The NATO Summit 2016 Offers Poland Opportunities Worth Seizing
BRUSSELS – Twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, modern-day Poland is by many measures the most successful case of post-communist political and economic transition to market-democracy in Europe. Hence, U.S. President Barack Obama in his speech at Warsaw’s Castle Square in June 2014 rightfully termed the country’s progress as an economic “Miracle on the Vistula.” Also in the field of security, Poland wasted no time consolidating its position in Europe’s post-Cold War order. Fifteen years ago, in 1999, Poland, together with Hungary and the Czech Republic, joined NATO. The country’s persistence to join the Alliance and the success of its accession paved the way for further NATO enlargement eastwards.
As Ronald Asmus, a former U.S. official in the Clinton Administration and a prime architect of NATO expansion, famously writes in his 2002 book Opening NATO’s Door: “The key country was Poland. Its size, strategic importance, and history provided the original impetus for the push for enlargement.” And so it happened. By 2004, NATO would welcome seven other post-communist states and guarantee the future security of nearly 100 million people from the Baltics to the Black Sea. Since these historical events, Poland has played a responsible role in the future of European and transatlantic security, contributing to NATO’s continued military and political integration. On the military front, over 25,000 Polish military personnel have served in Afghanistan since Poland joined the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in 2002, Polish MIG-29s have participated in NATO Air Policing operations in the Baltic since 2006, and Poland regularly forms the theatre for major allied military exercises, such as Steadfast Jazz in November 2013 or Sabre Junction in August 2014.
Politically, unlike most other allies, Poland’s growing economy has allowed it to spawn an ambitious military modernization program, and Polish President Bronisław Komorowski has promised that his country would increase its defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP in order to meet the official NATO standard. At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, allies also agreed that Warsaw would host the next Summit in 2016 — a nod to the successful transformation of Poland and much of Central Europe over the past quarter century and Poland’s political weight in NATO. Poland’s efforts in the domain of security and defense are certainly no luxury.
The security environment today is shifting rapidly. In less than a decade, global strategic trends have changed dramatically, and the dream of expansion of transatlantic security has been replaced by a general feeling of uncertainty. The events in the Levant, the Sahel, and Ukraine have revealed a deeply unstable European neighborhood, combined with an economic crisis that has led to unhelpful military restraint. Transatlantic cooperation is now facing a very different security environment, in which Poland, Europe and the United States will have to realistically assess how to remain credible security providers.
Naturally, Poland is particularly concerned by the disruptive events in Eastern Europe that have put its military, energy, and economic security at risk. The unrest in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, to Russia’s revisionist foreign policy and revanchist military power, to the European Union’s inability or unwillingness to take a stand in its East, and a growing sense that the United States is disengaging from European defense matters, are all propelling Poland and many other European nations into an era of increasing uncertainty about their own security. In addition, a question remains as to whether NATO’s response to these challenges has effectively strengthened the alliance’s image of a power to be taken seriously. The turmoil in Ukraine, for instance, has been widely interpreted as a boost for NATO’s strategic unity, but the crisis has also cast serious doubt in NATO’s most eastern member states over whether the alliance would come to their rescue if they were to face aggression from a revisionist power. An alliance increasingly preoccupied by deterrence and strategic credibility will be more receptive to the dangers faced by its border states.
For Poland, as the host of the 2016 NATO Summit, has an opportunity worth seizing. In the next two years, Warsaw will have the chance to more actively shape the NATO agenda, and to seek, together with other allies and the international staff at NATO HQ, solutions for concerns surrounding the future of Alliance resources and capabilities, the commitment of member states toward Article 5 obligations, or the support of their public opinions for high-visibility military operations. NATO has the important task ahead of addressing its most pressing vulnerabilities: from closing the gap on diverging perceptions of threats among member states, to tackling its declining strategic credibility internally and externally, to making the institution more flexible to perform the tasks of collective defense, collective security, and crisis management simultaneously.
Hosting the next NATO Summit also offers Poland the chance to encourage the timely implementation of important decisions that were taken in Wales. One such decision is NATO’s Readiness Action Plan that should underpin deterrence with a continuous military preserve in Eastern Europe and the proven capacity to reinforce quickly if one ally was to face aggression. Warsaw has played a very active role in this debate, and the proposed expansion of the NATO outpost base at Szczecin in western Poland therefore forms a critical move to reassure allies in the region. Getting the Readiness Action Plan right is essential because NATO will not present a united front if certain allies continue to feel inadequately protected while others feel that enhanced security in one region is at the expense of NATO’s presence in their own neighborhood.
Europe’s Iron Curtain might have fallen 25 years ago, but today the goal of a "Europe whole and free" is again in peril. The NATO Summit 2014 was a positive step toward identifying the most pressing priorities for the alliance, but it will be essential to create continuity among the conclusions that were arrived at and turn new ideas that were embraced into actions. As Poland and the allies plan for the 2016 NATO Summit, it should use the lessons of its own history, provide a platform to foster the implementation of NATO’s priorities, and play a leading role in shaping the conversation within the Alliance in the coming years.
Bruno Lété is a senior program officer for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.