America’s Relationship with Poland: Military Alliance or Social Club?

Polish Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf has a tough job: making nice with American officials after his boss in Warsaw, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, indiscreetly denounced Poland’s alliance with America as “worthless.”  The ambassador responded to my earlier article and made a convincing case that Poles and Americans are friends.  He had less success in explaining why Washington should extend a security guarantee to Warsaw, putting U.S. citizens at risk in any the war that might result.

NATO is a military alliance.  But as I point out in my latest article in National Interest online, “in the aftermath of the Cold War American policymakers treated the organization like a venerable social club.  When a bunch of old friends showed up after the Iron Curtain collapsed, the decent course seemed to be to invite them to join.”

Notably absent from the discussion at the time was consideration of the most important characteristic of military alliances:  a willingness to go to war.  In the euphoria of the moment that possibility was simply assumed away. 

However, Vladimir Putin’s Crimean adventure set off fevered demands from NATO’s newer members for the alliance to return to its old purpose.  Polish officials, including Minister Sikorski, have been particularly insistent that the U.S. put its full military faith and credit on the line for Poland. 

The advantage of this approach for Poland is obvious.  But the benefits for America are not.  “Friendship and mutual trust,” cited by Ambassador Schnepf, are not the same as strategic interest. 

There’s a wonderful history, of course, with such celebrated figures as “Kosciuszko and Pulaski who aided Washington in the American Revolution,” noted the ambassador.  But the memory is no justification for Washington going head-to-head with a nuclear power, if necessary, more than two centuries later. 

More recently Polish personnel have served “responding to the challenges faced by the global community, such as humanitarian disasters or terrorist threats.”  Presumably Warsaw took those stands to serve the “global community,” and not as a pay-off for an American defense guarantee. 

If Poland did act for more self-interested reasons, the U.S. got by far the worse deal.  Warsaw provided marginal aid in wars that America should not have fought.  In exchange Washington is supposed to prepare for global war with Russia. 

Yet the Polish government seems to assume a sense of entitlement.  Minister Sikorski and his colleagues insist on concrete “reassurance.”  At the same time, Poland won’t sacrifice to build up its own military. 

Ambassador Schnepf proudly announced that “Polish authorities pledged to spend 2% of GDP on defense expenditures, thus being one of very few Alliance members to reach this NATO benchmark.”  That’s not much of a standard, however.

Despite enjoying rapid economic growth, Warsaw has made no extra effort to improve its defenses as a “front-line state.”  Instead of doing more, Poles want America to do the job for them, by establishing a military tripwire at their border.

Which leaves the ambassador to argue, who cares about strategic importance?  Washington should guarantee Poland’s security because the Poles are nice people.  Of course, it’s always easier to be generous with other people’s lives and money, especially on your own people’s behalf.

Moreover, there are lots of nice people in the world.  But that’s no reason to turn Washington into the guardian for them all.  The U.S. should maintain alliances only when doing so makes Americans safer.  Backing Poland against Russia does not. 

There is much to appreciate about Polish-American ties over the years, even centuries.  So, too, should Americans sympathize with the fact that Poland is located in a bad neighborhood.

However, neither point is an argument for defending Poland.  The promise to go to war should be limited to cases where the American people have fundamental, even vital interests at stake.