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Andrzej Kohut  30 lipca 2019

Historic deal? Polish President Duda in Washington

Andrzej Kohut  30 lipca 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 7 min

The presidents of Poland and the United States signed a political declaration on reinforcing the US armed forces stationed in Poland with another one thousand troops. It is quite the success of Polish diplomacy, since the US is less and less interested in being the „guardian” of Europe, and it took a lot of effort to convince American decision-makers to strengthen the military presence in Poland. The Americans, however, do not do this out of the kindness of their hearts – Poland will pay a lot for President Trump’s friendship, and some critics even point out that yesterday’s success is too expensive and too limited.

An overrated success?

The Polish media expectations were high. And even if „Fort Trump” was a media trick, it was widely believed that we were discussing with Americans the permanent presence of thousands of American soldiers, who would change our military situation significantly. Meanwhile, the final result of the negotiations is only one thousand soldiers, mainly logistics and training personnel. In this context, the reinforcement that is to happen may seem rather insignificant.

The costs that we will have to bear are controversial as well. President Trump was pleased to announce that Poland will fund the increase of the American contingent, covering the expenses for developing the necessary infrastructure as well. No specific figures were mentioned during the presidents’ meeting, but up to 2 billion dollars were discussed earlier.

The direct cost for the reinforced presence of soldiers in Poland will not be the only one we’d have to bear. During his visit to the White House, President Duda confirmed that Poland is interested in purchasing thirty-two F-35 aircrafts. An agreement was also signed on increasing the volume of LNG sent to Poland from the USA. The Americans thus have done some very good business with us. And this is probably not all.

We might remind the Middle East summit that Poland agreed to organise – this could also have been our concession to bring the Americans closer to making a decision. Furthermore, some time ago the New York Times wrote that the Trump administration is making its military support for Poland conditional upon Poland’s joining the campaign against the Chinese consortium, Huawei. Not knowing the behind-the-scenes conversations, we can only guess as to the impact of negotiations, one thing leaves no doubt. Increasing the American presence in Poland not only is a financial liability for Poland but also increases our dependence on an ally from across the ocean. In the face of these reservations, one can only ask one question: was it worth it?

The illusion of security

„The decision to increase the presence of US troops in Poland is extremely important. It will bring good results for Poland’s security. It can be compared to the decision to join NATO” – said the Minister of National Defense Mariusz Błaszczak before the presidents of both countries met. And although this statement has some poetic exaggeration, it reminds us of an important thing.

Our country’s security has not been given to us once and for all. This seemed more obvious in the 90s. After many decades of externally-controlled communism, Poland finally became independent. There was a strong awareness, however, that Russia, although weakened by the collapse of the USSR and the economic crisis, did not vanish from the map and at some point will want to rebuild its sphere of influence. It seemed clear that we did not want to return under Moscow’s umbrella. Hence Polish governments, despite internal political turmoil, consistently sought to include our country in the structures of the Western world, including NATO. Unfortunately, when this was achieved, many Poles bought the myth that „history has ended”. The only wars we would be having since were our Polish-Polish ones. And we could do that because, in the event of any outside threat, our allies would come to our aid. This, however, was and still is merely an illusion that could sooner or later lead to a very painful disappointment.

The events of recent years prove that we are far from the „end of history”. The end the Cold War did not mean that the world would from now on grow peacefully in democracy and prosperity. For Poland, a red flag appeared in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and then became involved in the conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine.

It turned out that not only state borders in our region have not been given once and for all, but also international security guarantees may fail. After all, there was the Budapest memorandum of 1994 that was to safeguard the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine in exchange for giving up the nuclear arsenal. The document was signed by e.g. the American president and the British prime minister.

It is worth realizing that our presence in NATO – although it puts us in a better position than Ukraine – does not mean one hundred percent guarantee of assistance. The fifth article of the Treaty, which is often cited in the media, does not mean that as soon as a Russian tank crosses the Polish border, two US planes would be immediately sent in response. It only mentions using the measures that countries deem necessary (although the use of armed forces is mentioned as one of the options). Our not-so-distant past gives us very worrying examples of what measures countries may consider appropriate when it’s another country’s security that is at stake.

Especially if it is a country to which the troops are yet to be sent. Let us remember that our NATO accession was a great opportunity – in the early 1990s, Russia was not only weakened but also believed that it would be able to defend its interests in cooperation with the US – this period is even called the honeymoon between these two countries. However, already at the end of the 1990s, the issue of extending the Alliance’s borders began to spoil mutual relations. Russia perceived the incorporation of former communist states into the western military structures as an approach to pose a direct threat to its borders. The western countries, on the other hand, were trying to appease the Russians as much as possible. Therefore, Poland’s accession to NATO in 1999 did not entail shifting the main US forces to our territory.

Even though we have become the alliance’s border state, the military infrastructure is still holding the positions from the Cold War era. The misleading nature of the fifth article and the initial lack of the alliance’s military component in Poland show very clearly that the struggle for our security did not end in 1999.

Have we overpaid for soldiers?

Of course, the situation has changed significantly since 1999. Polish governments (both previous and present) have done a lot to ensure that our allies take serious note of the warning that was Ukraine in 2014. Already in the same year at the NATO summit in Wales, the Alliance decided to strengthen its eastern flank by reinforcing the NATO Response Force, intensifying military exercises in the countries of the region, or deploying military depots. The 2016 Summit in Warsaw brought about NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, i.e. multinational battalions stationed in the Baltic States and in Poland to discourage Russia from potential aggression. Starting from 2017, around four thousand American troops are stationed in our country.

Therefore, if the very necessity of soliciting allied troops on our territory is not subject to discussion, the question regarding the value of an additional group of American soldiers remains open. Of course, one may answer that more is always better than less. However, being aware of the costs that Poland bears to acquire „more”, this answer is not enough. Other arguments are, however, also relevant.

There is no Polish security without the American military’s support, just as there is no European security without it. Our continent, including Germany as its most powerful part, benefits from the protection offered by the Americans. Therefore, if someone is to come to our aid in the event of a threat, it will not happen without the Americans’ participation, or at least their influence. We are not able to fully anticipate their reaction – the US will never agree to such a mechanism; only the Congress has a constitutional right to declare war and will never renounce this privilege in an international treaty – but nothing will bring us closer to the goal than the presence of American soldiers in Poland. It will simply be harder for them to refuse help in case of a conflict.

The fact that we managed to convince the US to send additional soldiers, while the American administration prioritizes other regions of the world (Middle East, China), and the American president struggles to find a common language with Europeans, is also noteworthy. Sending troops is much more than selling modern aircraft: it is a conscious commitment to the security of the region and a clear signal that the US isn’t forgetting about Central Europe. This is a major success for the Polish side.

Therefore, although the declaration signed in Washington by Duda and Trump is certainly not as big a breakthrough as Poland’s accession to NATO, it is another important step on the same path. Thus, while answering the question about the reasonableness of costs, one has to bear in mind an alternative cost of the lack of security expenditure.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.