By Daniel DePetris
Sitting beside Polish President Andrzej Duda at the White House last week, President Donald Trump announced that he was seriously contemplating an increase of 1,000 U.S. troops to Poland. The added numbers would pad the roughly 4,500 military personnel already in the country on a continuous, rotational schedule. The agreement between Washington and Warsaw came seven months after Duda, in another joint White House news conference, half-jokingly pitched the president on a hypothetical “Fort Trump” on Polish soil paid for by Warsaw.
Administration officials previewed the prospective deal as a significant enhancement of the U.S.-Polish defense relationship and a visible commitment from Washington to NATO. But if Trump truly wants to increase the cohesion and effectiveness of NATO while rebalancing America’s strategic priorities to the Asia-Pacific, he would stop any further troop investments into the alliance.
The president should instead rescind his decision (something that will be politically difficult now that he has expressed his openness in public to a larger U.S. presence in Poland) and continue to emphasize the burden-sharing concept he has rightly advocated for from the moment he was a presidential candidate.
While one can quibble with his methods, Trump is correct to grumble about the inequities inside NATO today. He is hardly the first American president to do so — Dwight Eisenhower once quipped that the entire NATO project would be a failure if U.S. troops in Europe didn’t return stateside after 10 years. An organization is only as strong as the willingness of its members to contribute to it. If they don’t take their obligations seriously, the organization as a whole suffers.
For far too long, the United States has been the only member pitching into the alliance. In fact, Washington has done more than pitch in — it has carried the entire alliance on its back. According to the most recent report from the NATO Secretary-General, the United States made up nearly 66 percent of the alliance’s total defense expenditures in 2018. While some NATO members in the Baltics are spending more dollars and beefing up their capabilities, the vast majority of member states remain perfectly content with sitting below the 2 percent of GDP threshold the alliance committed to years before. It’s as if the commitment never even happened.
Some very wealthy countries in Europe are simply failing to heed Trump’s more than legitimate call to begin rebuilding militaries that have atrophied for decades. Germany, the wealthiest country on one of the world’s wealthiest continents (the European Union’s GDP in 2017 was $17.339 trillion), is a serial offender despite a growing number of German politicians who are beginning to recognize the depth of the problem.
It is simply inconceivable that the richest country in Europe is fielding a military composed of fighter planes that don’t fly, tanks that are stuck in maintenance depots, and ships that are leaky and unprepared for combat. Berlin’s current spending plans, in which the defense budget will increase to 1.37 percent of GDP, only to fall to 1.25 percent in 2023, is quite frankly an insult to the United States and every other NATO member state working to take its defense obligations seriously.
Which brings us back to Trump’s announcement this week. The Washington foreign policy establishment will be predictably giddy about a bigger U.S. troop presence in Poland and may have even wished for a more substantial bump.
But what the foreign policy establishment wants doesn’t automatically run parallel to what is in the national security interest of the United States. It is certainly not in the U.S. security interest to exacerbate the burden sharing problem or disincentive European members of NATO to pull their weight. Yet this is exactly what deploying additional U.S. troops ever closer to the Russian border will do. Indeed, the message Europe will take away from this decision is the following: we don’t need to worry about the United States us accountable, no matter how loud their president complains.
The specific parameters of the U.S.-Poland deal haven’t been finalized. Trump seemed to say that any additional U.S. soldiers sent to Poland will be redeployed from Germany, which sounds a lot like a thank-you gift from Washington to Warsaw for meeting its NATO spending commitments.
But the details are less important than the general picture—the deal is unnecessary; needlessly provocative to Moscow at a time when the U.S.-Russia relationship could use a redial; and potentially counterproductive to the administration’s burden-sharing goals.
Just because the United States is the world’s only superpower doesn’t mean it has unlimited resources or the luxury of not prioritizing. Nor does it mean the U.S. should perform tasks that other countries should be willing and able to perform.
European nations should be responsible for Europe’s external defense. With more Americans boots on Polish soil, Washington is simply continuing the status-quo of the U.S. military as Europe’s eternal protector.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on June 17, 2019. Read more HERE.