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Donald Trump’s highly disturbing Warsaw speech

President Donald Trump addresses a crowd in Poland on July 6, 2017.

US President Trump kicked off his trip to Europe to attend the G20 summit with a stopover yesterday in Poland.

That was neither wrong nor inappropriate.  Since he became US President Donald Trump has been short of friends in Europe, with the public of all the big European states – Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain – all to a greater or lesser degree hostile to him, and with his personal relations with the G20 summit’s host – Chancellor Merkel of Germany – already extremely difficult.

It is in no way surprising therefore that President Trump should precede what is likely to be for him a difficult G20 summit – his first as US President – with a trip to Poland, the one relatively big European state where he can be sure of a warm reception.

However if President Trump’s trip to Poland was neither wrong nor inappropriate the same unfortunately cannot be said about the speech he gave there.

A word of warning at this point is in order.  The speech – like all the other pre-prepared speeches US Presidents make – would have been written for Donald Trump by a speech writer.  It is not certain that it fully reflects his views.   That it perhaps does not may be indicated by the interesting fact that the White House website has chosen to publish only highlights from it.  Strikingly, the anti-Russian passages and the words of support for Ukraine are excluded.

Nonetheless Trump must have read the speech in advance, and must have approved it, and the fact that he chose to deliver it is disturbing enough.

Firstly something must be said about those passages in the speech that touched on Poland’s recent history with Russia.

In 1920, in the Miracle of Vistula, Poland stopped the Soviet army bent on European conquest. Then, 19 years later in 1939, you were invaded yet again, this time by Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east. That’s trouble. That’s tough.

Under a double occupation the Polish people endured evils beyond description: the Katyn forest massacre, the occupations, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Ghetto and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the destruction of this beautiful capital city, and the deaths of nearly one in five Polish people. A vibrant Jewish population — the largest in Europe — was reduced to almost nothing after the Nazis systematically murdered millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens, along with countless others, during that brutal occupation.

In the summer of 1944, the Nazi and Soviet armies were preparing for a terrible and bloody battle right here in Warsaw. Amid that hell on earth, the citizens of Poland rose up to defend their homeland. I am deeply honored to be joined on stage today by veterans and heroes of the Warsaw Uprising……

From the other side of the river, the Soviet armed forces stopped and waited. They watched as the Nazis ruthlessly destroyed the city, viciously murdering men, women, and children. They tried to destroy this nation forever by shattering its will to survive.

Donald Trump is almost certainly unaware of the extent to which the historical narrative that he has set out here is contested.  Few historians today would agree that in 1920 “Poland stopped the Soviet army bent on European conquest”.  Most Russians would say that the Russian-Polish war of 1919 to 1920 was triggered by Poland’s aggression against Soviet Russia, with brought the Red Army to the gates of Warsaw as the result of a counter-attack.  The idea that Soviet Russia in 1920 – wracked by war, Revolution, social breakdown and famine – was in any condition to conquer Europe is absurd.

However it is the subsequent passages which appear to equate the USSR with Nazi Germany which are by far the most disturbing and contentious.

The vast majority of Russians and many historians would dispute Donald Trump’s description both of the events of 1939 and of the 1944 Warsaw rising.  Vladimir Putin is on record as taking strong issue with the description of the events 1939 that appears in these words.

What cannot be disputed however is that the Soviet liberation of Poland in 1944 and 1945 brought the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews in Poland to an end and led to the restoration of the Polish state, albeit in a Communist form allied to the USSR.  By contrast Nazi Germany aimed for nothing less than the physical destruction of all the Jews of Europe, of the Polish state and ultimately of the Polish nation as well.

This is a vital distinction which makes any attempt to equate the USSR with Nazi Germany wholly wrong and inappropriate.

The trouble is that there are strong forces within Poland, including especially within the currently governing Law and Justice Party, which deny this, and which insist in defiance of historical fact that such an equation of Nazi Germany and the USSR is appropriate.  Moreover this goes along with a particular narrative of Polish victimhood (or “martyrdom”) and a wildly over ambitious foreign policy reviving the so-called Promethean policy associated with Poland’s pre-war leader Josef Pilsudski, which aimed at securing Poland’s place in eastern Europe by weakening Russia by drawing the republics of the USSR away from Russia and into a constellation around Poland.

This was a disastrous policy before 1939, setting Poland and Russia against each other, and making impossible their joint alliance against the common enemy Nazi Germany, and it is a disastrous policy today, setting Poland and Russia once again against each other, and committing Poland to an anti-Russian policy which is far beyond its strength.

The proper policy for Poland, and the one which should be urged on it by its friends, is to seek a rapprochement with Russia, not conflict with it.  At no point in recent history have conditions for that been objectively better than they are now, but instead of encouraging Poland to take this course Donald Trump has just done the opposite.  In the process he has also given further encouragement to Poland’s dangerous entanglement in Ukraine.

However other comments in Donald Trump’s speech are more disturbing still.  Consider for example these passages

As the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?….

These words – with the pointed reference to “protecting our borders” – are Donald Trump’s slap both at his liberal Democratic opponents in the US who have obstructed his travel ban Executive Orders and his border wall, and at Angela Merkel, who in a moment of folly back in 2016 threw open without any advance consultation the EU’s borders to refugee flows from Syria and the Middle East.

These comments were however also unwise.

Firstly they align the US with Poland’s Law and Justice Party and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński in an internal EU conflict with Chancellor Merkel and Germany.  In this conflict Kaczyński and the Law and Justice Party have resisted Merkel’s and Germany’s demand that Poland ‘shoulder the burden’ by taking more refugees.  Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this question, for Trump to take sides in an internal EU quarrel is bound to anger the Germans, with whom his relations are already fraught.

Beyond this however there is the unmistakeable and frankly disturbing ‘clash of civilisations’ aspect to this rhetoric.  Consider for examples these further words

We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have. The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?

We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive (Applause)….

Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies……

We write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.

We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.

We empower women as pillars of our society and of our success. We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives. And we debate everything. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves.

And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.

What we have, what we inherited from our — and you know this better than anybody, and you see it today with this incredible group of people — what we’ve inherited from our ancestors has never existed to this extent before. And if we fail to preserve it, it will never, ever exist again. So we cannot fail.

(bold italics added)

This is inappropriately apocalyptic language, equating civilisation with the West and talking as if the physical survival of “civilisation” depends not on wise policies but on the maintenance of traditional European social mores.  At a time when the rising powers in the world – first and foremost China – are not European this is an impossibly narrow outlook, more likely to isolate the US from the world community rather giving the US the means to lead it.

In addition one has to wonder who Donald Trump was referring to when he spoke of the forces “from the South or the East” who supposedly threaten the West?

Presumably the “forces from the South” are Jihadi terrorism about which in his speech Trump had much to say.  But who are “the forces from the East”?  Perhaps this too was intended to refer to Jihadi terrorism, or perhaps the country Trump had in mind was North Korea.  However an audience in Warsaw assembled by the nationalist Law and Justice Party will unquestionably read into the words “the forces from the East” a reference to Russia.

On the subject of Russia, it is striking how Trump’s references to Russia in the speech are fitted into this “clash of civilisations” rhetoric

Today, the West is also confronted by the powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests. To meet new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare, we must adapt our alliance to compete effectively in new ways and on all new battlefields.

We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes — including Syria and Iran — and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.

Obviously some of this language (the reference to cyber warfare in particular) was intended to provide Trump with political cover prior to his meeting today with Putin.  However the words “join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself” straightforwardly place Russia outside that “community of responsible nations” and make Russia joining that “community of responsible nations” conditional upon Russia dropping its friendship with Syria and Iran.

Not only is that never going to happen, but it fundamentally misunderstands Russia and its foreign policy.   Though it is now a commonplace that Russia is a conservative society, the conservatism of Russia’s foreign policy is rooted in realism, international law, concern for the balance of power, and respect for state sovereignty.  “Clash of civilisation” thinking has no part in it, and the Russians emphatically reject it.

In no sense will they let themselves be enlisted as a foot soldier in some great apocalyptic struggle for the “defence of Western civilisation” led by the US.  If Trump’s often expressed wish for good relations with Russia is based on a hope that he can recruit Russia to such a struggle then that hope is forlorn.

It is to be sincerely hoped that this fiery rhetoric is not intended seriously, and was meant purely to please Donald Trump’s Polish hosts.  Whenever Trump speaks about foreign policy unscripted – for example in interviews – he comes across as intelligent, realistic and transactional.  That is the Donald Trump who appointed the arch realist Rex Tillerson to be his Secretary of State, and hopefully it is the real Donald Trump.

The Donald Trump who spoke in Warsaw was however a radically different creature: ideological, apocalyptic, confrontational, talking the language of certain fringe elements of the US extreme right rather than the language of realism with which he is more often associated.  If these opinions are Donald Trump’s own then hopes of a rapprochement with Russia will be stillborn, and international tension will increase further, probably exponentially.

Whether Donald Trump really does hold these opinions remains to be seen.  In the meantime the speech has already done harm, sharpening divisions within the EU between Poland and Germany – two of the US’s friends – and further exacerbating the already extremely difficult relationship between Poland and Russia, in a way that threatens to involve the US in their quarrel.

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