(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Poland is willing to spend $1.5 billion to $2 billion to entice the U.S. to build a permanent military base there, according to a Defense Ministry proposal. The plan offers a strong incentive for the U.S. to consider moving at least some of its forces from Germany, especially since the current deployment makes little military sense.
Placing U.S. bases in Germany after World War II was a response to the need to deter a Soviet attack and prevent Germany from becoming a military threat again. The second goal appears to be irrelevant today. Higher military spending is unpopular with German voters, and the government is unwilling to raise its defense budget to the 2 percent of economic output required by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The proposed spending level for next year is 1.3 percent.
In addition, the theoretical front line in a conflict between Russia and NATO no longer runs through Germany, which today is buffered from Russia by a number of countries, including the Baltic states and Poland. Germans feel safe, and they’re among the least inclined to defend a NATO ally against a Russian attack.
In a 2016 analysis of a possible Russian attack on the Baltics, Rand Corporation’s David Shlapak and Michael Johnson explained that the new front line is about the same length as the Cold War-era West German border, but it’s only defended by Baltic and Polish forces along with a small number of temporarily deployed NATO troops. If the Kremlin decides to overrun the Baltics and present NATO with a fait accompli, it’s likely to be able to do so before, for example, U.S. heavy armor could arrive from, say, Grafenwoehr, not far from Germany’s border with the Czech Republic.
The numbers of U.S. soldiers in Germany has shrunk to 35,000 last year from almost 250,000 in 1985, but maintaining that presence is costly for Germany. It has required 521 million euros ($607 million) in direct budgetary expenses alone since 2008. That’s only a fraction of the total costs; for example, in 2009, the direct German defense budget expenditure linked to the U.S. bases only reached 41.3 million euros, but Rand calculated the total — including construction costs, leases and benefits to former employees of the bases — at 598 million euros. This has been partly offset by economic benefits for the areas around the bases, but Germany today faces a severe housing shortage, and the bases could be turned into residential real estate.
Deploying U.S. troops in Poland would serve a strategic purpose. The Defense Ministry argues that it would help NATO defend the Suwalki Gap, the narrow, highly vulnerable piece of land between the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and the Belarus border where Poland and Lithuania abut each other.
U.S. military bases in other countries aren’t particularly useful today: Any major conflict in Europe or the Middle East would still require the deployment of troops from the U.S., which would be almost as fast as from the German bases. But some U.S. allies, including Poland and the Baltic states, really want the American presence to provide a sense of security. These countries are happy to take on extra costs: Poland and Estonia already spend more than 2 percent of economic output on defense, and Latvia and Lithuania are closer to Russia than Germany. None of these countries is likely to do anything to put the U.S. at risk of entanglement: They certainly won’t attack Russia first or even provoke it, since with or without U.S. troops a conflict would devastate them.
There are arguments against the move, too. Russia doesn’t have anything to gain by invading the Baltic states or Poland. Any conceivable benefits of trying to take over resource-poor nations with a mostly hostile population pale before the risk of a full-blown conflict with NATO, even if the alliance’s engagement is not 100 percent assured. And the Kremlin would object loudly to the transfer of U.S. bases from Germany to Poland, decrying it as another violation of Western promises not to expand NATO to Russia’s borders.
There’s nothing, however, that Russia could do in response. It has already accepted temporary NATO deployments to the Baltics and Poland. So the U.S. doesn’t stand to lose anything by accepting Poland’s generous proposal and gradually relocating troops there from Germany. A move of this kind would be consistent with stated U.S. goals, such as deterring Russia. It would also allow the U.S. to support an ally eager for closer military ties.
It might also force Germany to give more thought to its position. Would it feel unprotected with a smaller U.S. presence? Would it, perhaps, be motivated to enhance its own defense? Or would it still be secure in its apparent conviction that no one is interested in attacking it?
The U.S. should offer protection to the countries that want it most, and reduce its involvement with nations that benefited in the mid-20th century. The American military presence should be aligned with its allies’ sense of being threatened. This anxiety gets stronger the closer a country is to Russia’s borders. Ignoring that makes little military or political sense.
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