It was supremely ironic. President Trump stood in front of a monument to the Warsaw uprising, the Polish underground resistance army’s catastrophic, failed attempt to overthrow Nazi rule at the end of World War II. The uprising was a national tragedy: 200,000 of the country’s best-educated and most patriotic young people, the men and women who would have been its leaders, died. The capital was burned to the ground. And in large part, the disaster was caused by the fact that none of the other allies — not Britain, obviously not the Soviet Union, and certainly not the United States — came to Poland’s defense, even though the resistance army believed they would.
In front of this monument to unfulfilled expectations of distant allies, this memorial to the horrors of a Europe riven by brutal nationalist struggle, Trump offered his support to a Polish government that is both the most nationalist in Europe and now the most isolated in Europe. He made lengthy remarks about the uprising, complete with the now familiar references to “the blood of patriots,” and at the same time offered his support for Poland in carefully delineated terms.
In essence, Trump called on Poland to help the United States in the struggle of Western civilization against Islamist terrorism — though at times he made it sound as if the real enemy were cultural, not political. He didn’t talk about the democratic values that would unite the West in this struggle, but of the ties of “God” and “family,” language designed to appeal to nationalist-Catholic Poles, but not to the whole country. He made only one allusion to Russia, speaking of its “destabilization” of Ukraine (in fact it was an invasion) even though Russia poses a far greater threat to Poland than Islamist terrorism. Russia will hold major military exercises on Poland’s borders in September. A previous version of these exercises included a simulated nuclear attack.
In failing to focus on Russia, Trump broke with precedent. By comparison, President Barack Obama, at a speech in Estonia in 2014, declared clearly that “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine” was a threat to “a Europe that is whole and free and at peace.” Trump also broke with precedent, but in a different way: He barely mentioned democracy. And he alluded mostly negatively to the rest of Europe, speaking (misleadlingly) of the “billions and billions of dollars” that Europeans are now supposedly paying into NATO, as if it were a protection racket. When he lauded the military equipment and the gas that the United States will sell to Poland, he joked about needing to charge more.
He did — after refusing to do so on his last trip — finally refer to Article 5, the part of the NATO treaty that says an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all. But earlier, at a news conference, he told journalists that he had not discussed military “guarantees” with Poland’s president. And after his speech, the American president known for his mendaciousness and untrustworthiness left Warsaw for his meeting with the Russian president.
In truth, Poland, like its neighbors, will only ever be “safe” from Russian military intervention or political interference if the country is deeply integrated into a strong, cohesive, unified and democratic Europe. It will only be safe if its own democratic institutions are strong enough to withstand outside meddling. But right now, Poland is run by a political party, Law and Justice, that has launched an assault on the country’s democratic institutions and has, by doing so, managed to alienate all of its most important European neighbors.
The free press is under attack in Poland, along with the independence of the judiciary. The current defense minister has even begun to undermine the professionalism and apolitical character of the military. These policies have alienated Poland from the rest of Europe and also led to a deep schism inside the country. The crowd at Trump’s speech, supporters bused in from around the country, booed and shouted insults at opposition politicians, among them Lech Walesa, the anti-communist hero, despite the fact that this was a solemn, national, military and diplomatic occasion.
In giving such a speech in such a place, Trump has confirmed Poland’s nationalist government in its isolationist and anti-democratic course. He also encouraged Poles to be “brave,” as in the past, when they fought alone, and encouraged them once again to place their faith in distant allies. Let’s hope that faith never has to be tested.