Just over a week has passed since President Trump offered, in Warsaw, a very particular defense of Western civilization. He praised Poland for its fight against Nazism and Soviet communism long ago, though he said little about the country’s success since 1989. He spoke of the things that hold the West together, including classical music and God, but made only glancing references to democracy. He also spoke of the threats to the West, alluding to dangers from the “South or the East” as well as from an “oppressive ideology,” radical Islam, that “seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.”
In the days since that speech, rapidly moving events in Warsaw have proved him wrong: As I write this, Poland is proving that the greatest threat to the West is not radical Islam. The greatest threat is not even external: It is internal. In Poland, a democratically elected but illiberal government has, in the past few days, escalated its attack on its own constitution, pushing new laws openly designed to create a politicized judiciary. And it feels emboldened to do so by the visit of the U.S. president.
The Polish government is led by Law and Justice, a nationalist ruling party with a slim parliamentary majority but no popular majority and no mandate to change the constitution. Nevertheless, since taking power, it has methodically subjugated a series of previously independent institutions: the public broadcaster, the prosecutor’s office and, most seriously, the Constitutional Tribunal. It has politicized the civil service. Its conspiratorial defense minister has eliminated much of the professional military leadership, too.
Last week, only days after Trump’s visit, it also passed a bill that will politicize the National Council of the Judiciary, the constitutional body that selects judges. Then it went further: Without public hearings, it introduced another bill that, if signed into law, would enable the justice minister, in breach of the constitution, to dismiss — immediately — all of the members of Poland’s highest court.
As in the past, the European Union will object. It’s conceivable that European institutions might even impose sanctions on Poland. Having been a pillar of European unity in the past — so much so that a former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, is now president of the European Council — Poland has become a source of real frustration and anger across the continent. If the West were united in this view, that might have some impact in Poland. But Trump’s visit to Warsaw sent the opposite message. The United States’ message has encouraged Law and Justice to isolate itself in Europe, safe in its belief that America has its back.
We can all imagine the future consequences of a supine, pro-government judiciary. It could enable the government to falsify elections, to evade corruption investigations, to prosecute opponents. And this will matter: For a quarter-century, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent triumph of Central European democracy were together perceived around the world as one of the great achievements of the West. For the past decade, Polish advice on democratic transition was sought around the world, too, from Burma to Tunisia to Ukraine. A Polish pivot away from democracy will undermine not only the unity of the West, but the broader appeal and the attraction of the West in those countries, too, allowing other “oppressive ideologies” from the “South or the East” to take its place.
When Trump was elected president, many people, myself included, wrote of the impact he might have on international democracy. Many worried that he would encourage populist, nationalist or illiberal parties in Europe and elsewhere. And now he has.
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