Poland today is attempting to lead NATO into a new era that represents a major shift from most of what the Alliance has been doing since the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, seeing no conventional foe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO invested heavily in peacemaking and peacekeeping in the Balkans. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Alliance made large contributions to the U.S. wars in Iraq and especially Afghanistan. Defense reforms and acquisitions across the Alliance were tailored to “out-of-area” missions above all. Reading the posture statement this year by the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe to Congress, one cannot fail to notice the enormous weight given to Afghanistan, even though that war is winding down. There is much emphasis on softer missions such as counterterrorism and counterpiracy, though there is little mention of traditional defense concepts.
Although that posture statement was delivered in March, it’s clear that the era when NATO can assume there are few, if any, conventional threats to the Alliance in Europe is at an end. NATO will either accept this challenge to deter Russian aggression and manipulation of frontline states like Poland and the Baltics through readiness and vigilance, or the most successful alliance in history will have lost its purpose. Given the Pentagon’s grim budgetary realities, that burden will have to be borne more by European states than by the United States, but Poland has shown the way with its new strategy and increased defense spending. Others must now follow Warsaw’s lead. After a two-decade holiday, history has returned to Europe.