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Poland and the Future of NATO

This is an updated portion of an address delivered at the University of Virginia on February 26, 1999.

In the late 1940s an anonymous Polish wit introduced a rhyme that aptly summarized the Polish predicament and hopes at the time:

Panie Truman, spuÊç ta bania
bo tu jest nie do wytrzymania
[Mr. Truman drop the bomb
we can't bear it anymore]

This rhyme reflects a persistent trend in Polish thinking: the US is the leader of the Free World, and the salvation of Poland lies with America. This pro-American sentiment now stands a chance to be transformed from dreams into practice. Poland became a member of NATO in April 1999. This development can benefit both sides, although admittedly finding security is primarily in Poland's interest.

Popular support for NATO membership has been overwhelming in Poland. A February 1998 poll found that 80% of Poles favored NATO membership, while only 50% of Czechs and Hungarians did.(1) As a Canadian journalist put it, "most ordinary Poles still resent the years of domination by Russia, and they look at their entry into NATO as a guarantee of freedom."(2)

Despite such persistent and widespread pro-NATO sentiment, the Polish political elite has been divided on the issue. The predominant group supports NATO membership. Liberals, Christian Democrats, certain conservatives, some Christian nationalists, socialists, and mainstream ex-Communists have lined up behind NATO. It is important to stress, however, that a psychological breakthrough was achieved under the staunchly anti-Communist government of Prime Minister Jan Olszewski who unequivocally proclaimed his government's desire to bring Poland into NATO.(3)

The path to NATO had been tortuous at least for some of the Polish political elite. As late as March 1991, the top military brass, all former Communists, touted the idea of "armed neutrality" (zbrojna neutralnosc).(4) This was undoubtedly in conjunction with the then-President Lech Walesa's idea of a "NATO-bis," or a shadow NATO, for East Central Europe. According to this utopian scenario, Poland would develop a civil defense force and a small professional military where preference would be given to individual tactical weapons (e.g. Stinger rockets) over the expensive weapons systems. Ultimately, Poland would seek to acquire nuclear weapons to guard itself from foreign invasion.

Currently, it seems that only the radical populists, anarchists, nationalists, Communists, and a few conservatives (the Staczyk group) mistrust or oppose NATO. On the left, it is either a desire to return to the Soviet yoke or a distaste for any international involvement. Some on the extreme right stress the need to continue a pro-Russian policy which, they allege, was the hallmark of Poland's National Democratic Party under the Second Republic (1918-1939). Others have reacted against NATO because of their resentment towards the European Union.(5) However, no party has been able to present a viable political alternative to NATO. Yet, it was only with the electoral victory of the anti-Communists in 1997 that NATO expansion became a reality. According to The New York Times, "a NATO official said that 'Poland would have been a real problem' if there had not been a change of government. 'If the former Communists had stayed [in power], there might have been a lot of different thinking in Washington.'" (6)

The price tag for NATO expansion remains unknown. According to an official US government approximation, within the next ten years the American taxpayers will spend $400 million, while the Western European allies will have to pay $1.1 billion. Michael Mandelbaum (who opposed NATO enlargement) has charged that this grossly underestimates the expense.

As far as the costs of NATO expansion for the new allies are concerned, a Pentagon study projects that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic will need up to $21 billion to update their equipment and infrastructure and develop combat compatibility with the rest of the NATO forces. Poland will have to bear the lion's share of the cost, perhaps as much as $15 billion over the next 10 years. The Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC, judged unrealistic the Polish contention that Poland would have to spend between $150 and $230 million annually for 15 years to cover expansion costs. The US State Department estimated that Warsaw would have to come up with at least $800 million per annum. It remains unclear how the Poles will resolve this problem.(7)

However, the overall cost may be significantly lower. As Richard Perle pointed out, the price may only be very high if the Polish air force is brought up to par with its American counterpart. But why should it? The Spaniards, for instance, never faced such a requirement.(8) After all, a military alliance means that American planes can fight in cooperation with the Polish ground support troops. At the Ministry of Defense in Warsaw, Jarosaw Kiepura has been working to coordinate civilian defense schemes with NATO needs.

The need to upgrade Poland's forces necessitated the abandonment of several projects developing indigenous weapons systems, for instance the very promising Skorpion fighter plane.(9) Certain domestic opponents of NATO bewailed the abandonment of national sovereignty. They condemned the government for committing itself to buy NATO equipment. They argued correctly that since Poland could not afford any state of the art weapons systems, it would have to buy outdated arms. Journalist Rafal Ziemkiewicz correctly retorted that it was better to have outdated American equipment than old Soviet weaponry, or none at all.

However, Poland did not enter NATO empty-handed. In November 1997, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had 80,000 tanks and other combat vehicles.(10)
As The Wall Street Journal put it, "Poland has a bigger military than Britain and while its MiG29s and T-72 tanks are not F-15s or Leopards, they aren't chopped liver either. NATO may get added costs, but it also gets added muscle."(11) Already a joint Polish-German-Danish division has been stationed in Szczecin in northwestern Poland.

Overall, the morale of the Polish army is low, but it is not as bad as that of the Czech and Hungarian forces, and nowhere near as abysmal as the Russian military.(12) Some potential Polish draftees avoid military service by illicitly obtaining medical exemption papers. The image of the army has also been tarnished by allegations of sadism. These included widespread, if illegal, hazing practices, which have led to a number of suicides.

However, perhaps the most important of all the problems of the Polish military is the office cadre. There are in it holdovers from Communist times. Some of these senior officers are highly unreliable, as their panicky response to the Yanayev putsch of August 1991 showed.

Poland must also downsize its military bureaucracy. All too often the Communist-era senior officers were retained, while the more valuable junior officers were dismissed. Very few senior officers know English, and few seem capable of operating within the sophisticated framework of the NATO command. The alleged presence of Soviet military intelligence (GRU) operatives in Poland's military is a concern. As retired US General William E. Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency under President Ronald Reagan, put it:

The Russians will probably have enough residual capacity to cause us serious problems [in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic]. But the fact that we have an intelligence problem is not a show-stopper… It just means we have spade work to do.(13)

Finally, after half a century of abusing vodka with their Soviet superiors, few senior Polish officers know how to socialize with the Western brass. To counter all these shortcomings, several programs have been put together. One of them sends Polish cadets to the US military academies (West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs).

There have been successful military reforms. Since 1990, a special program has been under way to restore military traditions that had been abolished by the Communists. Names such as Feliks Dzierzhinski and Vanda Vasilewskaia were discarded from regimental and divisional banners and substituted with appellations of real Polish heroes. Shedding the hated Soviet symbols, the Polish army embraced pre-war and wartime Polish independentist paradigms. The most enthusiastic agents of transformation are the officers in charge of the Department of the Tradition of Polish Arms (Wydzial Tradycji Oreza Polskiego), among them Colonel Tadeusz Krzastek and Lieutenant Colonel Dariusz Radziwillowicz.

Europe now has its defensive border on the Bug river. Politically and militarily, Poland will once again revert to its historical role of the antemurale, the bulwark of Europe within the framework of NATO. Future developments depend on several factors. The most important is the fate of the European Union. Irving Kristol argues that Europe will gradually surrender itself to "the emerging American imperium." According to this optimistic scenario,

The meaning of NATO today is that the U.S. has provided the nations of Europe with a unilateral guarantee of their existing borders against aggression. This is what these nations want above all. And what price does Europe pay in exchange for this guarantee? Nothing, apparently but only apparently. Beneath the surface, and surreptitiously, the nations of Europe are giving up a lot. It is now a fact, still short of overt diplomatic recognition, that no European nation can have or really wants to have its own foreign policy. There are not even signs that European nations want a European foreign policy independent of the U.S. They are dependent nations, though they have a very large measure of local autonomy. The term 'imperium' describes this mixture of dependency and autonomy.

Most Europeans seem to believe that Europe will remain a major cultural force even as its political presence diminishes. But history teaches us that power and culture tend to be wedded to one another. Already there are signs of Europe's cultural decadence. Its version of the welfare state and its radically secular society are no longer any kind of model for the rest of the world, where economic growth is favored more than 'social security' and where religion is an even more vital force. Europe today seems content to become a larger version of Sweden and who goes to Sweden to find the keys to unlock the future?(14)

A competing scenario envisions the Europeans rebelling against America's supremacy. Strong sentiments of this kind were expressed 70 years ago by Jose Ortega y Gasset. He advocated the creation of the United States of Europe to counter the noxious domination of the Americans. At least subconsciously, this sentiment may very well be the driving force behind the current effort of European unification. Cultural prejudice against Americans has always been there. The European allies, except for the British, have frequently attempted to undermine America's foreign policy objectives. In addition, certain developments on the economic level suggest a latent desire to exclude the U.S. from Europe's markets.

In 1992 the Polish conservative thinker Stanislaw Michalkiewicz warned against the pervasive anti-Americanism of Europe. According to him, it manifests itself
in encouraging the United States to withdraw militarily from the continent. At any rate, this has partly occurred already. After all, there are plans to reduce the number of American troops in Europe. If the Americans withdrew from Europe completely, the responsibility for… security and stability of Europe would befall automatically onto other states. Would they have to remain NATO states? Would NATO, as an European alliance, even survive after the American withdrawal from Europe? This is not certain at all and that is certainly why the idea of creating European security forces is being discussed. Naturally, these would have to be based upon the German military potential, which is currently the most viable. I do not suspect this scenario would cause violent revulsion in Germany. I believe that such a turn of events would be a natural crowning of the German efforts to unite Europe, undertaken at least twice in the XX century. In this case it is clear that it makes no sense whatsoever to prolong the existence of NATO beyond what is necessary.(15)

Thus, this pessimistic scenario would have America tricked out of the old continent and Europe succumbing to Germany. In extremis, one could even fear a military contest between the erstwhile allies, which would definitely dispel "the myth of democratic pacifism." A conflict could possibly break out over the access to Russian markets.

To prevent such a nightmarish development, the US has taken the necessary precautions. As Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, by enveloping Germany in a wider Euro-Atlantic framework, NATO enlargement resolves… Europe's central security problem of the 20th century, which has been how to cope effectively with the reality of Germany's problem… [After all, German belligerency] has produced the problems and the tragedies with which we are familiar.(16)

Even in the worst case scenario, it would be in Poland's best interest to remain loyal to the United States rather than to become subordinate to Germany's United Europe or to seek help from Russia. A prominent American politician stressed that the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland will be among the most reliable pro-American NATO allies we could hope for. Not only do these countries need NATO; the U.S. needs these countries in NATO. They will be among the first to stand with us in times of crisis, and will support America as we work to ensure that NATO remains what it is today the most effective military alliance in human history.(17)

The National Review agrees: NATO's potential new members, as former satellites of the Soviet Union, have a greater natural sympathy with the U.S. than do some Western European members of the alliance. Far from weakening NATO, their entry would bolster American leadership and strengthen the Atlantic ties that have preserved peace in Europe for fifty years .(18)

There are already signs that the alliance is working in just the right way. Commenting upon Poland's staunch support of US military operations against Iraq, the French left-wing paper Le Monde bewailed the specter "of a new American-British-Polish alliance committed to 'the rejection of a European policy dominated by France and Germany, to the benefit of a NATO under U.S.-U.K. control'."(19)

Poland cannot possibly remain neutral, or safe, for long perched as it is between Germany and Russia. Moreover, it can neither ally itself with a belligerent Germany nor with a bellicose Russia. Historically, Russia has proved incapable of treating fairly her junior partners. Therefore Poland has little choice but to join and remain in NATO as long as the alliance is led by the United States. If the US is pushed out of Europe, NATO and the European Union may become a cloak for the most powerful country on the continent: Germany. In such a setting, a Russian-German conflict or a Russian-German rapprochement can only occur at Poland's expense. Thus, it is in Poland's interest to prevent such development by remaining loyal to its American ally.

1. George Jahn, "Money woes plague NATO invitees," Associated Press release, 16 November 1997, REF 5264; Alex Bandy, "Hungarians vote to join NATO," 16 November 1997, REF 5468; Carla Anne Robbins, "Hungary's NATO bid illustrates the hopes, risks in Central Europe," The Wall Street Journal, 2 January 1997; Geoffrey York, "Baltic nations breathe easier as rumours fade," The Globe and Mail, 25 March 1997; Jane Perlez, "In Central Europe, enthusiasm battles nervousness over NATO," International Herald Tribune, 13 June 1997; Daniel Michaels, "Gulf crisis may help NATO candidates," The Wall Street Journal, 24 February 1998.
2. Geoffrey York, "In Poland, East is East and West is West," The Globe and Mail [Toronto], 18 February 1999.
3. Radek Sikorski, Full Circle: A Homecoming to Free Poland (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 203-238.
4. Rzeczpospolita, 29 March 1991.
5. For anti-NATO opinions see Zdzislaw Zakrzewski, "Do czego sluzy NATO?" Mysl Polska, 21 February 1999. For conservative ruminations about "Atlanticism" and "Euroasiatism," see Andrzej Fiderkiewicz, "Wielka wojna kontynentów: Rozwazania o konflikcie zywiolów, euroazjatyzmie i atlantyzmie," Stanczyk: Pismo postkonserwatywne, 1 (1998): 24-45. For more sympathetic conservative opinion see Jan Zaryn, "Co robiã? Odpowiedzialnosc za Polske, za Europe," Arcana, 3 (1998): 5-13, and Rafal Smoczynski, "Przebudzenie," Arcana, 3 (1997): 96-100. Very negatively about United Europe and the Western world by reactionary traditionalist in "'Zawsze lubilismy trudne zadania"-z Witoldem Kowalskim rozmawia Jakub Brodacki," Proca, 1 (1997): 23-26. A German magazine called Poland's chief populist rabble rouser, Andrzej Lepper, "der fanatische Europa-Gegner:" Edith Heller, "Mit Jahzorn und Jauche: Aus Protest gegen Armut und billige EU-Importe blockieren Landwirte viele Hauptstrassen und Grenzabergange," Focus, 1 February 1999, 212-213.
6. The New York Times, 5 January 1998.
7. Tomasz Wróblewski, "Na piechote do NATO," Zycie, 26 March 1997; Janet McEvoy, "Easterners to bear costs of NATO membership," Reuters release, 2 October 1997; Paul Ames, "NATO debates Eastern expansion," Associated Press release, REF 5211; Jeffrey Ulbrich, "New countries plan to pay NATO cost," Associated Press release, 3 October 1997, REF 5121; Jeffrey Ulbrich, "NATO expansion to cost Allies $1.5B," Associated Press release, 27 November 1997, REF 5602; Carla Anne Robbins, "How little-debated expansion plan will alter NATO," The Wall Street Journal, 12 March 1998.
8. "Let it grow," National Review, 23 March 1998.
9. Jarosaw Grz´dowicz, "Îal po Skorpionie," Gazeta Polska, 6 January 1999.
10. Adrian Karatnycky, "NATO Weal," National Review, 10 November 1997.
11. The Wall Street Journal, 20 March 1998.
12. Moonlighting is common in the Czech and Hungarian armies, but in Russia it degenerated into such aberrations as officers working as male strippers or Mafia enforcerers. See George Jahn, "Money woes plague NATO invitees," Associated Press release, 16 November 1997, REF 5264; Gisbert Mrozek, "Soldaten zum Anfassen," Focus, 1 Februar 1999.
13. The New York Times, 5 January 1998.
14. Irving Kristol, "The emerging American Imperium," The Wall Street Journal, 18 August 1997.
15. Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, Na goracym uczynku (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo von borowiecky, 1996), 128-129.
16. Quoted in Andrzej Stylinski, "Brzezinski backs NATO expansion," Associated Press release, 7 December 1997, REF 5004.
17. Jesse Helms, "NATO expansion has all the safeguards it needs," The Wall Street Journal, 23 March 1998.
18. "Let it grow," National Review, 23 March 1998.
19. Carla Anne Robbins, "How little-debated expansion plan will alter NATO," The Wall Street Journal, 12 March 1998.