In May, reports that the Polish Defense Ministry had requested the United States place a full armored division inside the country and that the Polish government would pick up the entire cost — estimated to be about $2 billion — raised eyebrows.
The offer, first reported by Polish media, represented a long-standing desire in Warsaw to have U.S. troops stationed permanently in the country, dating back to Poland’s entry into NATO in 1999.
Initially, the Trump administration took the offer in stride, but when it was made again by Polish President Andrzej Duda 18 Sept., the administration began to take a more serious look at it.
“This proposal outlines the clear and present need for a permanent U.S. armored division deployed in Poland, Poland’s commitment to provide significant support that may reach $1.5-2 billion by establishing joint military installations and provide for more flexible movement of U.S. forces,” the defense ministry document stated in May.
It noted further that Warsaw is committed “to share the burden of defense spending, make the decision more cost-effective for the U.S. government and allay any concerns for Congress in uncertain budgetary times.”
In response to Duda’s in-person request, President Trump pledged that the Polish offer was being taken “very seriously.”
What’s more, he noted that his administration is “in discussions with numerous countries” that would also pay to host American military bases. In the president’s words, he said, “We’re looking at that more and more from the standpoint of defending really wealthy countries.”
This is the first time President Trump has approved, publicly, of the notion that the United States is open to the idea of placing what would amount to a large number of U.S. combat troops and supporting infrastructure in another European country at a time when he has criticized other NATO nations for spending too little on their own defense.
But it’s not just Poland pining for a permanent American military presence. The Baltic States are also moving closer to Washington as they, too, seek ways to convince the Trump administration to put more American boots on the ground in their countries as well.
Analysis: In May 1997, NATO and Russia signed the “Founding Act,” which stated, among other things, that “NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries,” and that “in the current and foreseeable security environment,” NATO would not seek “additional permanent stationing of substantial ground combat forces” inside nations close to Russia.
Nothing was discussed about the Founding Act at the U.S.-Poland summit, but permanently deploying U.S. troops — especially a division-sized element — on Polish soil would essentially make the agreement moot. Right now, U.S. and NATO troops are regularly deployed on Polish soil, but only on a rotational basis. Clearly what President Duda seeks is a permanent U.S. presence and a very large one at that. An armored division would also require substantial air cover, offensive and defensive missile capabilities, and a wide assortment of additional logistical support. In short, it’s a big deal.
As for the Baltics, they, like Poland, seek to move closer to the U.S. even as several European countries are moving farther away from Washington. Their defense ministers visited Washington in May to request that very thing. What’s noteworthy is that these agreements would be bilateral, separate and apart from NATO, which would necessarily fragment the alliance even further (given Turkey’s moves toward Moscow in recent years).
At the same time, the U.K. is also moving towards deeper security ties with Poland. This is occurring primarily through the Quadriga talks. Also in the works is a formal U.K.-Poland security agreement. This is occurring against the backdrop of Brexit, which is supposed to take place in March 2019. A “Polexit” is also a possibility as Poland is also moving away from the EU, whose relationship with the U.S. is strained.
The notion of deploying — or redeploying — American troops to bases that are paid for by host countries may seem enticing in the short run as POTUS Trump continues to pressure NATO countries to spend more for their own defense.
But this shift will split not just NATO but the West in general, even as Russia continues to grow in strength and as a U.S.-China confrontation looms large on the horizon. Plus, some analysts see a U.S. military overstretched with rock-solid commitments in Eastern Europe while attempting to mount a credible defense in Asia. They believe it would take substantial increases in personnel, ships, planes, and armor to adequately deter both Russia and China as they ascend.
Plus, these analysts argue that placing U.S. troops permanently in Eastern European countries were they are not now stationed could cause a negative shift in public sentiment in those nations as citizens realize they would immediately be targeted by Moscow.
That said, the dynamic is already shifting in Europe, and likely it is unstoppable. It was put in motion by an American president who refuses to continue to allow partner nations to be protected by U.S. power, compliments of U.S. taxpayers while contributing to their own defense on the cheap. The shift began once Trump publicly called out NATO nations for refusing to spend their agreed-upon portion of GDP on their respective militaries, even as Russian power was rising.
The new divisions will lead to new military and security agreements and alliances — something less than NATO but something much more reliable, at least in theory. And something that more resembles the world we now live in.
In addition to forging new ties in Europe, the U.S. is moving to build new security alliances in Asia while strengthening old ones, including Australia, Japan, South Korea, India and, perhaps, even Vietnam and the Philippines. Through these alliances, the U.S. won’t have to be the sole protector of the free world, but will still be able to lead it in a fair and equitable manner.
In the end, NATO may go away, leaving former European members with a stark choice: Moscow’s authoritarianism or the promise of continued freedom under the American umbrella, but with the added expense of picking up the cost of hosting U.S. expeditionary forces.