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How was NATO won? Assessing Poland’s record in NATO after 25 years

Alongside several of its neighbours, Poland recently celebrated a quarter of a century in NATO. Seen as a means of ensuring the country’s transition to democracy, membership of the Alliance has allowed Warsaw to become a key player in European security. Despite this, it is clear that real challenges lie ahead.

March 25, 2024 - Wojciech Michnik - Articles and Commentary

Raising of the NATO flag in Drawsko Pomorskie by Polish soldiers during the Steadfast Jazz exercise in 2013. Photo: U.S Army Europe / flickr.com

March 12th 2024 marked the 25th anniversary of NATO’s first eastward enlargement. Twenty-five years ago, the first three countries from Central and Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, acceded to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, making history as the first time that former Warsaw Pact states had joined NATO. This enlargement also symbolized a beginning of a more unified and more secure Europe. Even though today Europe is facing one of the gravest security situations since the Second World War – as Russia’s war against Ukraine rages on – it would be hard to overestimate the positive influence that NATO enlargement has had on the European continent and especially on Central and Eastern European states. As NATO prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary in April, it seems an apt moment to ask questions about Poland’s record in the Alliance and look back on not only the role of Poland and other regional allies, but also on NATO and its stabilizing influence in Europe. As Sweden joined NATO last week, and Finland entered the Alliance in April 2023, new regional geopolitical realities are taking shape that will make the organization stronger and more resilient.

“Not if, but how and when”

In January 1994, US President Bill Clinton declared that “it was no longer a question of whether NATO would enlarge, but how and when,” heralding the first post-Cold War enlargement. On March 12th 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland officially joined NATO after a ceremony held in the Harry Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, where the countries’ foreign ministers signed accession protocols to the North Atlantic Treaty. This actually marked the symbolic end of the Cold War for Poland, as Poland’s Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek famously remarked. The US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright welcomed the new NATO member states by saying that “The promise of “nothing about you without you” is now formalized, you are truly allies, you are truly home.”

The first post-Cold War enlargement also marked the initiation of a process of opening the door of the Alliance to the countries that were undergoing democratic transformations in the 1990s. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary’s successful accession to NATO was therefore not only seen as an achievement of these three states but also as a test of how former Warsaw Pact countries would integrate into the Euro-Atlantic security structures. Becoming a NATO member state also paved the way for Poland and other states in the region to later join the European Union, a process that would have been much more difficult, if not possible to complete, if it had not been for the security umbrella that NATO membership provided. After 1999, enlargement to other states from the region followed in 2004 (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia), 2009 (Albania and Croatia), 2017 (Montenegro) and 2020 (North Macedonia). Contrary to some enlargement sceptics and critics, the NATO enlargements have created a more stable and secure Europe and a de facto more peaceful Euro-Atlantic sphere.

As groundbreaking as acceding to NATO was for Poland, it constituted only the initials steps, as the real work and transformation waited inside the Alliance. Poland, similarly to other former Warsaw Pact NATO members, had to transform and modernize its military forces to meet the new standards. In addition, from its very first days in NATO, the country took an active part in military operations, investing not only in Polish defence and the constant improvement of defensive capabilities but also participating in joint missions from Kosovo to Afghanistan. In other words, Poland entering NATO meant the beginning of a long transformation on a path from “security consumer” to “security producer”.

Fast forward to 2024 and a Poland that sits geostrategically in the middle of Europe might be an example of a success story in the Alliance. It is also an example of a country that was able to transform its military structures and maintain the necessary political will in such a manner that it became a reliable ally in transformative times for NATO. Yet, Poland’s 25-year journey within NATO has been marked by internal struggles, including democratic backsliding that weakened its position in the Alliance, the regional challenges of dealing with Belarus and Russia, and intra-Alliance debates about the priorities of defending NATO’s eastern flank.

From the public opinion perspective, NATO has traditionally enjoyed high popular support within Polish society. Support for the Alliance has never fallen below 60 per cent and opposition has never gone above 26 per cent. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Poles displayed robust support for NATO membership, a sentiment that was further strengthened soon after the start of the conflict. Trust in Poland’s membership in NATO structures reached an exceptionally high level, with 94 per cent of CBOS respondents endorsing this stance in spring 2022. This marks a significant increase compared to just two years earlier, when support for Polish membership in the North Atlantic Alliance hovered around 85 per cent.

Tellingly, the opponents of Alliance membership in Poland accounted for only a marginal one percent of all respondents as of March 2023. Support for NATO membership changed dramatically concerning the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Moreover, an unprecedented number of respondents expressed certainty about the need for hosting foreign military forces on Polish soil, along with the expectation that NATO would come to Poland’s aid if necessary. In spring 2022, 85 per cent and 81 per cent of respondents, respectively, affirmed these beliefs.

Poland’s watershed moment?

In 1999, Poland was mainly a security recipient urgently seeking security guarantees from the United States and NATO. Over the course of a quarter of a century, Poland has become the main guarantor of security in Central and Eastern Europe. On the 25th anniversary of its presence in NATO, Poland is likely to become one of the most important countries shaping the security of the Euro-Atlantic area. As Justyna Gotkowska from the Center for Eastern Studies observed, “After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states, but also Sweden, Finland and Norway as well as Romania and Bulgaria understood that the security situation in Europe had changed permanently. In Western Europe, this understanding is also there, but the states on NATO’s eastern flank know that the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and also the freezing of the conflict, will have immediate consequences for their security.”

Following the commencement of the war in Ukraine in 2022, Poland has seen a notable surge in military spending. At present, Poland boasts the highest percentage of GDP allocated to military spending among all NATO allies, standing at 3.90 per cent. Adding to this, on March 12th 2024, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda proposed an increase in defence spending, suggesting that a target of up to three per cent of GDP should be a minimum for all NATO member states. The Polish head of state emphasized that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has underscored the necessity for NATO to consider more seriously the potential for Moscow to target one or multiple members of the Alliance. Such a proposal, even though quite reasonable given current security challenges, will most likely fall on deaf ears, as NATO currently struggles to bring all the member states to a two per cent of GDP threshold (18 member states are estimated to meet this mark by the end of 2024), not to mention pushing it up further.

Since joining NATO in 1999, Poland has sought to demonstrate that it is a reliable ally by implementing political and military reforms and actively participating in allied operations. Since 2008, Russia’s aggressive policies toward its neighbours began to threaten Poland’s security and territorial integrity, prompting the authorities in Warsaw to place greater emphasis on defence, including collective defence within NATO. Poland was among those NATO member states that advocated for a more sceptical approach toward Russia and simultaneously for a firmer return to the Alliance’s traditional defence and deterrence posture. These attempts were not always appreciated by other members of the Alliance. The Russian invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 validated Polish fears. It also made Poland play a key role in shaping NATO’s response in the area of deterrence and defence, especially on NATO’s so-called eastern flank. This role of Poland has only expanded after Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine in 2022. Poland plays a significant role in fortifying NATO’s defence efforts, particularly on the eastern flank – a role that has gained heightened importance in the aftermath of Moscow’s actions. One concrete manifestation of Poland’s commitment to its allies is the deployment of its military forces in Latvia and Romania (in 2023) as part of NATO’s multinational battlegroups.

Poland’s proactive stance in NATO, exemplified before and after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and reflected in increased military spending and becoming the logistic and operational hub for assisting Ukraine, underscores Poland’s pivotal position within the Alliance in 2024. In addition, the strong partnership with the United States, evidenced by the robust American military presence on Polish territory and associated financial contributions, further solidifies Warsaw’s importance in the current NATO strategic landscape. It also means that in the coming years “the balance of power within NATO will change in favor of Central and Eastern Europe.”

Cohesion, if you can keep it

Yet, this role is not a given, and Poland should brace itself for a complex political change both in Europe and the United States. Even though the balance of NATO’s current strategy has clearly shifted towards the East (alongside a defence and deterrence posture), European debate about the security of the continent is far from over. As much as NATO’s frontline states on the eastern and northern flanks expect (and should be expecting) other NATO member states to boost their defence spending and support an enhanced strategy to stop Russia, neglecting the security concerns of NATO’s southern flank states (mainly in the Mediterranean Sea) will pose a great risk to Alliance cohesion. For Poland and other frontline states, the problems with non-state actors and weak states on the southern flank might seem distant and at this moment even irrelevant. Yet, they are real and daunting for states like Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Downplaying them might not only cause additional rifts in NATO’s cohesion but also add up to an already looming danger made up of the criminal organizations, illegal migration and terrorist activities that Southern European NATO states have to face on a daily basis. As some of these threats have been caused by trends in regions in Africa and the Middle East, there is no silver bullet solution that NATO as a collective security organization could adopt to solve them all.

In the United States, the election year could bring a potential change in the White House. Former President Donald Trump might become president again, and his scepticism towards NATO has been widely articulated. Poland and other NATO member states should be able to prepare themselves for such a scenario and create a unified approach on how to face this potential new reality, not only individually but also collectively as NATO. The role of the United States in Europe is not only a function of who lives in the White House. It is rather a recurring debate among the American political elite. Even though they see value in transatlantic ties, they tend to look more towards Asia and US strategic competition with China. Therefore, for Poland and other European allies, this should be a clear indication that regardless of who is president and which party holds a majority in the US Congress, the best way to secure long-lasting and strong ties with the United States is to strengthen NATO’s European military and defence posture. Now the timing is favourable for such a move and Poland can be one of the NATO countries that will lead the way in this transformation. Yet, with many uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the war in Ukraine and growing war fatigue among many societies in NATO member states, the window of opportunity seems to be rather small. As Poland celebrates its 25th anniversary in NATO, there remains a somber reminder that the real military and defence heavy lifting actually lies ahead.

In this context, it is worth remembering March 12th 1999 – the date marking the accession of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – coincided with another milestone event. On the same day 50 years ago, President Harry S Truman gave a speech that laid out the pillars of the containment strategy, which was aimed at stopping the Soviet Union from expanding its political and military domains. In 1999 it seemed viable to envision a peaceful Europe that would not be threatened by Russia. Unfortunately, in 2024 it is rather obvious that Russia has destroyed the European security architecture and as an aggressive state needs to be contained again. Luckily for Poland, this time it finds itself on a “right side” of containment.

From the perspectives of both time and also the changes in regional security – triggered, among other things, by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – Poland’s accession to NATO in 1999 should be evaluated as an indisputable success. It was the right strategic choice, increasing the country’s stability and security. It only takes a quick look at the situation faced by countries in the region that are not members of the Alliance (such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) to conclude that in the face of contemporary security threats in Europe, Poland’s situation would undoubtedly be more difficult without NATO membership. NATO for its members, including Poland, often serves as a kind of insurance policy, not only in the case of an armed attack but also for threats to the collective security of its member states. The security guarantees that NATO members receive, however, require them to bear certain costs regarding their own security and the need to work constantly to strengthen the cohesion and unity of the Alliance.

Wojciech Michnik is a 2023-24 NATO Security Studies Fulbright Fellow, a Transatlantic Project Coordinator of the Central and South-East Europe Programme at LSE IDEAS at Jagiellonian University, and a Contributing Editor for New Eastern Europe.

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