By Dylan Waste
Located at the heart of the Great European Plain, Poland has developed a resilient strategic culture to cope with the country’s history of foreign occupation. Embracing the United States vision of a rules-based international order, Polish policymakers have championed U.S. national interests while rejecting “spheres of influence” and “balance of power” politics. Since partially free and fair elections returned to the country in 1989, Polish officials have lobbied for the United States to strengthen its ties with states throughout the European Security Complex (ESC), excluding Russia. When NATO began to expand beyond the Iron Curtain via the Partnership for Peace (PfP), Polish and other Central and Eastern European policymakers grew dissatisfied with the lengthy accession process. Concerned about Russia’s inclusion in the PfP, “Polish president Lech Walesa told Bill Clinton, ‘It is possible that the reform process in Russia will reverse. This would spoil the progress that has been made in building peace in Europe.’” In retrospect, Walesa’s concerns have been reaffirmed by the autocratic tendencies of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s spiral toward totalitarianism.
After joining NATO in 1999, Polish policymakers increasingly questioned Russia’s foreign policy intentions. As Western European powers pushed for economic integration and political engagement with Russia over the last three decades, Poland’s robust strategic culture compelled policymakers to emphasize security considerations. Concerned about potential Russian economic coercion, Polish and Baltic officials detested the Nord Stream 2 project. American officials did not consult with their Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic counterparts, opting instead to engage in bilateral conversations with Germany. Overly focused on economic considerations, German politicians heavily lobbied for the project despite outcry from their Eastern European counterparts. When Putin wielded oil pipelines to coerce European states in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he reinforced Polish security concerns. As this Pew Research Center report identifies, Polish public opinion is closely aligned with Western states, norms, and institutions. Additionally, Polish citizens’ favorability toward Russia fell from 33 percent to 2 percent from 2019 to 2022. Unlike other European states that have neglected geopolitical and defense considerations, Poland has developed strong institutional and public support for active foreign and security policies, illustrating the country’s close alignment with America’s geostrategic interests.
Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Poland has grappled with the sociopolitical fallout of the war. Rallying around a disdain for Russian aggression and terror, Poland has stood in firm solidarity with Ukraine’s drive for sovereignty. In Poland, the historical vestiges of foreign occupation have invigorated strong policy responses. Despite historical animosity between Poland and Ukraine, the existential threat posed by Russian neoimperialism has deepened ties between Warsaw and Kyiv. In this emergent bastion of the rules-based international order, the Second Polish Republic’s founding father Jozef Pilsudski’s dream of a Polish-Ukrianian-Belorussian bloc to off-balance Russian aggression has partially materialized. Primarily, Pilsudski based this aspiration on his conviction that “there’s no free Poland without a free Ukraine.” Taking Pilsudski’s understanding of Eastern European security into the contemporary period, Polish policymakers have pushed for deeper security integration between states on NATO’s eastern flank and Ukraine.
For example, Warsaw allocated 0.48 percent of its gross domestic product to Ukraine’s defense. This budget allotment accounts for 17.71 percent of Poland’s 2022 military budget. Additionally, the Baltic states, Czechia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, have allocated greater than 10 percent of their respective 2022 military budgets to Ukraine’s defense. On top of this list, Tallinn transferred 40.29 percent of its national defense budget (see Figure 1). Like the Nord Stream 2 debate, Poland has formed a security bloc in Eastern Europe to respond to Russian aggression.
Figure 1: This visualization was created by combining data from multiple sources because there is no comparison of military aid to Ukraine as a share of defense spending. Inspirational credit for the visualization goes to Tresbech et al. (2023) and the Ukraine Support Tracker at the Kiel Institute for World Politics.
Through these responses, these post-Soviet states affirm the increasingly vital role they can play in offshore balancing American security commitments in the ESC. In particular, Poland has situated itself as an emergent military power in Europe with its decisive defense decisions in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian War. “Embarking on a journey to accelerate defense procurement,” Warsaw committed to increasing Poland’s defense budget to 5 percent of GDP. Polish officials have inked procurement agreements with the United States and South Korea—American armaments purchased include 500 M142 HIMARS, 250 M1A2 Abrams tanks, 32 F-35As. As the largest U.S. ally by population size and defense investment on NATO’s eastern expanse, Poland stands to be a critical geopolitical player in a period of great power competition.
As the Beijing-Moscow nexus has materialized, the international system has been thrown into a state of disequilibrium. As Robert Gilpin displayed in War & Change in World Politics, the law of diminishing returns explains how the marginal benefit of defense investments decreases over time for great powers. Stretched thin by emerging geopolitical competition in multiple regional security complexes, U.S. policymakers have been grappling with how to distribute some of its defense commitments in the ESC to European allies. To more effectively promote restraint abroad, America should leverage its strong alliance network to buoy the rules-based international order. As a result of these transitions, European states have received the unprecedented opportunity to assume a more impactful role in the ESC as threats to U.S. interests have intensified.
In Europe, this new era of great power competition invigorated the development of strategic autonomy (SA). Calling for a new period of European security, European policymakers hope to redefine the region’s defense architecture. On the one hand, some leaders like Emmanuel Macron have expressed “Europeanist” aspirations vis-a-vis SA, predicated on the ESC’s detachment from the U.S. defense industrial base. On the other hand, Polish policymakers espouse a more pragmatic approach to SA, attempting to create a more robust regional security arrangement in continental Europe while keeping the United States embedded in the region’s affairs and defense architecture. Poland’s attitudes regarding SA provide an excellent opportunity for American policymakers to offshore balance U.S. defense commitments in the ESC.
Reaffirming Poland’s increasingly significant status as a bastion of U.S. interests, American defense officials have indicated that “Poland has become our most important partner in continental Europe.” Washington can recast the U.S. role in the ESC through deeper engagement with Warsaw. Traditionally, America’s continental European security policy concentrated on France and Germany, but both conventional powers have contributed significantly less to Ukraine’s defense than Poland. Poland’s U.S.-aligned strategic culture, investment in domestic defense, and military support for Ukraine should encourage Washington to foster deeper security and defense policy engagement with Warsaw. Despite previously failing to amplify the voice of post-Soviet NATO members, there is ample opportunity for U.S. policies to further empower Poland’s emergence as a bulwark of American interests on the alliance’s integral Eastern flank.
Dylan Waste is a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This essay was an honorable mention in the 2023 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest.