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Central Europe, NATO and Homo Atlanticus: A Polish Military Perspective

Center for European Policy Analysis (USA)

By Dominik P. Jankowski serves as a Senior Expert at the J5 Strategic Planning Directorate of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces and is the Editor-in-Chief of the “Pulaski Policy Papers,” published by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation and Colonel Tomasz K. Kowalik, Ph.D. is the Military Assistant to the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces.

There is a perception in international relations that the winds of change define the world faster than politicians, military leaders, analysts, journalists or historians. The current global trend suggests that the geopolitical center of gravity no longer lies somewhere between the United States and Europe, but that the economic and political amalgam of both power and influence has been steadily shifting to Asia. As a result, some voices increasingly insist that the age of Homo Atlanticus is declining. Though the transatlantic relationship will face numerous crucial challenges in the future, the end of the “Atlantic man,” an unquestionable pillar of NATO, will still play an essential role. NATO has already commenced the process which aims to capture the Alliance’s raison d’être in the new international security paradigm, and the Central European factor remains fundamental to properly address rifts and manage strategic capabilities.

Resolving this dialectic is key to developing successful strategies for the future without forgetting or overlooking NATO’s roots. The Atlantic Alliance is a defense and security platform with states sharing the same set of values and the desire to establish a peaceful and just international order. This is not merely a mantra for our times. Without defending the values of democracy – respect for human rights, rule of law and freedom of speech – it might be difficult to shape an unambiguous and predictable Euro-Atlantic security environment. The aforementioned aspects should therefore remain a vital linchpin and glue of the whole Alliance. Geopolitical historic reminiscences of our region have taught us that as long as parochial interests are balanced by commonly shared values, peace and stability prevail.
In light of this paramount task, there is a clear need to develop a common understanding of what security means, with agreement on current threats including what constitutes an “armed attack.” A traditional large-scale act of aggression against any Alliance member both now and in the near future is unlikely. Nevertheless, a true challenge and risk for our region emanates rather from “softer security issues” that could evolve into future threats such as migration, over-dependency on energy from one source, cyber attacks, terrorist activities, acts of sabotage, creation of “security grey zones” and ever-evolving environmental hazards. Indeed, who would bear the financial consequences if, say, an offshore gas pipeline in the shallow Baltic Sea ruptures and contaminates the area?
Despite these concerns, in order to boost political solidarity, our region has tried to champion the diversity of NATO by engaging as a partner in out-of-area crisis response operations, vital to other members of the Alliance. Since its accession to NATO, Poland has understood that older allies might focus on diverse aspects of risks and threats as they continue to evolve. However, a proper balance between the development of expeditionary forces and collective defense should be maintained. Moreover, one of the most effective ways to address the “softer security issues” is to enhance NATO’s unity by developing relevant capabilities and multi-national military structures which are the true heart of the Alliance. Thus, modest and non-provocative structures – such as the Joint Force Training Center and the developing NATO Signal Battalion in Bydgoszcz or the Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn – should be solidified and maintained to build upon the essential cohesion within Alliance ranks.
Other areas include the establishment of a NATO-wide cyber security network, mentioned in Madeleine Albright’s Group of Experts’ Report. These initiatives are also in keeping with the Alliance’s previous statements, made more than a decade ago, that no “major military formations” would be permanently placed on the territory of new NATO members. This does not mean, however, that there is a prohibition against creating the basic military infrastructures needed to deploy allied reinforcements during a time of crisis or against placing modern capabilities and enablers. On occasion, some have expressed the opinion that such assertions preclude any installations whatsoever, which is simply unsubstantiated. This view would imply that different levels of security should be afforded to different allies.
These challenges cannot, however, be addressed one-dimensionally. NATO should reaffirm its unique military capability and collective defense as its two cornerstones. Only a careful balance between the political and military realms can safeguard territorial integrity and deter potential adversaries amid geopolitically unpredictable, fiscally austere environments. It is vital that NATO not become purely a “discussions club,” as potential future conflicts will never be solved by political means alone. No one will re-invent the wheel by emphasizing the Alliance’s fundamental function: Article 5. The essence of NATO’s value is inherent in its readiness to conduct an effective defensive action. By supporting practical collective defense implementation, the level of insecurity among Central European allies diminishes, rendering the countries more prone to engage in crisis response operations.
With regard to current budgetary constraints, at least three aspects should be considered: limited and non-provocative military exercises; updating of military planning; and the quasi-institutionalization of Article 5 by establishing rules of engagement that would automatically trigger certain procedures if the Article is invoked. It was a historic accomplishment when, after the 9/11 attacks, it took the North Atlantic Council just one day to invoke the principle of Article 5. Now, further mechanisms of pre-delegated authority to some NATO military commanders would discourage potential adversaries from testing the determination of the Alliance.
Furthermore, a new transatlantic “grand bargain” and the revival of the “Atlantic man” might not be achieved without benevolent mutual understanding with Russia. Washington and Moscow have recently started to test the waters in bilateral relations, and NATO followed suit. There is still much room for pragmatic cooperation between Russia and the Alliance. On one hand, such enterprises as the Cooperative Airspace Initiative or NATO-Russia consultation during the drafting of the final report of the Group of Experts serve as concrete examples of security and confidence-building measures. On the other, the absence of similar consultations before the adoption of the Russia Military Doctrine certainly did not help revive mutual trust. Neither could large-scale Russian military exercises with vivid scenarios on NATO’s doorsteps be deemed appropriate while both sides were seeking common ground for collaboration. The principles of mutuality and transparency seem to be proven mechanisms in those relations and, with some dose of goodwill, the sides will certainly be able to tighten the scope of cooperation and contribute to the “reset.” It is, therefore, not improbable that Russia would join NATO in the future. A well-reformed and transformed Russia, respecting and sharing the values and principles of the Alliance as well as proving its security credibility in the long term would naturally enhance Euro-Atlantic security.
Some of the above-mentioned issues will prompt the revival of the famous question, often raised by older NATO members, “Against whom do you need all these measures?” Well, to be honest, NATO is no longer an “against whom” alliance, and it is necessary in this day and time to lose the Cold War mentality. Rather, it is a question of conveying the message of what constitutes the Alliance and defining its role of bolstering security and democracy in the 21st century. The common perception that our region cannot divest itself of obsolete Cold War obsessions must become a relic of a bygone era. It is high time.

The opinions, findings and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do neither necessarily reflect those of the Polish Ministry of National Defense nor the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces.

Post-Crisis World Institute