Poland’s Alliance with America: Worthless to Whom?

The outspoken Polish Foreign Minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, apparently believes his nation’s alliance with America is “worthless.”  Washington should not race to reassure him.  Instead, Warsaw should demonstrate why it is worthy of Washington’s support.

A weekly Polish publication received a recording of Sikorski’s conversation in which he declared:  “This Polish-American union is worthless.  It is even harmful because it gives Poland a false sense of security.  Complete [B.S.].  We get into conflicts with the Germans, with Russia, and we think everything’s great because the Americans like us.  Suckers.  Complete suckers.” 

There are suckers in the existing relationship, but they are American rather than Polish.

The United States spends more than four percent of its GDP on the military and accounts for three-fourths of total defense outlays by NATO members.  Poland has been patting itself on the back for recently hiking defense expenditures—to 1.8 percent of GDP.  Overall, America’s contribution to direct NATO expenditures is nearly ten times that of Poland.

The collapse of the Soviet Union exacerbated the discrepancy among alliance members.  While Washington preserved its globe-spanning military, the Europeans cut their armed forces significantly.

Worse, the alliance expanded willy-nilly to the Russian border, bringing in nations combining minimal military capabilities and serious potential disputes with Moscow.  None had ever mattered to American security, but Washington handed out security guarantees like hotels place chocolates on pillows:  everyone got one, including Poland.

American and European officials simply assumed that they would never have to make good on their promises.  Then came the crisis in Ukraine. 

The eastern-most members of the alliance started clamoring for reassurance.  No one was more insistent than the Poles.  Back before he thought the alliance was worthless, Sikorski stated:  “America, we hope, has ways of reassuring us that we haven’t even thought about.  There are major bases in Britain, in Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in Italy.  Why not here?” 

As I point out in my latest article on National Interest online:  “The benefits to Poland of winning a defense commitment against Russia backed by a permanent garrison from the world’s superpower are obvious.  But what’s in it for America?  The relationship runs one-way.  Warsaw does not offer commensurate aid to the United States.”

As a substitute, Poland, like several other NATO members and member wannabes, participated in Washington’s foolish wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  But even if the missions had been worthwhile, they didn’t compare to America promising to face down Poland’s potential nuclear-armed antagonist.  The United States could find itself facing catastrophic destruction if things went bad.

There is no security reason for the United States to risk war for Warsaw. Poland never was strategically important for Washington.  Even the Reagan administration did not consider military intervention in early 1982 when the Polish government cracked down on the Solidarity union after being threatened with a Soviet invasion.

Americans always felt sympathy for the plight of the Poles—for centuries stuck among avaricious empires.  Although unfortunate, even tragic, Poland’s situation is no casus belli for the United States.

Washington’s policy changed only when U.S. policymakers ceased thinking about NATO as a military alliance and began treating it as an international social club.  Thus Poland received a coveted Article 5 security guarantee.

The alliance is worthless only if the United States won’t back it.  Most administrations would see that as a threat to core commitments that could not be ignored.  Moscow would recognize that threatening Poland carried significant risks of confrontation with America.  That’s far from “worthless” for Poland.

Sikorski’s comments should be a wake-up call in America.  Washington has accumulated a host of welfare dependents in Europe and elsewhere.  Yet those whose teeth are most tightly clamped onto the U.S. teat show the least respect for America. 

The real sucker in this arrangement is Washington.  The United States should reconsider who it protects from whom, reserving “worthwhile” alliances for countries which offer something meaningful to America in return.