Fort Trump Is a Farce
The question of a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland is complicated. The White House shouldn’t treat it as a vanity project.
Last month, Polish President Andrzej Duda asked U.S. President Donald Trump to build a military base in Poland and even offered to pay $2 billion for it. Savvy to the workings of the U.S. president’s heart, he suggested the name Fort Trump.
A permanent U.S. military presence in Poland has been a top priority for a succession of Polish presidents. Duda saw his chance and went for it. Trump said he would look “very seriously” at the proposal, which is more than the Poles have gotten from past U.S. presidents. Does he have any idea that Fort Trump could be even harder and more expensive to build than his wall on the Mexican border?
Like Trump’s Space Force, the idea of Fort Trump is easy to mock. But also like the Space Force, the underlying issue is a serious one, and a U.S. military facility of some type in Poland has been under the microscope in the U.S. Defense Department since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The Poles are pushing for a base that could house a U.S. armored division—that’s thousands of soldiers. Congress is interested in the issue too: The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act instructed the Pentagon to prepare a report on stationing troops in Poland.
Since the end of the Cold War, Poland has been anxious about the return of Russian domination. Given the country’s history of occupation by Russia, that’s understandable. The Poles trust the United States more than the United Nations, NATO, or the European Union to keep the Russians out. Warsaw’s insurance policy is U.S. skin in the game—if it could get a big, 1950s-style U.S. base in Poland full of troops, their dependents, and the staples of U.S. bases around the world—a Post Exchange shopping center and a baseball field—the United States would be even quicker to send in the cavalry if Poland were attacked. To some Polish strategists, it is not the military utility of a U.S. base that is important, but the American hostages the base would represent should the Russians appear on the horizon.
Washington has had to deal with this Polish paranoia since the Warsaw Pact ended in 1991. In 1999, Poland was one of the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join NATO; in fact, it was Poland that clamored the loudest to join, which was critical in pushing the organization to consider enlargement. But the Poles soon realized that NATO was focused more on the Balkans than on Russia—this was long before the invasion of Georgia in 2008—and was not quite the military giant they had originally assumed it was. So, Warsaw fastened its sights on the United States and began to search for ways to keep the Americans from wandering away.
Since that time, Poland has sought a permanent U.S. presence. The Poles were major participants in U.S.-led coalitions after 9/11, particularly in Iraq. The thinking in Warsaw was that the United States would be more likely to come to Poland’s aid if Poland participated; it fact, there developed in Warsaw a notion that Washington would owe Poland for joining the war in Iraq. But when Warsaw realized it had misread the Americans, that a U.S. payoff was not forthcoming in the form of either defense contracts from the Iraq War or a permanent U.S. presence in Poland, the U.S.-Polish defense relationship came to be marked by bitterness and cynicism. The most the U.S. Department of Defense could produce to give even a semblance of a permanent presence in Poland was an aviation detachment of just over 10 airmen to do planning with the Polish air force—not quite an armored division.
And then Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, which proved naive those who saw Polish concerns about Russia as paranoia. Ukraine was a wake-up call for the United States and NATO alike: The post-Cold War defense holiday was over. Putin was on the march, and NATO needed to take swift measures to strengthen deterrence in Europe, including rebuilding a U.S. military presence there. Poland found itself on the front lines, along with the Baltic states. In addition to the United States spending billions to rotate U.S. forces back to Europe and to rebuild U.S. infrastructure on the continent, NATO deployed battalions to the Baltics and Poland, with the battalion in Poland led by the United States.
The reasons the United States has until now avoided building a permanent base in Poland remain in place, including expense, military necessity, vulnerability, and the lack of an armored division available for deployment. It is not easy to find a division to send—it has to come from somewhere, and the congressional delegation from whose state the division might be taken would fight to the last breath to keep it (and the revenue it pumps into the local economy). And while the $2 billion Poland offered to pay for the base was a smart political move, the total expense would likely be far larger.
On the diplomatic front, the Russians would describe the base as a provocation and present themselves as the victim of a U.S. violation of NATO-Russia Founding Act limitations on the size of military units NATO can permanently deploy along its borders. The United States acting outside of NATO to set up a base that would have ramifications for NATO could weaken alliance unity and even prompt some allies to demand their own U.S. bases. Conspiracy theorists would also see the base as an excuse for Trump to punish his erstwhile ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, by moving U.S. forces from Germany to Poland.
But sometimes the United States should move forward with a risky undertaking, like building a base that could be vulnerable, if the geopolitical benefits override the risk. Putting troops in harm’s way to defend an ally like Poland that faces a clear threat has a deterrent effect in and of itself. On a practical basis, with the defense of NATO depending on slow U.S. reinforcements arriving by sea, having American forces permanently deployed close to where the trouble is could be buy vital time for seaborne forces to arrive.
The Fort Trump farce masks the seriousness and the complexity of this old question, now resurrected in a new, more threatening military environment. As seductive as Trump may find it to have a fort named after him, Washington should consider the issue from many angles, not push it through as a vanity project to erect the military equivalent of a Trump Hotel in the middle of Poland. The United States should leave Fort Trump aside and turn its attention to the task of thinking through whether it makes military and geopolitical sense to build the first ever major U.S. military facility in Poland—a military construction project on a scale Europe has not seen for a generation.
Jim Townsend is an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program. He served for eight years as U.S. President Barack Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO. Twitter: @jteurope