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Poland and NATO

Why did the Western movie High Noon become a famous symbol of Polish democratic renewal? What was the ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ and how did it lead to the disintegration of the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc? Read on to discover Poland’s journey to NATO membership!

For the Polish people, NATO's existence has always been a sign of hope. The hope of saving freedom and democracy in a Europe divided until 1989. The hope that the Iron Curtain would not last forever. The hope that as soon as Poland was able to determine its fate, it would take part in the creation of a better future for itself and for the whole of the European continent … the dreams of our fathers and grandfathers have now come true.

Aleksander Kwaśniewski, President of the Republic of Poland,
speaking at the commemoration of NATO's 50th anniversary in Washington, D.C., 23 April 1999


The new Poland – 1989

The end of the Cold War is often symbolised by one iconic image from November 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this famous historical episode was just one moment in a series of events that took place over several years. West and East Germany may have been the frontline of the Cold War between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, but activists were rising up for freedom and demanding reforms all across Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland.

On 6 April 1989 – two days after NATO celebrated its 40th birthday – the Polish Communist regime and its main opposition, the Solidarity (Solidarność) trade union, reached a remarkable agreement. After more than four decades of Communist rule, opposition parties would be allowed to participate in the upcoming elections in June.

The Communist regime didn’t accept this change out of the goodness of its heart. Large-scale protests and strikes throughout 1988 had effectively brought the Polish economy to a standstill. These protests were the result of a decade of turmoil in Polish society. (Read declassified NATO documents about the events in Poland in the 1980s.)

The 1980s had begun with the birth of the Solidarity movement, which started as an alliance of independent trade unions demanding better working conditions and quickly grew into a broader movement striving for a free and open civil society, before becoming a political party in the 1989 elections. Within a year of its founding, Solidarity had attracted 10 million members – representing one third of Poland’s workers, and far outnumbering the 3 million members of the Polish Communist Party. Terrified of this democratic threat to their power, the Communist authorities declared martial law in 1981 and outlawed Solidarity, arresting thousands of its members and driving the movement underground. But even after martial law was lifted in 1983, the economic and social conditions in Poland continued to spiral out of the regime’s control, with massive inflation and declining standards of living for everyday people.

New Year's Day

Did you know that the first international hit song of the Irish rock band U2 was inspired by Poland’s Solidarity movement?

New Year’s Day”, the lead single of U2’s 1983 album War, was originally written as a love song by lead singer Bono for his wife Alison. But Bono had been reading about the declaration of martial law in Poland, and in the recording studio in the fall of 1982, the lyric “I will be with you again” took on new meaning as he thought about imprisoned Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa and how he couldn’t see his wife Danuta (who later accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on his behalf).

The song’s second verse evokes the political imagery of the protests going on in Poland at the time and the hope of the brave activists to reunite Europe, four decades after the Iron Curtain had torn it in two:

Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says
Say it's true, it's true
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one

By the end of the decade, the rage and frustration of the Polish people had reached a breaking point. The 1988 strikes reignited the demands for genuine reform, ultimately leading to the Round Table Agreement between the Communist regime and Solidarity.

The June 1989 elections were a watershed moment in Polish history. The Round Table Agreement contained reforms in a wide range of areas, including free elections to 35% per cent of the seats in the Sejm (lower house) and all 100 seats in the newly reconstituted Senate. Two months later, the first quasi-free elections since before the Second World War resulted in a landslide: Solidarity won all of the available seats in the Sejm. It won 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate.

This stunning rebuke of the Polish Communist Party created a crisis of legitimacy for the regime. After a summer of political negotiations (including a brief period known as "Your president, our prime minister", in which a Communist president and Solidarity prime minister nominally shared authority), the Solidarity movement ultimately took control of the government in September 1989 – the first peaceful transition of power from communism to democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. In December 1989, the Polish constitution was updated, officially changing the country's name from the Polish People's Republic back to the Republic of Poland. Following many years of occupation – by the Nazis and the Soviet Union, and even further back by the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires – the country was finally free to chart its own course. As the national anthem says, Poland was not yet lost.

The Sinatra Doctrine

Poland was the first Eastern Bloc country to end Communist rule and re-establish its democracy, breaking free from Moscow’s control. While the credit for this world-changing achievement of course rests with thousands of Polish trade unionists and democratic activists – including figures like Anna Walentynowicz, Lech Wałęsa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, among many others – another historical personality unexpectedly contributed to Poland’s liberation: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In July 1989, just one month after the historic Polish elections, Gorbachev spoke at the Council of Europe, stating that "Any interference in domestic affairs and any attempts to restrict the sovereignty of states – friends, allies or any others – are inadmissible". This was a 180-degree reversal from the Brezhnev Doctrine, which stated that the Soviet Union had the right to violently intervene in the affairs of its satellite states if Communist dominance was threatened (as it had done in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968). 

Gorbachev’s new position came to be known as the “Sinatra Doctrine”, a joking reference to the Frank Sinatra song “My Way” coined by Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesperson Gennadi Gerasimov in October 1989. After decades of Soviet domination, Eastern Bloc countries like Poland were finally being allowed to go their own way.



The road to NATO membership – 1990 to 1999

“We recognise that, in the new Europe, the security of every state is inseparably linked to the security of its neighbours. NATO must become an institution where Europeans, Canadians and Americans work together not only for the common defence, but to build new partnerships with all the nations of Europe. The Atlantic Community must reach out to the countries of the East which were our adversaries in the Cold War, and extend to them the hand of friendship.”

Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance (“The London Declaration”), issued by NATO Heads of State and Government at the London Summit, 5 July 1990

1990-1992: Poland decides on NATO

In the years immediately following the country’s restoration of democracy, Poland’s new government was focused more on internal democratic reforms and addressing the economic crisis than on military alliances. Indeed, in the early 1990s, Poland was still a member of the Warsaw Pact and there were still Russian troops stationed on its territory. Although several senior figures in Poland’s new government already hoped to join NATO, not all agreed. The number one priority was stability, in order to ensure the survival of the reborn democracy. According to Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski, Poland “had to act with extreme restraint and caution” in its international relations – not only to prevent unnecessary turmoil in Polish domestic politics and to avoid potential blowback from the Soviet Union, but also to avoid scaring off Western support. There was no consensus among the 16 NATO Allies of the time about how to engage with the former Warsaw Pact countries, or even what the role of NATO should be after the Cold War.

What was agreed by both NATO and Poland was that diplomatic relations should be established. So, in its Declaration from the 1990 London Summit, NATO invited Poland and the other Warsaw Pact countries to establish formal ties: “We today also invite the governments of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, the Hungarian Republic, the Republic of Poland, the People's Republic of Bulgaria and Romania to come to NATO, not just to visit, but to establish regular diplomatic liaison with NATO. This will make it possible for us to share with them our thinking and deliberations in this historic period of change.”

The Polish government had already started to develop initial relations with NATO, when the Foreign Minister visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels in March 1990. Following the London Declaration, Poland designated its ambassador in Brussels as the permanent contact to NATO that August. And in September, NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner embarked on the first official visit to Poland. Newly elected Polish President Lech Wałęsa returned the favour in April and July 1991, visiting first the Polish Embassy and then NATO Headquarters itself.

This gradual deepening of relations continued for the first few years after Poland’s restoration of democracy. The main priority on the Polish side was to ensure that NATO understood that the Central and Eastern European democracies were sovereign and autonomous states, and that their democratic independence and security benefitted NATO Allies. The NATO side was eager for a rapprochement with its former adversaries, but also cautious about taking on responsibility for security in the region, and therefore clear that there was no appetite or agenda for enlarging NATO membership.

Over the next few years, the rapidly evolving geopolitical situation in Europe made it more and more possible for Poland to openly pursue NATO membership. A number of specific events helped Poland move gradually closer to NATO, including:

  • The reunification of Germany in October 1990, which meant that Poland was now the direct neighbour of a NATO country;
  • The signature of major arms control treaties, which led to wide-spread destruction of armaments and troop draw-downs across Europe, and increased transparency;
  • The formation of the Visegrád Group (including Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary) in February 1991, which allowed these countries to advocate for greater Western integration as a bloc; 
  • The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact’s military structures in March 1991 and its disbanding in July 1991 (which ultimately led to the departure of Russian combat troops from Polish territory in October 1992, and all forces in September 1993);

In the midst of this changing environment, in December 1991, NATO launched the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), a new forum for cooperation between the Alliance and its former Warsaw Pact adversaries. The NACC helped bring together NATO’s relations with all of these new partner countries, and the formal structure made Polish officials feel more secure in their association with the Alliance. (Read more about the inaugural meeting of the NACC, where the Soviet ambassador unexpectedly announced that his country no longer existed.)

Throughout 1992, statements by Polish ministers about the desire for NATO membership became progressively bolder. And in October 1992, on a visit to NATO Headquarters, Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka expressly asserted to the Allies for the first time that Poland was seeking NATO membership (and integration with other European institutions). In November 1992, Poland made NATO membership an explicit goal of its foreign and security policy, stating that “the strategic objective of Poland in the [1990s] is membership in NATO and the Western European Union”.

After three years of steadily closer relations, Poland had clearly and unequivocally decided on NATO. The time had come for NATO to decide on Poland.

1992-1997: NATO decides on Poland

In order for a country to join NATO, all existing member states have to agree (this principle of consensus applies to every decision at NATO). In the 1990s, some of NATO’s 16 members at the time were more enthusiastic than others about admitting new members.

Among the less convinced Allies, there were a number of concerns, including that adding new members would overcomplicate NATO’s internal processes – or water down the influence of existing members; that it would cost too much to integrate the new countries into NATO’s military structures, let alone to help defend them in a crisis; and that their democratic, market and military reforms had not gone far enough. Even among more supportive members, there was not a universal consensus within the political leadership or broader society.

But the member states in favour of enlargement – particularly the United States and Germany – pushed slowly but surely to bring Poland and the other Visegrád countries closer to the Alliance.

NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner helped guide the Allies towards consensus on enlargement. He also helped Polish officials understand and navigate their country’s new relationship with NATO. During a visit to Warsaw in March 1992, he declared that “from our NATO side, the door is open for cooperation and assistance on a broad scale.” The Secretary General made it clear that NATO was not considering enlargement at that moment, but nevertheless emphasised that membership could be an option in the future – Poland needed to understand that NATO worked by maintaining its internal cohesion, and so developing relations would be an evolutionary process.


NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner speaks at a seminar on security in Central Europe during a visit to Warsaw, Poland on 12 March 1992.


In order to assure the more sceptical members, NATO’s integration of Poland and the other Visegrád countries advanced gradually, with ever-increasing levels of cooperation.

At the Brussels Summit in January 1994, NATO created the Partnership for Peace programme. This programme built off the political dialogue developed in the NACC and expanded the level of practical cooperation with the new partner countries.

There were some concerns in the Visegrád countries that the Partnership for Peace programme was being offered not as a step towards NATO membership, but as an alternative, keeping them forever in an ambiguous, NATO-adjacent limbo without the Alliance’s Article 5 security guarantee. To address these concerns, a delegation of Central European-born American diplomats (including the Warsaw-born Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili) visited their countries of birth and persuaded them to join the programme. Continuing this diplomatic push, US President Bill Clinton went to Prague immediately after the 1994 Brussels Summit and declared that the question of the Visegrád countries joining NATO was no longer a matter of if, but when and how.

The Partnership for Peace programme included military cooperation, leading to joint military exercises between former adversaries. Poland hosted the first of these exercises, codenamed Cooperative Bridge, in September 1994. Other exercises soon followed, including maritime exercise Cooperative Venture in the North Sea near Denmark, Norway and Sweden in late September, and Cooperative Spirit in the Netherlands in October.

The Partnership for Peace programme not only helped integrate Poland’s military into NATO activities, but also led to greater bilateral military and political relations between Poland and the 16 NATO Allies. Contributions to NATO’s stabilisation operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of a Nordic-Polish brigade also brought Poland closer to NATO. And Poland’s participation in the Western European Union as a partner helped it forge closer ties with the European NATO Allies. All of these steps led Poland closer to NATO, and helped ease the concerns of the Allies that had initially been reluctant to enlarge the Alliance.

In September 1995, all 16 NATO Allies agreed the Study on NATO Enlargement, which defined the specific criteria that countries would have to meet to become NATO members. It did not guarantee a membership offer if these conditions were met, and it did not offer a specific timeline. However, it was the most comprehensive formal statement of the Allies’ agreed position on enlargement, and paved the road ahead with clear expectations. In December 1995, Allied Foreign Ministers agreed to undertake “an intensified, individual dialogue” with any partner country wishing to join NATO, while still noting that “participation in this next phase would not imply that interested Partners would automatically be invited to begin accession talks with NATO”.

Poland accepted this offer, and throughout 1996, its diplomats held closer talks with NATO staff to understand what the Study meant for its membership aspirations, and to demonstrate what it could contribute to the Alliance as a member.

The next big moment in Poland’s journey to NATO occurred in Detroit, Michigan in the United States in October 1996, where President Clinton gave a specific date for NATO enlargement for the first time: by NATO’s 50th anniversary on 4 April 1999.

A few months later, Allied Foreign Ministers agreed to invite “one or more of the countries which have expressed interest in joining the Alliance” to begin accession negotiations at NATO’s next summit in July 1997 in Madrid, Spain.

1997-1999: from Madrid to Washington

At the 1997 Madrid Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government welcomed their counterparts from Poland, Czechia and Hungary, confirming that accession talks would be held with their countries over the coming months.

Throughout the fall of 1997, Polish and NATO officials had four major discussion sessions, focused on (1) the political and democratic obligations of the North Atlantic Treaty; (2) military matters, including participation in NATO’s collective defence; (3) financial matters, including contributions to NATO funding; and (4) a wrap-up session covering all three major topics. These talks concluded in November 1997, when Poland declared its readiness to fulfil all membership obligations and opened its official mission at NATO Headquarters (replacing its Liaison Office, which was previously part of the Polish Embassy in Brussels).

In December 1997, Allied Foreign Ministers confirmed Poland’s readiness to join the Alliance by signing the Accession Protocol for Poland to the North Atlantic Treaty, along with those of Czechia and Hungary – beginning the formal process for them to become NATO members.

Throughout 1998, the 16 NATO Allies ratified the Accession Protocols for the three aspiring countries in their national parliaments – a process that was followed with great attention by Warsaw. Staff in the Ministry of Defence even put up a big board to check off the decisions of each NATO member state throughout the year. By December 1998, all 16 Allies had approved Poland’s NATO membership. With this step completed, NATO Secretary General Javier Solana sent a letter on 29 January 1999 officially inviting Poland, Czechia and Hungary to sign their countries’ Instruments of Accession to the North Atlantic Treaty.

On 17 February 1999, the Sejm and the Senate passed an act – by overwhelming majorities – authorising the President of Poland to sign the Instrument of Accession. Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek expressed the majority opinion of Polish representatives: “Having joined NATO, Poland will finally put the centuries-long threats to rest”.

One week later, on 26 February 1999, President Aleksander Kwaśniewski signed Poland’s Instrument of Accession. The only thing left to do was to deposit this key document with the US State Department, the official repository of the North Atlantic Treaty.

The journey to Independence

On 12 March 1999, the Polish Foreign Minister submitted the country’s Instrument of Accession to the US Secretary of State – Czech-born Madeleine Albright – in Independence, Missouri, United States. This location was chosen for its symbolic meaning. Not only was it the site of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library (named after the US president when NATO was founded in 1949), but the name of the town also represented the now independent foreign policy of the sovereign states of Central Europe. It was also only a short distance from Fulton, Missouri, where UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill had first declared, in a famous 1946 speech, that “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent”.

After more than 50 years, the Iron Curtain had finally, irrevocably, been torn apart. As Foreign Minister Geremek noted in his speech, “This is a great day for Poland, as well as for millions of Poles scattered all over the world. Poland forever returns where she has always belonged – to the free world.”

High Noon

Iconic image from the 1952 movie High Noon

During the 1989 Polish elections, the Solidarity movement used an iconic image from the 1952 movie High Noon as part of their ground-breaking campaign.

In the film, Gary Cooper plays the marshal of a small town in the American West who asks his neighbours for help to deal with a band of outlaws. When his community refuses to assist him, he must stand alone against the criminals – the only honourable man in the village.

Artist Tomasz Sarnecki designed a poster with Cooper’s image in front of the Solidarność logo, replacing the sheriff’s gun with a ballot paper to symbolise how Poland was moving from military-dominated Communist rule to democracy. Beneath Cooper, a simple message: “High Noon, 4 June 1989”.

Ten years later, on the day that Poland joined NATO in Independence, Missouri, the Foreign Minister presented a copy of Sarnecki’s poster and remarked on its significance: “For the Harry Truman Presidential Library, we have brought from Poland some records of history of our road to freedom, among them – the poster of 1989 elections with a picture of Gary Cooper from the film High Noon. It helped us to win. For the people of Poland, high noon comes today."

Watch: Accession event at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri

Poland produced a commemorative stamp for its accession to NATO on 12 March 1999.

Poland produced a commemorative stamp for its accession to NATO on 12 March 1999.

Poland became a NATO member on 12 March 1999. Celebrations for the country’s accession, along with Czechia and Hungary, continued over the following weeks, leading up to NATO’s 50th anniversary and the 1999 Washington Summit.

On 16 March, a flag-raising ceremony was held at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium – with 19 Allied flags flying side-by-side for the first time.

As part of the celebration, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek delivered Poland’s first address to the North Atlantic Council as a NATO member, stating:

After years of struggling for independence and sovereignty, the Polish people formally joined the North Atlantic community. Let me assure you that we take the responsibility for the security of each individual NATO member and for the interests of the entire Alliance. Under those flags, waving in the wind, allow me to say: You can count on us. You can count on Poland.


To discover how Poland contributes to the Alliance today, visit NATO on the Map.