Foreign Policy, History, Politics, Russia, Security, Top Stories

America’s Real Pivot

Trump’s Warsaw speech marks an era defining the rebalancing of Euro-American relations

Donald Trump’s speech in Poland, for lack of better words, marks the beginning of a new era in global politics. Speeches change history. Speeches mark the direction a great power is going, a pivot, if you will. That word has become a catchphrase in the last decade, but it can be used for Trump’s Warsaw speech, which marked the solidifying ideological lines of our times. Trump is no great orator. He isn’t linguistically gifted, either due to age, or due to his New York-ish snappy rhetorical style. Notwithstanding those limitations, this speech will possibly go down in history as one of the most important speeches of his presidency.

Here’s the full speech in text, for the more academically minded. Everything about the speech was planned pitch perfect. The choice of the venue is Poland, a central European civilizational powerhouse, with immense historical importance. Poland has made cultural contributions and has a scientific legacy that can put any other European country to shame. In more recent times, Warsaw saw the rise of the Solidarity movement, which saw off collectivist domination of Eastern Europe. If any country can boast of flying the flag of nationalism and individualism with pride, as opposed to totalitarian tyranny, it would be Poland.

On the other hand, Poland is a counter balance, to liberal Western European values, with a more traditional Catholic Conservative position. The key point is that Trump’s position of U.S. foreign policy, is popular in Central and Eastern European countries. As the former British ambassador to Poland rightly summed up, average Europeans who were on the other side of the Iron Curtain, are skeptical of an elite driven, ultra-liberal, ideological, utopian borderless European Union, which is, in their view, ruining their individual national identity through forced social engineering. They fought tooth and nail to gain back their national identity from another utopian ideology a quarter century ago, not to surrender it back. Trump, odd messenger though he is, is giving them hope.

Trump’s speech highlighted these key aspirations, and struck the right notes, for his intended audience—the socially conservative. These people have been historically sandwiched between the geopolitical rivalry of two great powers (Germany and Russia) with radically different geostrategic interests and world views, and who have often been the first defense against invasion from the East, from the Mongol hordes to the Ottoman crusades. It’s easy for a pub-goer in posh liberal London or DC, to sit and guffaw at traditional rural Europeans. Those who have never been occupied in their lives or suffered foreign rule, or massacred in religious wars, have no idea why instinctively people might be suspicious of masses of outsiders.

Right at the start, Trump berated Russia for destabilizing Ukraine, which was a calculated move for two reasons. Firstly, Poland is extremely skeptical of Russia, given its history. Modern punditry never goes beyond the forging by force of the Warsaw Pact under Khrushchev, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact before that, which essentially signalled the start of the Second World War. But historically Polish-Russian rivalry goes beyond that. Secondly, Russian annexation of Crimea led to Ukrainian refugees in Poland. (Not to mention Poland is one of the five countries, out of all the NATO members, actually spending the required 2 percent for defence, unlike say Germany, touted by pundits as next in line for “liberal order leadership”).

But Trump was at his best in parts of his speech in his rousing call to defend Western civilization, and old fashioned nationalism. (These parts are likely to be universally panned in the media).

In a certain ironic way, he wanted to defend values, and wasn’t strictly talking of interests, as a normal Realist would. Instead, he was talking of defending Christian Conservative values, rather than the Liberal and postmodern values as we know have been the norm for the last twenty years. He identified that threats to the West do not come from just the outside, but from agents of change within the West. The people behind these threats are intent on hollowing it out, while the threats are either willfully ignored or not acknowledged by the liberal pundit class. This was the defining part of his speech: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive”, Trump thundered. “I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.”

Now, whatever one might think of Trump, these are words that the majority of Europeans, and not just in Eastern and Central Europe, have been dying to hear. This speech was also surprisingly similar to previous speeches delivered by Presidents Kennedy and Reagan. A continent besieged by the migration of millions of military aged men from completely alien cultures and traditions, ravaged by terror attacks—trucks plowing into kids in capital cities— and feeling betrayed by the trade-focused elites, simply cannot find a unifying message in support of the status quo.

And with that, in one speech, Trump managed to say what other leaders, especially in Western European and North American nations, have refused to say.

Liberal and neoconservative intelligentsia were both predictably hysterical. One self-declared feminist commentator at Daily Beast called Trump a snowflake, thereby completely missing the geopolitical balancing act (why it was a hint at slowly shifting US policy to form a counter balance to German led EU). Vox, did a, well…Vox. One former think tanker and advisor to Georgia’s Saakashvili went on a twitter rant, on how Trump is aligning with “illiberal” democracies, the keyword here being “illiberal”. If a democracy now needs to be a tool for spreading liberalism, conservatives are by definition, not democratic. Regardless of the fact that Trump’s position on immigration and intervention is actually reflective of the majority of the people in Europe and the United States, liberal ideologues are not happy because it is of course not their kind of democracy—the one they prefer.

What these pundits miss or willfully misconstrue or ignore is the real geopolitical significance of Trump’s Warsaw speech. For all Trump’s quirks, either he, or (more likely) his admin, realized a fundamental truth, which previous Presidents and administrations perhaps realized as well, but failed to work upon: American geostrategic interests are more closely aligned with Eastern Europe, than Western. Excepting the UK, every other nation in Western continental Europe is instinctively Anti-American and will never spend the necessary amount that’s needed for NATO, simply because their frontiers with the one great power that might pose a threat, Russia, have moved further East. It is illogical, therefore to expect Belgium and Luxembourg to spend 2 percent of their GDP on NATO, as they face essentially zero threat from a Russian invasion and land war. Not to mention, as George Friedman masterfully pointed out here, and I pointed out here, German and American interests with regards to EU, NATO and Russia are completely and irreconcilably opposed.

Curiously, Germany opposed American sanctions on Russia, proving that the economic interests of Germany still trump the geostrategic interest of the US. All this talk of German/Belgian/Swedish leadership can be tested, if the US, and UK (the second largest troop provider) decide to pull back troops from east of the Danube—a thought that will likely chill the spine of Eastern Europeans staring down Vladimir Putin. Hard military power is still the key independent variable of foreign policy. Seen in that light, and with increasing EU led coercive trade against US companies, it was prudent to find a partner whose interests and threat perceptions would be genuinely aligned to US interests.

Poland is a necessary conservative counterbalance within the German led liberal EU with open borders delusions, and Poland is also a stable military power, which can lead Eastern and Central Europe against Russia, under an American umbrella.

It was only logical, rational, and inevitable that this day would come.

Filed under: Foreign Policy, History, Politics, Russia, Security, Top Stories

by

Sumantra Maitra is Doctoral Researcher on Great power politics and Neo-Realism, with a special focus on Russia at the University of Nottingham, UK. He writes for War on the Rocks, The National Interest, and is a regular analyst for The Centre for Land Warfare Studies, India. He holds a Masters of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a Masters of International Studies, both with distinctions.

12 Comments

  1. The article is insightful and I’ve shared it. However, I have one bone to pick with it — not even an author as brilliant as this will give the guy credit: “For all Trump’s quirks, either he, or (more likely) his admin, realized a fundamental truth …” It’s TRUMP, folks! I tire of the begrudging nature of praise extended to the President. The first paragraph is similarly problematic. I’ll take Trumps style of oration any day over his predecessor’s “Uh” in between, uh, every, uh, word.

    • DAN says

      You have to admit, though, that this soaring oratory hardly matches Trump’s ordinary rhetoric. This speech (as well as the similar inauguration speed) is widely credited to speechwriter Stephen Miller. And every president uses speechwriters. On the other hand, to Trump’s credit, he recognizes a good speech and knows when to deliver it.

    • EK says

      You’re absolutely right; it is Trump. He is managing a very difficult coalition under very difficult circumstances very well.

      The historical analogy I keep coming back to is Lincoln in 1861. Much of the press and about half of the electorate reviled him as well.

      He is doing much better than ever dared to hope.

  2. DAN says

    I always look forward to Quillette emails, but they come through (at least in Gmail) with the sender listed as “WordPress.com” rather than Quillette, so I have to be careful not to include them in my mass archiving. I’m sure this is fixable.

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  4. charlescrawford says

    Thanks for mentioning my piece, over at CNN of all places.

    I rather disagree with your general conclusion that it is some sort of wise US plan to play up CEE against Russia, or that the speech aimed at that

    Yes, Poland is paying its 2% into the NATO pot. But what actually makes a difference that matters if the USA wants active military support from anywhere in Europe. 2% of not so much, or 1.9% of much much more?

    https://www.google.co.uk/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&idim=country:RUS:IND:DEU&hl=en&dl=en#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_cd&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:DEU:POL&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en&ind=false

    • Thanks for reading. I never said that US planned specifically to play up Poland against Russia and Germany. I hinted that structural forces, has led to this point where America finds itself aligned with East Europe, especially Poland, as opposed to both Russia and Germany. Poland is a natural strong counterbalance, for US to geostrategically balance Russia, as well as culturally balance a German led EU from within.
      Recently, Friedman also made the exact claim, that I wrote in my paper linked above. Here’s a short video.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Voqht3i3xtg

  5. Lup says

    The speech spends a lot of time comparing Nazism to radical Islamic terrorism. That’s a pretty fraught comparison. Nazi fascism killed millions and destroyed an entire continent. Radical Islamic terrorism doesn’t compare. So why would Trump make such a fraught comparison, using the Warsaw Uprising as a perverse, backwards analogy for today’s ‘war on terror’?

    As you note, it’s about promoting nationalism. Polish nationalism, but more broadly, European nationalism.

    Now, if the 20th century teaches us anything, it’s to be extremely wary of nationalism, especially in a time of economic anxiety. This is how the Nazis rose to power in 1933. They told a story about the humiliated German, whose ‘superior’ culture was ‘rotting from within’ by the Other (Jews and ‘undesirables’). The German needed to unite and defend their ‘civilization’ and ‘values.’ Their ‘race’ was facing an existential threat. Pretty soon, it was onto genocide.

    Today, the West is hellbent on convincing itself that it is facing an outsized, existential threat from the Muslim Other. But what is the nature of this threat? What is its magnitude and context? Does the threat have anything to do with the US (and the West) carrying out its (exploitative, oppressive) ‘geostrategic interests’? Might the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, proxy wars in Syria and Libya, the death of hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians, and the support of and weapons sales to oppressive autocracies have anything to do with this?

    Or do we think that’s all irrelevant? Just a separate issue.

    • radrave says

      The short answer to your last paragraph is an obvious No. Stop daydreaming and just listen to what the mobster religionists say, open your eyes to history, and then compare what is happening in Turkey, right now, before your very eyes. We have no need to import Muslims en mass; I question the patriotism of any so-called liberal who insists we need more arch religious conservatives who are clearly no refugees but rather migrants.

      • Lup says

        But, how do you justify creating refugees, through war or the support of oppressive regimes, while not having a plan for those refugees? That’s a moral nightmare.

        And how, further, do you justify the West profiting off cheap oil and weapons sales that do not benefit those people but rather, oppress them even more? Global capitalism connects us all and makes us a significant actor in people wanting to immigrate.

  6. Aldo Matteucci says

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    Cargo cults often develop during a combination of crises. Under conditions of social stress, such a movement may form under the leadership of a charismatic figure. This leader may have a “vision” (or “myth-dream”) of the future, often linked to an ancestral efficacy (“mana”) thought to be recoverable by a return to traditional morality.[1][3] This leader may characterize the present state as a dismantling of the old social order, meaning that social hierarchy and ego boundaries have been broken down.[4]

  7. Pingback: Poland, Trump, and Hungary: This is what illiberal democracy looks like - Bombs and Dollars

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