Over the next year, Europe will commemorate a series of tragic and devastating anniversaries from World War II. These include the eightieth anniversary of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939; the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939; and Germany’s assaults on Denmark and Norway in April of the following year. While these countries’ strong economies and vibrant political landscapes today is a testament to their resilience and the benefits of U.S. support for its European allies, it is worth recalling the geopolitical realities that put these countries in the crosshairs of great power rivalry as well as the multinational instruments that helped to restore and preserve their sovereignty.
All of these countries have similar security and defense requirements. They share a history of occupation by their larger neighbors as well as strategic, yet vulnerable, coastal locations in the Baltic Sea. They rely on their membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (in the case of Norway, close partnership with the European Union) and strong bilateral relations with the United States to advance their national interests and reinforce their security and defense capabilities.
This geopolitical reality points to an important lesson: avoiding overreliance on bilateralism. Vice President Pence’s visit to Poland this weekend (in lieu of President Trump who made the last-minute decision to stay home to monitor Hurricane Dorian) will be the fourth bilateral meeting with Polish president Duda in barely two years. Duda visited Washington in September 2018 and June 2019, and Trump traveled to Warsaw in July 2017. To contrast, President Obama visited Poland just three times during his eight-year presidency (spanning two different Polish presidents). While conducting regular bilateral meetings between close allies is normal practice and important, the frequency and high-level of these U.S.-Polish engagements is quickly becoming a strategic vulnerability to Poland. Poland is an important partner in international military operations, host to some 4,000 U.S. forces, and a frequent customer of the U.S. defense industry, but the bilateral agenda is overly weighted on security, which has the unintended consequence of weakening the broader bilateral relationship.
Certainly, there are ideological affinities between the Trump administration and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party that encourage these frequent interactions. These include socially conservative agendas; the embrace of nationalism; an anti-German and anti-EU bias; a desire to increase defense spending, to include the purchase of U.S. military hardware; and an energy-focused agenda that includes the purchase of U.S. liquified natural gas. In President Trump, Duda sees a like-minded leader who can give Poland the ultimate bilateral security guarantee of U.S. soldiers in Poland beyond what NATO and the European Union could ever provide.
While personal relationships between leaders can be helpful in achieving national goals, overreliance on a single nation or individual leader is always a risky endeavor, particularly for a mercurial president who, self-admittedly, makes foreign policy decisions by “gut” and changes his mind as military operations are underway (such as whether U.S. forces will remain in Syria or the response to Iran downing a U.S. drone). The president’s treatment of Denmark demonstrates that a country can do everything “right”—deploy troops to U.S.-led operations, purchase U.S. defense systems, and contribute to the defense of the U.S. homeland—and still be dismissed when the president is insulted by a nation’s unwillingness to accept the desired U.S. agenda wholesale.
The Polish government is beginning to appreciate the risk. Polish foreign minister Czaputowicz thus far has downplayed suggestions by the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw that U.S. forces be moved out of Germany to Poland (ostensibly because the former does not yet meet the NATO defense spending goal of 2 percent). Czaputowicz understands that U.S. troops in Germany also provide security for Poland, the Baltic region, and NATO. Yet in other areas, Poland has moved dangerously close to jeopardizing NATO unity in its eagerness to engender a special relationship with the United States. One example is Poland’s offer of $2 billion to the United States for the deployment of a permanent U.S. armored division in Poland, rather than discussing the desire for additional forward-based forces in the overall context of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) deployments. Likewise, Poland’s bilateral request to the United States to purchase Tomahawk missiles, knowing that such a deployment would be inconsistent with the spirit if not the letter of the then-active Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, should be discussed in a NATO framework and as a possible contribution to NATO’s agreed nuclear deterrence posture.
Poland must also be alert that the U.S. government has dramatically shifted its view on the usefulness of allies and what it is prepared to contribute to their security. Although Trump agreed to the Polish request to enhance U.S. forces in Poland (largely through persistent rotations and at a number far lower than the Polish request), he did so with the caveat that “the Polish government will build these projects at no cost to the United States.” When Poland announced its intent to purchase U.S. F-35 fighter jets, it did so without securing agreements to co-develop or co-produce elements of the jet in Poland.
But perhaps the greatest sticking point is the strong difference of opinion between President Trump and the Polish government on the nature of the Russian regime. During President Duda’s most recent meeting in the Oval Office, Duda noted that Russia presents a current threat to Poland. President Trump did not acknowledge or echo this concern, instead commented, “I hope we're going to have a great relationship with Russia.” During last week’s G7 summit in Biarritz, President Trump was alone in his suggestion that Russia should be readmitted to G7, while Poland’s European partners (minus Italy) pushed back strongly on this suggestion.
In this weekend’s meeting, Poland should watch closely whether the United States delivers on the items at the top of Poland’s agenda. Will Poland secure a strong joint statement on Russia’s revisionist activities in Europe and its malign activities globally, which stretch from Venezuela, the Central African Republic, and Syria to the Indo-Pacific? Will President Trump publicly acknowledge that the nearly 4,000 U.S. forces in Poland are there to defend U.S. and European security from Russia? Will Poland secure work-share agreements on the F-35 or other pending procurement of U.S. defense equipment?
The powerful lesson from history is to recognize that the best security, defense, and foreign policy model for Poland (and for other allies, including the United States) is a networked approach that is comprised of robust national defenses, reinforced by strong regional security arrangements with immediate neighbors, and nested in membership in values- and rules-based multilateral organizations. As former secretary of defense Jim Mattis recently wrote, you can never have enough allies on the battlefield.
In an open letter to President Trump on the eve of his anticipated visit to Poland, dozens of former Polish ambassadors echoed this sentiment by recounting Poland’s tragic past when it was abandoned by, and then isolated from, its closest allies. They assert that the modern Polish Republic rests on “two pillars: the European Union and NATO,” and that these communities are not at odds with one another. This is the strategic balance this is needed to shield Poland. What it is pursuing at the moment is strategic imbalance. As the saying goes in Polish, “nie stawiaj wszystkiego na jedną kartę”—don’t gamble everything on one card.
Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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