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."

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.” In the ambassador’s response to my earlier article, he made a convincing case that Poles and Americans are friends. He was decidedly less successful in explaining why Washington should extend a security guarantee to Warsaw, putting U.S. citizens at risk in the war that might result.

NATO is a military alliance, or at least purports to be one. True, in the aftermath of the Cold War, American policy makers 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.

It was an expensive process—the United States ended up paying to refurbish their militaries, for instance. But in the case of Poland, there were “long historical ties filled with friendship and mutual trust,” as Ambassador Schnepf put it, so it would have seemed churlish to object.

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. In fact, NATO officials were searching their imaginations for new justifications for an organization that had fulfilled its three-fold purpose as expressed by Lord Ismay: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” The alliance’s new objective looked more like socializing the unsophisticated rustics from Eastern Europe than defending them from anyone.

However, Vladimir Putin’s Crimean adventure set off fevered demands from NATO’s newer members for the alliance to return to its old purpose. Forget the social club. They want the alliance to flaunt Article 5, develop war plans and deploy troops, particularly U.S. personnel, along their borders with Russia. 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. “Reassurance” has become the operative word.

The advantage of this approach for Poland is obvious. But the benefits for America are not. “Friendship and mutual trust” are not the same as strategic interest. Poland never has been vital for U.S. security, even during the Cold War. With Russia as a far-lesser threat to America—Moscow has reverted to a Great Power, interested in border security and respect, rather than a hegemonic competitor, dedicated to global domination—Poland’s military relevance for Washington is even less today. Nothing Ambassador Schnepf wrote suggested otherwise.

There’s that wonderful history, of course, with such celebrated figures as “Kosciuszko and Pulaski who aided Washington in the American Revolution.” But U.S. support for Poland’s transformation surely paid that debt. Anyway, the memory is no justification for Washington going head-to-head with a nuclear power, if necessary, more than two centuries later.

There were Polish troops in World War II, because their country had been invaded by two totalitarian powers. Their presence wasn’t a present for America. 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 for the same reason as did other nations, 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 United States still got by far the worse end of the deal. Warsaw provided marginal aid in wars that America should not have fought. In exchange, Washington is supposed to prepare for global war with the Russians. The United States is the ultimate guarantor of NATO’s commitments, expected to provide the vast bulk of conventional military resources in any real war and respond to any nuclear escalation. Put crudely, in the worst-case scenario, America is expected to be willing to trade Washington for Warsaw.

Yet the Polish government seems to assume a sense of entitlement. America is expected to guard wealthy allies in both Europe and Asia, remake nations in Afghanistan and Iraq, combat terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, intervene in civil wars in the Balkans and Syria, respond to crises in Iraq and Ukraine, and much more. But that’s not enough. Minister Sikorski and his colleagues insist on concrete support to provide “reassurance.” They expect Washington to not only defend them, but work really, really hard to convince them that Washington will defend them.