By: Jackson Webster
On July 8th, heads-of-state and government figures from the 28 member-states of the world’s strongest military alliance will meet in the Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw, Poland. The NATO Summit occurs on an ad hoc basis and acts as a steering conference where the alliance’s leaders meet, discuss and decide on NATO’s new initiatives and primary goals. While recent Summits have focused on either the War in Afghanistan or on alliance expansion, this year’s Summit will likely concentrate on the status of NATO’s conventional forces in Central and Eastern Europe. This shift in alliance policy will likely amplify the role of NATO in European security, in line with changing American assumptions about the European relationship with Russia since the outbreak of the Ukrainian Crisis.
While the eleven NATO Summits held during the Cold War focused entirely on the threat to Western Europe posed by the Warsaw Pact, the fifteen summits held since the fall of the Soviet Union have reflected NATO’s steadily broadening mandate. The alliance has moved away from conventional and nuclear deterrence to anti-piracy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and cyber warfare. Furthermore, the alliance has expanded to encompass many former Warsaw Pact member-states. Unsurprisingly, time at each NATO Summit is scarce, and heads-of-state are very busy people. Thus, the summit agendas have become crucial, directly reflecting the changing balances of power within the alliance. There is usually a single issue around which each summit revolves, such as defense spending ‘burden-sharing’ in the case of 2014’s Wales Summit. Two governments are likely to be key players in this year’s agenda-setting process: Poland and the United States. Warsaw and Washington have both indicated renewed interest in Eastern European security under their current administrations. Additionally, these states each possess, in their own ways, important roles in the new power balance within NATO. This shifting balance has seen Western European states with ailing defense budgets begin to lose influence to Eastern member-states who face direct threats to their territory and have accordingly invested in their militaries. Washington’s role in the alliance has remained the largely same, with the Americans possessing the final word on most alliance policy given their outsized contribution to NATO forces. Polish interests, or more accurately the Baltic region’s interests, will come to define the NATO of the coming decade, and that the United States would benefit from investing time and energy in these newly loyal Eastern partners.
Eastern European member-states, particularly Poland, have a strong argument to make in favor of increased NATO involvement in their region at this year’s Summit. This argument is rooted in the emerging military strength of the Polish state, and in the willingness Poland has shown to cooperate with Brussels and Washington on intervention and conventional deterrence over the past decade. “Polska Walcząca,” or “Fighting Poland,” was first used as a slogan of the Polish resistance (Armia Krajowa) during the Second World War. The symbolic acronym “PW” has become a part of Polish nationalism and military culture since the fall of the communist government in 1989, and the significance of this national legacy of resilience is not lost on the current right-wing Polish government which seeks to portray Poland as a rising military and economic power. For the past decade, Warsaw has occupied, perhaps for the first time in two centuries, an enviable position in the European balance of power. Poland has been one of the only major European Union member-states which has raised its defense spending since the 2009 Eurozone debt crisis. This spending is directed at a massive modernization process which will replace Cold War-Era hardware manufactured in communist Poland and the USSR with modern equipment, procured both domestically and from foreign contractors, namely American and German defense companies. In 2009, Poland made the transition from a conscription-based army to a smaller, more nimble professional force of around 70,000 personnel. This expensive modernization process is possible because Poland essentially avoided the Eurozone’s financial crisis due to a savvy national banking strategy, a robust commercial banking sector, and the free-floating Polish Złoty. Additionally, public support for increased defense expenditure remains high, and more importantly the Polish public has one of the highest approval ratings of NATO of any alliance member-state at 70%.
Poland seeks to use its new capabilities to push for a greater NATO footprint in Poland and her Baltic neighbors. Polish President Andrzej Duda has repeatedly indicated in speeches and interviews that Warsaw seeks a stronger conventional presence for NATO in Eastern European member-states. Stemming from fear of Russia’s increasing military assertiveness, Duda’s statements reflect the desires of NATO’s Eastern members for the alliance to engage in stronger territorial defence. Russia’s so-called ‘hybrid warfare’ techniques have worried NATO’s eastern flank since the 2007 attacks on Estonia’s Internet infrastructure, and these fears multiplied exponentially after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Both Poland and its Baltic neighbors are concerned over the vulnerability of the “Suwałki Gap”, a small stretch of land along the Polish-Lithuanian border running between Belarus and Russian’s Kaliningrad exclave. Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian city of Königsberg, is home to Russia’s Baltic Fleet and is one of the most heavily militarized areas in Europe. NATO military planners believe that exploitation of this gap to cut off the Baltic states from the rest of Europe, followed by the Baltic Fleet denying NATO access to the Baltic Sea, would be the first Russian move should a conventional shooting war break out in Eastern Europe.
Since the end of the Cold War, as Western European states have become reliant on the US military for European territorial defense, Washington has held somewhat of a veto power over decisions in European security policy. The European community’s largely unsuccessful experiments in defense planning over the past two decades have resulted in the EU’s Security Policy naming NATO as the organization responsible for European territorial defense, not the EU itself. This status quo is unlikely to change, given that two of NATO’s largest contributing members —Turkey and the United States— would likely not support transferring defense responsibilities over to the EU, an organization in which they have no treaty rights. While American politicians often publicly decry European states for ‘free-riding’, the United States will remain committed to NATO for the foreseeable future because the (albeit very large) American contribution to the alliance guarantees American influence in European security strategy. This logic applies to Turkey as well, which has little continuing hope for EU membership. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu indicated in remarks given to a NATO conference in Antalya that Turkey remains committed to NATO’s role in conventional defense and even discussed the possibility of enlargement, likely as a jab at Russia given Ankara and Moscow’s recent divisions over Syria.
The United States has the unique position of being able to pick its winners in regional power struggles. This ability, courtesy of the unrivalled depth of American military and economic power, is the primary tool used by American administrations in building alliances. Washington, particularly the State Department, has been wise enough in the past to use this ability to fundamentally overhaul previously problematic states. The liberal world order has been remarkably effective at bringing rising powers into the fold of the international community. In the 1950s, the United States took two devastated former adversaries —Germany and Japan— and turned them into both economic powerhouses and loyal allies.
Those who oppose strengthened ties with Poland often cite the current Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) government’s authoritarian tendencies and its stances against refugees, but the short-term political implications of this party’s power needn’t be confounded with the long-term viability of the Polish state and its contribution to collective defense. While the economic and military benefits for Washington of investment in geopolitically key partner states are obvious, the secondary benefit has been a transfer of values. Though it took decades, the market pressures caused by by increased trade brought down the authoritarian government of South Korea and replaced it with what is now one of Asia’s most robust democracies. South Africa’s reliance on the American financial sector was eventually used as leverage over the apartheid government, and the pressure of financial boycotting helped bring about the transfer of power and the end of racial segregation in that country. Though economic connectivity does not always bring about democratization —Saudi Arabia is the obvious example— these exceptions often have more to do with the characteristics of rentier states than with the given state’s relationship with Washington. This pattern, where the United States finds a given country is vital to its geo-strategic interests, invests in a military and trade relationship with this country, and turns it into a significant regional actor with liberal democratic values is likely to repeat itself in the case of Poland. As Washington redeploys conventional ground assets to the Baltic to balance Russian deployments in that region, American interests will be best served in the long-term by building up the capacities of Eastern European NATO members, namely Poland.
The United States and NATO will increasingly look to their emerging partners. Estonia has built formidable cybersecurity infrastructure since 2007 and is now the home of NATO’s cybersecurity think tank, Poland is poised to become a major conventional military player in Eastern Europe, and Turkey has maintained high defense spending due to the proximity of threats to its security. By contrast, the investment of Western European states in their own continent’s security has weakened dramatically in recent decades. So, too, will their influence within the alliance continue to fade. The three major Western European states —Germany, France, and the United Kingdom— are either distracted by security commitments out-of-theatre, or have cast themselves into isolationism. Today, the French are largely uninterested in Eastern European territorial security, the Germans are largely uninterested in their military, and Britons appear increasingly uninterested in the rest of the world altogether. Eastern European states, largely supportive of American interests in balancing Russian influence in former Soviet states, are the most viable partnerships for Washington given the current political situation in Europe.
What the rising influence of both Poland and Turkey likely means for NATO, given recent antagonism between both of these states and Russia, is a more assertive alliance stance in Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Summit provides, both practically and symbolically, the best venue to discuss this new focus on deterrence. The restraint and political engagement NATO sought under Western European influence in the 1990s are likely a thing of the past. Warsaw 2016 is set to see a second re-imagination of the alliance’s role in Europe, one which prioritizes the territorial defense sought by NATO’s newly-influential Eastern members.
Jackson Webster, a native of Los Angeles, is in the final year of a degree in International Relations at King’s College London, and will be continuing on to a master’s degree in International Security at Sciences Po, Paris. His dissertation research focused on Turkey’s relationship with NATO under President Recep Erdoğan.