Last week, Warsaw’s efforts to persuade the United States to establish a permanent military presence in Poland took a colorful turn. At a visit to the White House, President Andrzej Duda suggested that a new base – for which the Polish government might even contribute $2 billion – could be named “Fort Trump.” President Trump replied that “we’re looking at it very seriously.” While the president’s extemporaneous remarks are not always the most reliable indicators of policy direction, this was the most favorable sign yet that Washington might proceed with such a move.
Of course, the U.S. military is already present in Poland, with a rotational Army battalion on extended deployment and a variety of other forces conducting regular exercises there. Still, a permanent base would represent a major change: an historic eastward shift of NATO’s posture that would be heartening for Warsaw and neuralgic for Moscow in similar measure. Is it a good idea?
In military terms, its merits are debatable. There are certainly some potential benefits, such as strengthening NATO’s ability to respond to Russian territorial aggression in Northeastern Europe, reassuring Poland and other countries on NATO’s eastern flank of the alliance’s commitment to collective defense, and offering greater efficiency than long-term rotational presence.
As to deterrence of Russian aggression, however, the effects of a new U.S. base would be subject to the famous “security dilemma”: the time-worn truth that capabilities one rival builds for defense and deterrence appear provocative to the other rival supposedly being deterred, who then responds in kind. Reasonable people can disagree whether further buttressing military forces on Russia’s periphery is more likely to deter their aggression and malign activities or to empower the most nationalist Russian political forces and further entrench Moscow’s resistance to Western policy and influence.
In either case, Russia is not the only country in Europe that would oppose permanent U.S. bases in Poland. Resistance would also come from within NATO, a factor which led even Ben Hodges, the recently retired three-star commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, to argue against new bases in Poland. More prosaic challenges would also confront a plan for new bases. Following the Trump-Duda meeting, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was quick to point out that requirements for training ranges, maintenance facilities, and other support functions had yet to be studied.
But even if Washington determines that the benefits of “Fort Trump” would outweigh the costs in terms of deterrence and operational capability, there is another crucial but underappreciated security dilemma confronting this policy choice: the imperative to resist the Polish government’s recent turn toward illiberalism. Since 2015, the ruling Law and Justice Party has pursued major rollbacks of institutional safeguards for rule of law and free speech. Measures have included gutting the independence of the courts by undermining the authority of the Constitutional Tribunal, forcing many judges into retirement, and expanding parliamentary control over judicial appointments. It has also taken a number of steps to suppress dissent by exerting control over the media, targeting watchdog organizations, firing thousands of civil servants, and stoking the same brand of ethno-sectarian nationalism that has empowered illiberal forces elsewhere in Central Europe. These moves have worried many in Europe about creeping authoritarianism in Poland, and even prompted the European Union to threaten budgetary sanction, to consider suspending the country’s EU voting rights, and to sue Poland in the European Court of Justice.
What does all this have to do with American military bases? After all, Poland and the United States are unified in their staunch opposition to coercive Russian behavior in the region, and Poland is one of the few NATO members that meets the alliance’s military spending targets. Nevertheless, permanently stationing U.S. forces in Poland today would represent a powerful signal to the capitals of Europe and beyond of U.S. tolerance for the erosion of liberal democracy. A pillar of Russia’s information campaign against U.S. and European power is the hypocrisy of Western governments, especially the notion that their advocacy of democracy and political freedoms are mere facades for advancing material and security interests. A new permanent U.S. base in Poland would provide a compelling ratification of this argument and undermine EU efforts to moderate Warsaw’s backsliding.
This argument should not be taken too far. That Russian propaganda will exploit a policy is not, in itself, a strong argument against it. And the current governments of other NATO members – Turkey and Hungary – have undermined liberal democratic values at home more than Poland’s Law and Justice Party has. More broadly, the United States has always needed to balance its security needs with its values, and the point here is certainly not that U.S. security cooperation and its collective defense commitment to NATO should be contingent on the vagaries of domestic political changes within the alliance. Poland is and should remain a critical partner.
At the same time, however, Washington should think holistically about European security and recognize that threats to it are not only – or even primarily – military in nature. Europe’s security generally and NATO in particular are built on a foundation of distinctive political principles that include the sanctity of personal freedoms and the rule of law. Choices about the alliance’s military posture are a source of leverage in maintaining the strength of that foundation. In this light, the symbolism today of “Fort Trump” – by that or any other name – risks striking the wrong balance between defending NATO interests from the outside and defending them from within.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.