Poland’s Attacks on the Rule of Law: How Party Loyalty Tests in the Military and Intelligence Harm U.S. and NATO Security


When meeting with President Trump in the Oval Office in September 2018, Polish President Andrzej Duda urged the United States to create a permanent military base in Poland. He suggested it could be called “Fort Trump.” Trump said he would consider the idea “very seriously.” Duda, an official of the Law and Justice Party that came to power in 2015, had already made a request in mid-2018 for a permanent troop placement of American soldiers in the country. President Duda is scheduled to meet with Trump again on June 12. At that gathering, he will likely attempt to seal the deal for increased U.S. military support—in the form of an increase in hundreds of troops, including a special forces component.

Before the United States decides to deepen its military relationship with Poland, it should consider how the actions of the Law and Justice government are harming the country’s ability to meet its North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations and support the values central to the alliance’s mission. Poland’s military has been described as “in chaos” and lacking a clear military strategy by respected security experts. Human Rights First recently interviewed a number of former members of the Polish military, who largely confirmed that the Polish government’s ideologically-driven agenda is deeply impacting the institution’s readiness and apolitical outlook.

In this issue brief, Human Rights First describes other troubling aspects of Poland’s anti-democratic descent, based in part on original interviews with former Polish military leaders who declined to be identified due to concerns over potential retribution from the Law and Justice government. This document demonstrates that alongside its routing of numerous, previously apolitical institutions, such as the judiciary, prosecutor’s office, civil service, and Institute for National Remembrance, Law and Justice has purged the Polish military’s senior leadership. Human Rights First’s research indicates that each of these efforts has been based on a view by Law and Justice that apolitical, independent bodies outside the party’s control pose a threat to its hold on political power. These actions threaten the foundations of Poland’s democracy, including checks and balances on government power, and undermine Polish national security.

Views on the advantages and disadvantages of permanent U.S. basing in Poland differ among security experts, however, the balance seems to fall on the side of caution when offering additional assistance. Some analysts suggest that increasing U.S. military support to Poland in the form of a permanent base could provide additional deterrence of Russia, and fortify the bilateral relationship, necessitating less reassurance from the United States. Contrary to this view, numerous national security experts note that increased support from the United States, in the form of a new base for example, may not be the best answer to Russian aggression. Doing so would undermine the American interest in Poland taking greater action to develop and bolster its own defense instead of relying on the United States.

Increasing U.S. military presence in Poland could impact American relationships with other NATO allies, according to Lieutenant General Frederick “Ben” Hodges, former commanding general of the Unites States Army in Europe. It will likely require repositioning U.S. troops from elsewhere within the European territory—such as taking troops from Lithuania, due to limited resources. The United States will be favoring the Poles when a base or troops in another location might be viewed by NATO allies as a more strategically effective location. The United States will also have to consider whether a Polish base would present security risks with respect to its technology, since Poland has embraced deals with Chinese telecommunications company Huawei despite Secretary Pompeo’s warnings. Most importantly, if the United States were to expand its military relationship with Poland at this time, it would appear to be a vote of support for an illiberal regime, and in favor of the anti-democratic actions that are creating an opening for NATO foes to increase influence as individual freedoms and institutions are weakened.

The best U.S.-Poland “deal” that could be struck during the Duda visit would therefore be for American foreign assistance to once again begin to support a reinvigoration of democratic institutions, rather than to bail out an ailing military of the government’s own creation. Instead of—or in addition to—offering President Duda military support, the U.S. government should offer financial support to civil society and technical support to reestablish an independent judiciary. Ideally, military support would be conditioned upon a review of the functioning of major institutions of democracy and rule of law in Poland.

In this issue brief, Human Rights First explains how Poland’s Law and Justice party is leading the country on a path away from rule of law-based governance, and offers recommendations for how the United States can help strengthen democracy and human rights in Poland, while bolstering NATO and protecting U.S. national security.


Issue Brief

Published on June 7, 2019


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