“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” The words of Thomas Jefferson which have particular resonance in this part of the world where the history of the past is all too often, among politicians at least, apt to be a distraction from the dreams of the future. But not always, as we think of one celebration of the recent past which does realise a dream of the past, present and future.
Thus, Poland marks the twentieth anniversary of joining NATO, something which Poland’s president Duda described as historic. Speaking during a visit to the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, the president said: “Poland joining the alliance finally confirmed Poland’s sovereignty and independence, as well as its departure from the Russian sphere of influence and entrance to the Western geopolitical zone”.
A day earlier, prime ministers and defence ministers from Poland, the Czech, Hungary, and Slovakia, the countries which make up the Visegrad Group (V4) met soldiers from the 1st Armoured Brigade in Warsaw. During the meeting, the Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that “today we cannot imagine NATO without our countries.”
“We are supporting each other, and we make up a community, which guarantees safety”. He also said that the troops from the 1st Armoured Brigade in Warsaw are soon to be deployed to Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki added that over the last 20 year, the V4 countries have proven to be valuable members of the alliance. Slovakian Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini said during the event in Warsaw that joining NATO was for his country “the highest security guarantee.” He added: “Our strength is the ability to discuss our differences and finding common answers to challenges”.
On Tuesday the celebrations moved to Prague, where the presidents of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were to attend an event at Prague Castle. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, the Czech Republic’s Miloš Zeman and Hungary’s János Áder were expected to be joined by President Andrej Kiska of Slovakia, whose country joined NATO five years later than the others in 2004.
And there is cause for celebration. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Warsaw in early March: “We are very grateful for the contribution Poland makes to NATO every day”. “Poland is a very committed ally, an ally which is contributing to our shared security, to our collective defence in many different ways,” Stoltenberg added. “And that’s something which we really welcome.”
Poland is one of the few members meeting the NATO target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence, participates in NATO foreign missions, such as in Afghanistan, and enthusiastically welcomes the presence on NATO troops in Poland. Indeed, it goes further and is actively lobbying for a permanent US base to be established in Poland as an enhancement of its security beyond the current rotating NATO battalions, introduced in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014.
It is this perceived threat from Russia, which inevitably opposed Poland’s accession to NATO, which motivates Poland to continue to look beyond NATO membership as the achievement of a strategic goal, and to the United States as a security guarantor. The permanent US base is but the latest step in a policy of staying close to the US which began with Poland’s being in 2003 one of the few European countries, along with the United Kingdom and Spain, to send troops to participate in the US-led war in Iraq.
As far as “Fort Trump” is concerned, according to a 2018 document entitled “Proposal for a permanent US presence in Poland” which was sent to US government officials, members of Congress, and Washington think tanks, Poland is seeking a US tank division to be based here for which it is prepared to spend up to $2 billion (€ 1.77 billion) to achieve.
For critics of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, which expresses ideological sympathies with US president Trump, this effort to increase the US presence in Poland is a frolic of the party’s own. Others think that such a project should take place within the NATO framework, rather than bilaterally. But that is to miss the point. At a time when many NATO members are less than whole-hearted in their defence commitments and their effective operational readiness – for example, Germany – and when the US is questioning their perceived failure to contribute adequately, it does make sense for Poland to seek something more.
In the event of an attack on Poland, the presence of US troops would no doubt make Washington think twice about hesitating to implement the security guarantees of the NATO treaty. From the government that introduced the 500+ programme to help families, the “NATO+” programme to help security is not such a bad idea.