Of all the nations afflicted with geographic misfortunes, Poland’s predicament is perhaps the best documented. Located at the epicenter of the North European Plains, Poland has historically been bordered by the Russians to the east and the Germans to the west. In the absence of any geographic deterrents, Poland has been forced to reckon with the two great powers at its borders, oftentimes alone, incessantly since the 18th century.
The vulnerability of the Polish position is a defining characteristic of the nation and drives its foreign policy. The end of the Cold War and the expansion of NATO into Central and Eastern Europe seemed to have finally alleviated Poland of its troubles. Germany ceased to be a foe, the Russian threat dissolved with the fall of the Soviet Union, and the United States served as an omnipotent guarantor of Polish sovereignty.
Today we recognize the optimism of the early 1990s as naive, based on the faulty assumption that unipolarity could be a viable long-term power dynamic. The re-emergence of Putin’s Russia as a power to be reckoned with in Europe is perceived as a direct threat to Poland. This is because the preeminent foreign policy objective of Russia for centuries has been to maintain buffer-zones, either directly or indirectly, between the Russian heartland and Germany. Control over Poland is therefore a fundamental policy goal for any expansionist Russian regime given its geographic location directly in between Central and Eastern Europe.
Poland can therefore not afford to see a decay in NATO’s power by way of a recalcitrant United States. In order to help prevent further fissures from developing between the United States and its European NATO allies, Poland’s president Andrzej Duda has been trying to win over American sympathies by offering to pay for the construction of a permanent American military base in Poland. In an effort to appeal to the enormous ego of the United States’ commander-in-chief, Duda suggested that this hypothetical base be named “Fort Trump.”
Regardless of how conflated President Donald Trump’s ego may be by Duda’s suggestion, the U.S. military and executive is fully aware that it has to tread carefully. While Poland is a NATO ally, the decision to open up a permanent military base in a country so close to the Russian border would be interpreted as a highly aggressive and provocative measure.
Due to the sensitivity of the issue, there is little concrete information about how the United States intends to receive Duda’s offer. Pentagon spokesperson Eric Pahon told Army Times that “This is the subject of private bilateral discussions between the U.S. and our NATO ally, Poland.”
The other parties have made their intentions far more transparent. The Polish Defense Ministry argued in the proposal that there is a “clear and present need for a permanent U.S. armored division deployed in Poland,” citing Russia’s aggressive behavior in neighboring Ukraine.
Duda himself espoused this sentiment in a joint press conference with President Trump last week in Washington. He said, “I firmly believe this is possible. I am convinced that such a decision lies in the Polish interest and in the interest of the United States.”
Meanwhile, the Russians have, unsurprisingly, voiced their concerns with the proposition. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated bluntly that “… when we record gradual expansion of NATO military structure towards our borders … this certainly does not contribute to security and stability on the continent in any way.”
The misplaced optimism of a previous era, in this case the end of the Cold War and subsequent expansion of NATO, has created a precarious geopolitical situation in Eastern and Central Europe which Washington must navigate. On one hand, Poland’s status as a NATO member obligates the United States to do what it can to enhance its security. On the other hand, the joint reemergence of Russia and relative decline of the United States since 1991 has made the fulfillment of America’s obligation to protect its NATO allies, especially the easternmost members, increasingly difficult.
Founding a permanent base in Poland would therefore send a strong message to Russia and the rest of the world that the United States intends to maintain its grasp over Eastern and Central Europe, which it has held since the end of the Cold War. The predominant question surrounding the affair, however, is whether or not the United States can actually fulfill this promise.