Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wrapped up a whirlwind tour of Europe in what was almost certainly his last official trip as Pentagon chief. Calling on allies in the U.K., Portugal, Spain and Italy, Panetta discussed Afghanistan, North Africa and retooling NATO.
Yet the subtext of his visit also highlighted a problem Secretary-nominee Chuck Hagel would inherit in his first day on the job. Aside from Great Britain, the countries on Panetta’s itinerary represent some of the prominent scofflaws in European military spending. For years now, Pentagon officials have tried to cajole NATO members into shouldering a greater share of European defense. And for years, Washington has been ignored.
Yet one country Panetta bypassed on his trip is a significant outlier: Poland. Boasting the seventh-largest army in Europe, Poland is dramatically increasing defense expenditures. With the Pentagon’s own budget on the chopping block, Poland’s rising defense posture could ultimately reduce the costs of America’s “Pacific pivot” by softening the blow of U.S. rebalancing from Europe.
If handled correctly, this offers a vital strategic opportunity for the Obama administration’s second term, in particular helping Poland field an integrated air and missile defense (AMD) system.
Highly capable, interoperable with U.S. forces and willing to join America in a crisis, Poland ranks among a handful of NATO allies that remain credible on defense spending. While European budget austerity shackles most armies, Polish military planners face a unique challenge: how to invest the windfall of a vibrant economy.
Polish law requires the government to spend at least 2 percent of national GDP on defense, and leaders have opted to use the dividends from Poland’s growing economy to undertake a sweeping modernization of the country’s armed forces. Over the next 10 years, Poland plans to spend $42 billion on modernization alone. And if the numbers do not impress, the list of prospective purchases might, including a cutting-edge integrated AMD system, advanced UAVs, helicopters, command-and-control capabilities and anti-ship missiles. And, as Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak explained, whatever else might be needed “to put off potential aggressors.”
This awareness of potential threats is significant. When Polish leaders survey their strategic horizon, they see a fragile geopolitical landscape. The EU increasingly resembles a menagerie of finished, semifinished and unfinished projects. To the East, Russia appears temporarily stable. But Vladimir Putin’s new presidential term has marked a return to antagonistic rhetoric and public musings about pre-emptive missile strikes against Poland.
Worse, Polish elites do not entirely trust that NATO would come to its aid. Meanwhile, no one in the United States or Europe has put forward a strategic vision for how frontier allies like Poland might fit into the plans of a reforged Pacific power like America.
While many of these pressures are familiar, the lack of an organizing vision for the U.S.-Polish relationship is new and unwanted. In years past, the United States had a clear game plan for making Europe “whole, free and at peace.” Later, this blueprint provided the impetus for NATO and EU integration before evolving into practical cooperation on Poland’s F-16 purchase and the arrival of the rotating U.S. air detachment in Lask, Poland.
At each stage in the process, this “strategic software” granted all sides an understanding of what was at stake. Unfortunately, this software has not been upgraded in some time and is showing its age.
For this reason, Poland’s modernization program offers the Obama administration an opportunity to post an early victory in its second term. If the White House is able to articulate a new strategy that frames Warsaw’s defense modernization as a means of mooring U.S. and Polish interests and strengthening trans-Atlantic relations, it could dispel concerns that Washington is “pivoting away from Europe” — all while making a case for why “buy American” makes sense beyond reasons of zloty and cents.
The best opportunity to implement this strategy in the near term centers on Polish AMD. France, Israel and the United States are in the lead to help Poland field an integrated AMD capability. Through AMD, Washington has the chance to deploy a form of backdoor strategic reassurance that opens new avenues for U.S.-Polish defense cooperation without souring the Russia Reset.
The bad news is that, so far, the other national governments have conducted a full court press in Poland to support their own national systems, while the United States has done relatively little. Time still remains on the clock, but not much.
The Obama administration needs to greatly expand its commercial diplomacy in support of the U.S. AMD option. This will require strong signals that America is serious about engagement on AMD and Polish security, is committed to strengthening Polish defense and is willing to assist Poland in bolstering the trans-Atlantic alliance. Haste will almost certainly create waste if Polish policymakers act too quickly on AMD, and Washington should stress that Warsaw need not rush into any decisions.
Some notable efforts already have been made, most recently at the U.S.-Polish High Level Defense Group meetings in Warsaw. But a far stronger and more coordinated effort is required. Let’s hope that American officials make the most of this opening and run with it.
By Peter Doran, director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, Washington. He covers trans-Atlantic security.