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

America should maintain alliances only when doing so makes Americans safer. Backing Poland against Russia does not.
July 7, 2014 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on July 7, 2014

At the same time, Poland can’t be bothered to sacrifice to build up its own military. Ambassador Schnepf proudly announced that “during President Obama’s trip to Warsaw, Polish authorities pledged to spend 2 percent 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, given the Europeans’ willingness to take a cheap, if not completely free, ride on America. Moreover, the United States, facing no serious existential threat, makes twice as much effort in order to defend everyone else.

Indeed, despite enjoying rapid economic growth, Warsaw has made no extra effort to improve its defenses as a “frontline state.” After reducing outlays and demobilizing troops following the Soviet collapse, Polish military outlays ran around 2 percent of GDP in the mid‐​1990s. After nearly two decades, Poland remains where it was—despite now screaming about the renewed threat from the east. The ambassador spoke of Warsaw’s “multibillion‐​dollar modernization of its armed forces.” Let’s hope it occurs. However, economic considerations—and America’s defense promises—have short‐​circuited similar programs in other European countries.

Of course, it should be up to Poland to decide how large of a military it needs. But if the Poles really are worried about the prospect of Russian aggression or coercion, they should be doing much more. Instead, they 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 and it would be, well, kind of ignoble for Americans to risk their future only when their community had something fundamental at stake. There’s a certain appeal to that argument, but it’s always easier to be generous with other people’s lives and money on your own people’s behalf.

Moreover, the contention proves far too much. The same case can be made for Brazil, Chad, Myanmar, India, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia, Belize, Fiji, Ukraine, and just about everyone else. There are lots of nice people in the world. But that’s no reason to turn 18‐​year‐​old Americans into personal bodyguards for other peoples, bankrupting Washington in the process.

Most alliances are costly and risky, like NATO. Handing out security guarantees is not the same as giving away Valentines in class, where everyone gets a card. America should maintain alliances only when doing so makes Americans safer. Backing Poland against Russia does not. Instead, doing so multiplies risks facing the United States without providing any countervailing advantages.

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 is the most serious promise a state can make. That commitment should be limited to cases where the American people have fundamental, vital interests at stake.

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