NATO’s Got a New Backbone
By Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL)
May 12, 2023
The NATO alliance is more relevant than ever before, but the threats facing the coalition are quite different than at the time of its founding. The strongest, most successful alliances, however, are those that can adapt to change, and after 14 months of supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia’s brutal invasion, it’s clear that a major realignment is underway. The backbone of NATO, once centered in Paris and Berlin, is shifting eastward and now stretches from Helsinki to the Black Sea. Eastern European nations—namely, Poland, Romania, Finland, and the Baltic states—understand more acutely than their Western neighbors the threat posed by Russia and the imperative for collective resolve in its face.
For example, perhaps no European country has committed and sacrificed more to meet the challenge imposed by Russia than Poland—a nation of only 37 million, nearly half the population of its ally Germany. Despite Poland’s relative size, there are plans to more than double the size of the Polish army, bringing it to 300,000 troops, which will make it, by far, the largest in Europe. While numbers aren’t everything, Poland and the Baltic nations are among only a handful of NATO states that have consistently met the commitment made in 2006 by all alliance members to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their GDP on defense and invest 20 percent of their defense budgets in major equipment to ensure NATO’s military readiness.
Going beyond these commitments, in March 2022 the Polish government passed legislation that mandates the country spend 3 percent of its GDP on defense beginning this year, followed recently with plans to commit more than 4 percent of its GDP on defense—far surpassing the relative contributions of all other NATO states, including countries such as Canada and Germany. Polish Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has doubled down on this strategy, explaining: “The criminal assault carried out by the Russian Federation, targeting Ukraine, and the unpredictable nature of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin means that we need to accelerate the equipment modernization even further.”
From my position on the House Armed Services Committee, I have worked to expedite our steadfast ally’s efforts to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank, including by pressing the Biden administration to accelerate the transfer of M1A2 Abrams tanks, which Poland asked for to help deter and, if necessary, repel a Russian invasion force. U.S.-Polish industrial co-production on anti-tank missiles and other systems such as HIMARS should also be incentivized and accelerated where possible. This co-production will help alleviate current supply chain issues and worker shortfalls and will help more rapidly replenish European stocks of munitions. There is also a push right now, which I fully support, to upgrade our Aegis Ashore sites in Poland and Romania to allow for the tracking of Russian cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles threatening NATO.
When certain countries step up to meet the threat, as Poland has, the United States should take note and reorient its partnerships within the alliance toward those whose behaviors are most aligned with its strategic goals. That’s why I was pleased when it was announced that a permanent headquarters of the U.S. Army V Corps would be established in Poland. This, along with Aegis Ashore missile defense facilities in Poland and Romania, is an example of the United States’ enduring commitment to protecting its Eastern European allies. These moves will make NATO more secure in the short term and keep Russia deterred from further aggression in the long run.
However, more must be done to boost our alliance’s defense posture and deter the shared threats we face. First, the time has come to shift current U.S. forces in Europe to the countries that are investing most heavily in their own security. It is in the east, with the countries that truly understand the Russian threat, where our troops will be the most useful and have the largest impact on deterrence. That is why I included Section 1075 in this fiscal year’s National Defense Authorization Act—to force the Pentagon to examine moving U.S. forces out of “Old Europe” and into “New Europe.”
Next, leaders in Washington must recognize that the NATO-Russia Founding Act has been effectively killed by Russia’s ongoing war. Signed in 1997, this agreement sought to build trust and cooperation between the two parties, but given that Putin has launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II, the political commitment of this agreement should no longer constrain U.S. troop movements and basing in Eastern Europe as it has for the past quarter century. The alliance should act in unison and officially declare the act dead at the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Congress should echo these sentiments in support.
To maintain the solvency of the alliance, leaders must also be forward-looking and prepare to counter not only Russia’s current threat but also that of China, which U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has defined as the pacing challenge for the long term. Given this, the United States should state publicly that the next NATO secretary-general must come from a country meeting its 2 percent obligation and is willing to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party, as Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has. Having the next NATO secretary-general come from Poland, Romania, the U.K., or a Baltic nation would be a wise and well-earned choice.
As we look at other threats facing NATO, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China and groveling to Chinese President Xi Jinping—a dictator in the throes of a genocide—should concern the whole alliance. The sins of energy dependence on Russia should serve as a warning for anyone looking to get close to China. Fortunately, Macron’s opinion is a lonely voice in Europe, and there are strong counters to his vision for the continent’s future. One such example again comes from Poland. Following the visit, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki immediately and clearly pushed back on Macron’s comments, saying, “Instead of building strategic autonomy from the United States, I propose a strategic partnership with the United States.”
It’s clear that the center of gravity for the alliance’s resolve has shifted east: Warsaw, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Bucharest are the new backbone of NATO, and the United States should adjust its policies and posture accordingly.
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