Alliance with the United States: How Much Is it Worth?

The attitude of inhabitants of Central Europe towards alliance with the USA is shaped by, among other things, events of the sort observed in the beginning of 2013. And on which—in the area stretching between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea—virtually no one had any influence.

First, we saw deep cuts in the American defense budget coming into effect. The brutal drop by 6.4% in 2013 as compared with the 2012 budget, and a further decrease by 5.5% in 2014 will overlap with the earlier cuts brought about by the Great Recession of 2007–2009. Thus, the estimated share of defense spending of US GDP is set to drop from 4% in 2012 to 2.7% in 2023. In the short-term—with consequences felt immediately—and long-term perspective, this will substantially weaken the military potential of the USA and endanger its capacity to fulfil its guarantees to its allies. Especially as the military budgets of Russia, China and many other states outside the American alliance system are expanding and it looks like this trend is going to stick around.

Then, the United States unilaterally cancelled the fourth stage of the anti-missile defense program, launched almost four years before by the Obama administration, under the dangerously flexible name European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA). President Obama resigned from the development and manufacturing of Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) Block IIB to be deployed on the territories of Poland and Romania by about 2020. It was planned that the next generation antimissiles would be a step ahead in comparison with those currently deployed under Aegis system in the Mediterranean (first phase), as well as with those to be deployed as Aegis-Ashore system in 2015 in Romania (second phase), and until 2018 in Poland (third phase). SM-3 Block IIB antimissiles would secure a future for the antimissile shield in the volatile and uncertain situation in Eurasia. Without the fourth advanced phase, the antimissile shield is going to come to a halt and will soon become obsolete. Hence, the EPAA program has lost its long-term dynamism. Yet not—and not first and foremost—for technological reasons.

For at the same time the United States has revealed that it is considering the construction of an antimissile base for the purposes of home defense at the East Coast; the facility would be similar to the bases operating in Alaska and in California. And this idea has won substantial support in Congress. From the point of view of Central Europe, this is a change for the worse—it’s even more fundamental and dramatic than giving up on the SM-3 Block IIB antimissiles. The Pentagon has undertaken background studies on American locations, which signals a unilateral intention on their part to take this step. This creates a threat that the antimissile potential of the USA will be fully transferred from Central Europe to the United States, and will thus separate the defense of its European allies from the defense of the USA. Admittedly, it was not declared that the USA would resign from base construction in Poland and Romania, but in the crisis of federal finances and deep defense budget cuts, the United States is not likely to be able to construct bases on two continents at the same time. A location in New York State or Maine is a probable winner here—also for election- related reasons—instead of overseas locations. Unfortunately, Central European states were simply informed of the fact. Washington did not negotiate; it even did not consult at the bilateral or multilateral level in the NATO forum.

Next, the last American tanks left Europe. Abrams tanks were shipped from Germany to South Carolina. Hence, for the first time in 69 years, US land army in Europe is not fully armed in the event of conventional warfare. The size of the American land contingent has dropped to about 30 thousand soldiers, whereas contingents of all military types amount to less than 70 thousand soldiers in total, combat units being in minority. These are by far nominal figures for a continent with 50 sovereign states, 800 million residents and a tradition of frequent and atrocious wars. The rationale behind the withdrawal of American tanks and other arms, along with numerous military units, from Europe was explained by the fact that it would facilitate sending intervention missions in various other world regions. This is empirical evidence that Europe is no longer a priority area and that it is considered secure and stable—despite its history, including the history of recent years.

Now we are witnessing the onset of a crisis in Korea, with North Korea trying to question the USA’s guarantees of alliance towards South Korea and Japan. Indirectly, these guarantees apply to all US allies in the world, those in Europe as well. The North-Korean regime tried to check its ability to get strategic concessions from the USA. If it does, it would pave the way for other regimes. Initially, the United States responded with a clear confirmation of credibility for its nuclear deterrence strategy, also protecting its allies who do not possess their own nuclear weapons. A clear signal was sent to the Korean Peninsula, B-2 strategic bombers, as a training counter-strike mission. Simultaneously, the USA proved that their security does not rest on counter-strike threat only—announcing that THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system would be deployed to Guam. This system could also correspond with the needs of Europe.

However, the Pentagon, soon after de-escalation of the conflict, called off—for an indefinite period—the testing of an intercontinental ballistic missile, called Minuteman III, in California. This happened despite the fact that these tests are necessary to sustain preparedness of all arms and the Minuteman III is one of the core elements of American “nuclear triad.” This way, Pyongyang acquired influence over Washington’s policy and strategy, whereas the will and credibility of the USA have been tainted. New questions arise, for example: what would be at stake if it were not about small and poor states like North Korea but one of world’s emerging powers?

In order to overcome the factual and psychological consequences of such events, and to secure a strong alliance between the United States and Central Europe in the framework of the NATO, we need new dynamism and new daring initiatives. In what follows, I propose four steps, which do not require additional considerable financial outlays. The first one is not at all about money but rather about imagination and political and strategic courage.

Step 1: abandoning the anachronistic division into old and new NATO states

The Atlantic Alliance should state that any declarations, which differentiate the status of member states are only historical and will not have any influence on alliance policy and strategy. Almost two decades ago, before the first enlargement to include the Eastern Bloc states, NATO introduced a division into two categories of members. Those are separated by the Iron Curtain, which as a result was resurrected this time at the will of the West. Thus, limitations where imposed on new members; those did not apply to the old members. This division provided guarantees for Russia and confirmed its conviction that within the borders of the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact it maintained special privileges. The problem here is the content of those guarantees, and an even bigger problem: The existence of this division and of inconsistency. Those are still here, even after the end of 20th century and despite the new challenges and circumstances, which characterize the beginning of the 21st century.

The first of those guarantees for Russia was announced by the North Atlantic Council, the top decision-making body of NATO, on 10th of December 1996: “NATO countries have no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of new members nor any need to change any aspect of NATO’s nuclear posture or nuclear policy—and we do not foresee any future need to do so.” After three months of demands and pressure from Russia, on 14th of March 1997, the North Atlantic Council added a second guarantee, which was more general and concerned all military forces, including the conventional ones. This was entitled “Unilateral Statement” and read as follows: “In the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defense and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces.”

Both those guarantees were reconfirmed— and pronounced even more clearly in the context of the Treaty’s enlargement—in the “Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation”, signed on 27th of May 1997. There, a detailed description was added concerning a provision for nuclear weapon storage sites: “… NATO has decided that it has no intention, no plan, and no reason to establish nuclear weapon storage sites on the territory of those [new] members, whether through the construction of new nuclear storage facilities or the adaptation of old nuclear storage facilities.”

The existence of those guarantees and the resulting paradoxical division of the Atlantic Alliance along the line of Iron Curtain is the reason why Central European states perceive their membership in NATO as substandard in value. Consequently, their alliance with the USA is seen as substandard. The time has come to get rid of this persistent cause of weakness and instability. Not only at the level of declarations but also of actions—by taking proper decisions on priority areas, the structure of NATO and US military presence in Europe.

Step 2: deployment of inseparable parts of a US antimissile shield in Central Europe

It is a top interest of the Atlantic community— in its entirety, from USA and Canada up to Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Poland and Romania—that an inseparable part of American antimissile potential is deployed on European land. Defense against the ballistic missiles developed in the world should be shared in all aspects, including geographically.

Step 3: shifting NATO priority actions from exotic missions to defense of Europe

Gradual return of NATO to the priority of the collective defense of the North-Atlantic region has already begun; following years when operations far from Europe were the top priority. And yet this comeback is undermined by such actions as extreme reduction of the US presence on the territory of Europe. The Treaty should viably and clearly invest in strengthening the defense of Europe, including Central Europe. Overseas missions will still be needed, as a second priority area, but they should be performed from Europe to a similar extent that they are from America.

Step 4: placing NATO command of global significance in Central Europe

NATO should have a stake in Central Europe— in order to use its potential and to finally topple the Iron Curtain—as one of its top strategic institutions, important for the whole North-Atlantic region and the whole of Europe, leaving behind the division into the old and new Europe. This could be the European command of antimissile and air defense. Or—in response to a huge and developing threat—a cyber-warfare command center which would act on a global scale.

Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas

is a political scientist and Americanist, graduated from Georgetown University (National Security) and Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D. in Strategic Studies). He conducted research on international security at the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the United States, and at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. In Poland, he was a political director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense, and the chief negotiator of the agreement on the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Poland. He is now Professor of National Security at the Military University of Technology in Warsaw and a media commentator.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 04/2019

The Powerless Are Tired: 1989–2019

This issue provides not only a retrospective look at the last 30 years but also reflects current challenges for the Visegrad group. That found its purpose in the dismantling of liberal democracy, unfortunately for all its citizens. Read the brand new Aspen Review.

Download PDF