the Polish contribution to the Allied war effort, organised from London, was immense. Upon Polish accession to the EU in 2004 Britain was one of only a few countries immediately to allow equal rights to Polish workers. About 800,000 Poles are now living in the UK and, according to the 2011 Census, the second-most spoken language in England is Polish.

Of course, this Baltic relationship was part of a wider relationship between Britain and mainland Europe. Though her influence waned somewhat the further one went inland, the UK was an important actor throughout that was once called the ‘Intermarium’ and is now referred to as the ‘Three Seas’, that is the area bounded by the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Sea. The closer one got to the water, in fact, the greater British influence became, for example in Dalmatia or in the Crimea, where Britain found a successful war against the Tsarist Russia in the mid-19th century.
Often the relationship was problematic, and sometimes it was traumatic. Economic rivalries with local powers and European rivals, such as the French and the Dutch, were acute. Britain went to war with almost every single state of the Baltic Sea Region at one point throughout the past few hundred years. During the Napoleonic Wars it conducted a pre-emptive strike against the Danish Navy not just once but twice and also destroyed part of Copenhagen. During the Second World War, the RAF wrecked most of the larger German cities – Lübeck, Rostock, and Königsberg – along the Baltic coast.
Today, the British presence remains strong if not across the Three Seas area, then at least at its two extremes. Recently, the Royal Navy was involved in a stand-off with Russian ships off Crimea, whose annexation by Russia is not recognised by London, and indeed more widely. More importantly, UK forces provide the backbone of NATO deterrence against Vladimir Putin in Estonia. The relationship is a two-way one, as the Baltic Sea Region has much to offer Britain in the way of entrepreneurial talent and lessons in social resilience in the face of massive internal and external challenges.
Despite this history, there is a lack of understanding in the contemporary UK about the Baltic Sea region, including Poland. Much of its history, language and culture is not taught in our universities. There is little grasp of the historic relationship and its importance to Britain. As Britain withdraws from the ordering system of the EU but remains deeply engaged in the politics of the continent, through NATO and other bonds, this situation of relative ignorance is neither acceptable nor sustainable. The potential for misunderstanding between what should otherwise be natural allies remains acute.

The Baltic geopolitics programme at the Centre for Geopolitics in the University of Cambridge (https://www.cfg.polis.cam.ac.uk/programmes/baltic) was established last year in order to increase understanding of the geopolitics of the Baltic Sea Region and the UK’s role in it. The programme is led by Professor Brendan Simms, the Director of the Centre for Geopolitics, and the former UK Home Secretary Charles Clarke.
The programme has established links with all the democratic Baltic Sea Region embassies in London, and the various parts of the UK Foreign and Development Office concerned with the Nordic-Baltic region.

On 20 January this year, John Bew, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Policy, participated in the online launch of the programme and warmly welcomed the initiative and its focus upon the Baltic. To coincide with the launch, we wrote an article explaining why the Baltic relationship is so important for the UK following Brexit

The programme has organised a series of events addressing issues of importance to the Baltic Sea Region, utilising a historic approach to framing contemporary issues. Recordings of past events and a list of upcoming events is available at https://www.cfg.polis.cam.ac.uk/programmes/baltic/events.’

The programme has also launched the Baltic Geopolitics Network, to facilitate collaboration with academics from the universities of Copenhagen, Uppsala, Helsinki, Greifswald, Gdańsk, Klaipeda, Tartu and Latvia. The Geopolitics Network members will be hosting a joint event in Gdańsk and participating in the Warsaw Security Forum, both in October.

In terms of research capacity, the programme is recruiting its first Research Fellow. Prof Simms will be teaching a course on Britain and the geopolitics of the Baltic (c.1600-the present) to an international group of MPhil students in the University of Cambridge in October. The programme has also started a highly successful online graduate student seminar, which is open to doctoral candidates from the UK and across the Baltic Sea region.

Overall, we are very pleased with what has been achieved so far and believe that we are making an impact which is already assisting Baltic-UK relationships to general benefit.

Our next aim is to expand the public and academic reach of the programme. To this end we have put in place a fundraising committee chaired by the former UK ambassador to Sweden, David Cairns. We would welcome offers of intellectual and financial interest and support. As we look ahead to January 2022, there will be an opportunity to support a one-day symposium around the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR.

The Baltic geopolitics programme seeks to bring to bear a historical sensibility on pressing geopolitical problems of today. It also tries to do some creative thinking about the European Order, which needs reconceptualising after the departure of the UK from the EU. In short, the establishment of a permanent Baltic geopolitics programme at Cambridge is an opportunity the show that even after Brexit the United Kingdom remains very much a European power. And the UK–Poland relationship is an important component of that.

Members of the chamber of commerce are of course an important part of today’s UK-Poland relationship, and we hope you found this introduction to the Baltic geopolitics programme interesting. If you would like to know more, be invited to events, or to get involved, please contact the Centre for Geopolitics on cfg@hermes.cam.ac.uk

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