It is precisely because the U.S.-Polish relationship is important, and because symbols matter, that next week’s ceremonies should not be turned into another of Trump’s stunts.
One problem is that Trump and key figures in his administration feel attracted to Poland for ideological reasons. They share the views of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party on restrictive immigration policy, skepticism toward the European Union, and cultural issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. It was no coincidence that last month’s National Conservatism conference in the District featured one of the ruling party’s leading intellectual figures, Ryszard Legutko, known for drawing parallels between the European Union and Soviet communism, alongside John Bolton and Tucker Carlson.
Even worse, Trump’s visit is scheduled to take place at a fraught moment as Poland is headed into a polarizing parliamentary election. Battles over contentious cultural issues are underway, including LGBTQ rights, abortion and sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.
Any misstep Trump makes — such as inserting himself into the country’s bitter cultural wars or taking sides in the ongoing parliamentary campaign — will turn the partnership between the United States and Poland into a partisan issue and do irreparable damage once the government in Warsaw changes.
There is another source for concern about Trump’s visit: the effect of Poland’s democratic backsliding on NATO. While Poland’s leaders are committed to the transatlantic relationship and clear-eyed about the threat that Russia poses to their country, they have strayed from the fundamental values of the alliance.
As early as 2011, the leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, promised to build “Budapest in Warsaw” and emulate Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s authoritarianism. Following the party’s victory in 2015, nonpolitical bodies — including public broadcasting organizations, public prosecutors and even the military and intelligence communities — have taken on a distinctly partisan tilt.
Most significant in this “assault from within” NATO has been an unprecedented politicization of Poland’s judiciary. Although the government reversed some of the most draconian changes under pressure from the European Union, the Law and Justice-dominated Parliament gave the Ministry of Justice extraordinary power to force out judges from the lower courts and created a politicized disciplinary body with power over proceedings against judges — including the Supreme Court. The minister has already dismissed at least 149 judges from the lower-court leadership and dozens in higher-level courts — in retaliation for court rulings judged to be “political.”
The government has set up a new mechanism to review court cases decided since October 1997 by a panel that contains political appointees. Journalists found that top officials at the Ministry of Justice coordinated the spreading of rumors and disinformation about individual judges in order to discredit them with the public.
The ruling party defends its sweeping “reforms” of the judiciary by claiming that Polish courts have been long dominated by a clique of old communist justices. Yet when Law and Justice came to power, the average judge of an ordinary court in Poland was younger than 46. Poland’s judiciary also underwent a thorough “decommunization” in the early 1990s. Few other professions in the country or indeed throughout post-communist Central and Eastern Europe have seen similarly thorough changes.
Normally, a U.S. president would seek to strike a delicate balance between engaging Warsaw on matters of mutual interest, such as defense and energy cooperation, and holding it to high standards of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law, which are all fundamental to the cohesion of the alliance.
Instead Trump’s visit to Poland in July 2017 provided cover for the Law and Justice assault on democracy. In a speech in Warsaw, Trump trumpeted threats to Western civilization and lauded the Polish government as an example of how to fend off these threats. Within six days of the visit, legislators passed a package of legislation politicizing the Supreme Court and lower-level courts.
There is no reason to expect that this time around Trump’s presence will achieve anything beyond a deepening of the divides already existing in Polish politics and emboldening the worst authoritarian impulses of the ruling party. For the sake of the long-term health of Poland’s democracy, NATO and of the U.S.-Polish partnership, it would be better for the president to stay home next week.
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