America still enjoys unprecedented post-Cold War goodwill from Eastern European countries, though it seems bent on taking it for granted. Poland and the United States recently celebrated 100 years of their special relationship at a soirée in Warsaw, and for good reason. Washington strongly backed Poland’s membership in NATO, granted in 1999, and its accession into the European Union in 2004. In turn, Poland committed a significant number of troops to the U.S. military mission in Iraq and the NATO mission in Afghanistan. It also has a thriving expatriate community in America, a country that millions of Polish Americans helped to build.
Much ado has been made in the West about Poland’s rightward shift under the currently governing Law and Justice party. There was also a considerable brouhaha in America’s mainstream media over President Trump’s summer 2017 visit and speech in Warsaw. Vox labeled his remarks—Trump’s first major European address—an “alt-right manifesto.” Follow-up meetings between Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda in 2018 led the U.S. ambassador to Poland to call American-Polish relations “the strongest ever.” In particular, Duda’s proposal for a “Fort Trump” U.S. military base in Poland, and for possibly waiving American visa requirements for Poles, piqued the interest of various observers.
Granted, the relationship hasn’t always been sunshine and roses, with a clash late last year between Mosbacher and the Poland’s government over a documentary on Polish neo-Nazis. Nonetheless, the general trend of friendliness abides. Writing last year in The Hill, Mosbacher and the Polish ambassador to the U.S., Piotr Wilczek, stated that “the 10 million strong Polish diaspora in the United States, together with the sizable number of American and Polish exchange program participants and alumni in both countries, deepen our mutual understanding and enhance our cooperation in many fields.”
As for Fort Trump, while Poland wants permanent U.S. boots on the ground, Trump wants NATO countries to shoulder a heavier defensive burden, so the proposal remains only a proposal. Currently, Poland hosts rotating American troops and NATO units. TAC contributor Doug Bandow criticized the calls for a Fort Trump in The National Interest late last year, arguing that America would get nothing out of stationing troops in countries like Poland and that “NATO is defense welfare for Europe.” Bandow further posited that a permanent American troop presence in Poland is militarily unnecessary and would be a foolhardy provocation of Russia in today’s already tense global climate.
Bandow is, of course, largely correct—at least from a geopolitical standpoint. Particularly in the wake of the American and Russian withdrawal from the INF treaty, it would be unwise to escalate matters further. However, a sometimes overlooked perspective in such discussions is that of allied nations themselves. While it’s entirely reasonable for the U.S. to pursue an “America First” policy in foreign affairs, it’s also reasonable to see that the commitments and extensions of American power abroad are unique because of our position as the world’s superpower. Among America’s deep bench of historical and strategic allies—Poland, Georgia, the Kurds, and many others—discussions of military cooperation are often cynically assessed. Nations and peoples with tragic and heroic histories are viewed and judged purely for their worth as buffer zones, proxy fighters, and bulwarks against the threat of the day. Countries such as Poland—economically and militarily integrating with the West—are often treated as an afterthought by their powerful Western backers.
Poland doesn’t have faith in NATO to protect it from Russia in the event of a confrontation or escalation of tensions, especially given what happened in Ukraine and the strategic position of the Russian city of Kaliningrad. So the nation, which was upgraded last year by FTSE Russell to “developed” status, has followed the trend of many Eastern European countries—including, partly, Ukraine—that wish to enjoy the benefits of U.S. military and economic cooperation but end up also bearing many of the costs and stresses. One is reminded of the Republic of Georgia, which has partnered closely with the United States and Western militaries but was left holding the bill when Russian troops rolled in following Georgia’s attempt to take back the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008. Then-Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was reassured by Vladimir Putin that Russia was not overly invested in the separatist regions (as recounted in Thomas de Waal’s excellent book Caucasus). Moreover, the since-exiled Saakashvili was further encouraged of a unified U.S.-Georgian response by his close friend and ally, the late Senator John McCain.
While the American response to the Russo-Georgian War may indeed have been (disastrously) different had McCain been elected president in 2008, the American non-response was indicative of the realpolitik that still underlies much of its international relations. It’s worth noting that at the time, 2,000 of Georgia’s most elite and battle-hardened troops from its 4th Brigade were deployed in Iraq to aid America’s mission, and thus not available to defend their country. In fact, one of the few to step forward and offer strong support for Georgia was the Polish president Lech Kaczński, whose speech in Tbilisi just prior to the outbreak of the war is still well remembered by Georgians today.
Poland has deep historical reasons for its aversion to Russia and economic and strategic reasons for partnering with the West. Not least of these is its desire to counter Russian firm Gazprom’s Nord Stream II gas pipeline and bolster its Three Seas project to build up infrastructure and energy ventures along the Adriatic, Black, and Baltic seas (where Poland already plans to build the Baltic Pipeline through Denmark). Poland wants to free itself from dependence on Russian energy and become an important energy exporter to Central and Eastern Europe. It’s worth noting that the American LNG is already shipping into Poland. As Mosbacher and Wilczek wrote last year, “We both strongly believe that energy security and diversification is vital to every country’s security and independence. A single supplier should not monopolize the European energy market. Projects that obstruct the diversification of energy sources, notably Nord Stream 2, pose a threat to European security.”
At the end of the day, a return to countries prioritizing their national interests could be a positive development, leading to a de-escalation of antagonisms between massive power blocs. It is also likely that ramping up NATO pressure might drive Russia closer to China geopolitically and serve no pragmatic purpose. On the other hand, understanding the precarious positions occupied by America’s allies can be a worthwhile lesson in humility. It can remind us that the whole world does not revolve around American interests. It can help us see that countries wanting only a better future are too often caught in tough bargaining positions.