Despite Trump’s Criticism Of NATO, Poland Seeks A Permanent U.S. Military Base In The Country

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda visited Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, September 18th, 2018 and met with President Donald Trump. This visit might have been like any other official visit by a head of state to the White House, but its political impact was highlighted by the Polish President’s request to the United States President for a permanent American military presence in the Central European country. Pledging up to $2 billion USD to fund the initiative, Duda has gone as far as to consider naming the military base Fort Trump. As Trump often criticizes his NATO allies for “not paying their fair share,” Poland is one of the few member countries to spend the expected 2 percent of its GDP on defense.

As debates rage over the future of the military alliance, with Trump railing against other alliance members, particularly Germany, the question is: Will this offer by Poland persuade Trump to maintain an interest and commitment to the alliance at the expense of wider European security interests and the risk of furthering tensions between Moscow and Washington? Speaking to Politico, retired U.S. Lieutenant General and commander of the United States Army in Europe from 2014 to 2017 Ben Hodges said that establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland would undermine the cohesion of the Western military alliance. He argues that the current defense model of rotational forces offers a credible and sufficient deterrence against potential Russian aggression in the region. He also says that having a permanent U.S. presence in Poland will only stir up Moscow’s fears yet further.

Meanwhile, Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council spoke to Deutsche Welle about the issue.  Conley says that in order for the plan to be carried out, it would have to be brought to the attention of the United States Department of Defense. She also notes that such a decision would have to be made in consultation with NATO. Benitez tells DW that going forward with the plan would be completely conflicting with Trump’s desire to reduce dependence on American forces for defense and to shift more of the burden towards the U.S.’ European partners.

Should Poland and the United States decide to move forward with this initiative, it could seriously worsen not only Washington’s relations with Moscow, but also its ties with its other European allies. In a region already transfixed on Ukraine, further escalation of tensions between Russia and the West will only make Europe’s security framework less stable. In order to reassure both Russia and European allies, who are nervous about aggravating Russia, especially when it comes to such matters as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the United States and Poland must maintain clear communication with European nations.

The rationale and strategic calculus behind Poland’s decision to pursue a permanent American military presence in the country and seek closer relations with Moscow are explained by both Poland’s history and its current situation vis-à-vis the European Union. A nation historically conquered and partitioned by its more powerful neighbors – Austria, Prussia, and Russia in the 18th century and Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th – the country is particularly sensitive to such issues as territorial integrity and sovereignty. With a long history of bitterness with its Russian neighbor, it is not surprising that Poland is nervous about Russian military activities in Ukraine and the wider Central and Eastern European region, as well as the highly militarized Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast on Poland’s doorstep. By having the troops of the most powerful member of the alliance placed in the country, Warsaw hopes that it would act as a deterrent against any future Russian aggression.

While Poland is conscious of the Russian security threat, it is also embroiled in a feud with Brussels. Poland has been criticized by European Union leaders for its attacks on the judiciary and failure to take in its quota of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Like its ally Hungary, Poland has been accused of governing “illiberal democracies” and violating EU values. Both Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz Party have gained the consternation of EU leaders, especially France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Trump—no friend of the European Union—has largely remained silent on this issue, and it is perhaps this silence that has emboldened these Central European leaders. It is likely that Poland seeks closer ties with the United States in order to gain leverage over Brussels.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, any further escalation in tensions along the Russia-NATO border is unlikely to bring any fruitful results in securing a more peaceful and stable Europe. Though Poland is compelled by security reasons and the United States by domestic politics—i.e., Donald Trump’s efforts to appear tough on Russia—each nation must remain vigilant of the potential wider geopolitical fallout should they pursue the military base. As the world commemorates the armistice that ended World War I this November, it should remember that one seemingly insignificant event could spark a continent-wide or even global conflict.