Has Poland Cracked the Trump Code, and Will That Put Cracks in the NATO Alliance?

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and his NATO colleagues are putting the finishing touches on next month’s NATO summit, including a variety of measures to sharpen NATO’s military readiness, to strengthen its ability to support security forces in places like Iraq and the Middle East, and to improve the logistics and mobility of allied forces across Europe in a crisis, all consistent with the designation of Russia as a strategic competitor and military threat at the top of the priorities in the U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. President Donald Trump, by contrast, has a single priority when it comes to transatlantic security: the level of defense spending of our European and Canadian allies. While U.S. presidents have urged Europe to spend more on defense for decades, President Trump seems fixated on the NATO target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Countries that have reached this target are lauded; laggards are lambasted. Germany is a particular target of the president’s ire, although Berlin spends a greater portion of GDP than countries like Hungary, Italy, Spain, Slovenia, and Belgium. The singular leadership-level focus on the 2 percent may have some unintended consequences beyond neglecting other agenda items.

Poland, one of the handful of allies already to have reached the 2 percent goal, now seeks to capitalize on President Trump’s appreciation by advocating for the permanent stationing of a division of U.S. armored forces northwest of Warsaw (a proposal to the Pentagon reported first by Politico). The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee echoes the Polish idea, though without endorsing it; the NDAA would only oblige the Department of Defense to produce a report on the feasibility and advisability of permanently stationing a brigade combat team (rather than a division).

Warsaw is offering a seemingly lucrative deal to Washington: reportedly up to $2 billion in assistance to support this U.S. division. This deal requires close scrutiny.

Numbers. An increase in U.S. force presence in Europe would strengthen NATO’s deterrence against Russia, a point this author and several CSIS colleagues have made since the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. But a unit of the size Poland seeks would be larger than all the U.S. ground forces currently based in Europe—one brigade each in Germany and Italy. At present, the U.S. Army does not have the spare capacity to station an armored division in Poland. But if it were to be so inclined, which member of Congress would like to volunteer to move U.S.-based forces, their dependents, and jobs from his or her district to Poland? It is hard to imagine who would agree to this, which is why the Army currently rotates the supplementary troop presence to Europe, using some of the Congress’s $6 billion in budgetary support from the European Deterrence Initiative to this end. Without a significant growth in the size of the U.S. Army, additional permanent stationing of ground forces in Europe is hard to imagine, as the Polish government undoubtedly is well aware and as Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former U.S. Army Europe commander, recently pointed out.

Perhaps, then, the proposal actually seeks a relocation of U.S. forces in Germany and Italy (neither of which spends 2 percent of GDP on defense) to Poland. Germany, as the largest host of U.S. forces in Europe, is not viewed kindly by President Trump. It would fit the logic of a transactional White House to move these forces to a nation that is more supportive of the Trump administration. This would also be consistent with the recent release of the State Department’s Europe strategy, which seeks more proactive engagement in Central and Eastern Europe. The terms of Warsaw’s offer hint at the possibility that the United States could initiate a bidding war between Germany and Poland, a Trumpian twist to U.S. alliance strategy if ever there was one. Two NATO nations—which already have scratchy relations—would be pitted against one other, weakening and cheapening NATO.

But, at the end of the day, the numbers do not work. $2 billion is simply insufficiently attractive for the United States to place division-sized base infrastructure in Poland. The actual cost would be many times more than $2 billion, leaving U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill. It would also sacrifice the current support of Germany and Italy and abandon investments in world-class military and training facilities, such as the Hohenfels Joint Multinational Readiness Center, the premier land forces training center in Europe.

Location. If U.S. forces in Europe were relocated or additional U.S. forces were moved there, they should be in a place that maximizes their ability to respond to any likely contingency. Moving the permanent brigades from Italy and Germany would diminish U.S. deployment flexibility. Germany in particular places few restrictions on the employment of U.S. forces in other theaters, a flexibility on which U.S. planners depend, demonstrated by the deployment of U.S. forces from Germany to Afghanistan and Iraq in previous conflicts (even though the German government opposed the Iraq war). This flexibility, and Germany’s highly developed logistical and transport networks, are extremely valuable assets. From Germany, U.S. forces can move eastward if a crisis builds on Poland or the Baltic states’ borders with Russia, but also to the southeast, where NATO’s forward presence in Romania bolsters the alliance against instability in the Black Sea region. Stationing U.S. forces permanently in northeast Europe rather than central Europe would limit their operational flexibility and constrain the United States’ ability to protect all of its interests. Countering Russia in northeast Europe is not the United States or NATO’s only security interest. It is questionable whether Poland would easily allow U.S. forces to deploy elsewhere, given the single-mindedness with which Warsaw has long sought such a basing arrangement. Warsaw’s first priority may be to get U.S. forces permanently on Polish soil, but its second is likely to be ensuring that they never leave.

Dividing NATO. Setting aside the lack of U.S. forces and the cost of placing these forces in Poland, permanently placing a U.S. division in Poland would openly confront an issue that deeply divides NATO members: Terminating the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, in which the alliance committed not to station additional substantial combat forces permanently on the territory of the new NATO member states under prevailing security conditions. The balance in the NATO-Russia Founding Act was essential to forging the consensus within NATO to move forward on enlargement and invite Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join. Despite the Russian invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and intervention in the Donbas, NATO has upheld its commitment to demonstrate that NATO honored its international commitments when Russia did not.

Whether to continue adhering to the Founding Act is a legitimate question for NATO to ask. But it is a matter that must be addressed by all NATO allies together, not through a unilateral U.S.-Poland deal that would nullify a NATO commitment without alliance deliberation. The post-2014 solidarity within NATO toward the Russian threat, and the enhanced forward presence of troops from 18 alliance members in Poland and the Baltic states, depends in significant measure on this political balance. While it drives some allies crazy that NATO holds to an agreement that Moscow has violated, it is the price that allies pay for a much more valuable goal: a unified, sustainable, and tough deterrence policy toward Moscow that all allies support. A U.S. bilateral agreement would place this consensus at risk at a time when many other disagreements are fraying the transatlantic fabric. It could even begin to unravel the political support of some allies for their deterrent presence in the east, because the political basis for it would have been changed without their consent or consultation. That would confront Washington with the dilemma of having to make a still greater U.S. commitment to security in Europe or accepting a weakening of NATO.

The Polish proposal confirms that NATO’s approach to Russia gets one thing right: how NATO should approach Russia is the single most vital question facing the alliance now. It would be a tragic irony if a proposal from Warsaw were to endanger a stronger NATO policy and posture toward Russia. While the United States should consider the potential contribution of a larger U.S. presence in Europe on the merits, it should approach these issues in a way that strengthens NATO’s cohesion and solidarity, the alliance’s fundamental source of strength—more powerful than any particular weapons system in deterring an adversary.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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