How to Save Poland From Itself
Reagan intervened to rescue Poland from authoritarianism. Trump should do the same thing.
Twenty-eight years ago, the communist regime collapsed in Poland. And to this day, the Poles remain grateful to Americans, especially former President Ronald Reagan.
For decades, American presidents have understood that advancing democratic principles is in America’s national interest. A freer world is a safer and more prosperous world, which clearly benefits the United States. Reagan understood this better than most. And if President Donald Trump truly seeks to make America great, he would do well to follow the 40th president’s example when it comes to Poland.
Reagan’s role in ending communism extended far beyond rhetoric. Though Cold War history echoes with his famous cry for Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” the covert actions Reagan took to bring down the Iron Curtain are not widely known. In an episode that his first national security advisor called “one of the great secret alliances of all time” — and was retold in detail by Carl Bernstein — Reagan and the Polish-born Pope John Paul II conspired to pull Poland from the grasp of the Soviet Union. Working together, the CIA and Vatican provided the underground resistance with radios, fax machines, printing presses, and other communication devices.
Because of Reagan’s tireless efforts to free the Poles and set their nation on a path to democracy, he was posthumously awarded Poland’s highest honor for foreigners — the Order of the White Eagle — by President Lech Kaczynski in 2007.
Times have changed drastically since then. President Kaczynski was tragically killed in a plane crash in 2010, and his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, has become the most powerful politician in the country. Unlike his deceased brother, he is power-hungry, antisocial, and conspiratorial. Though he does not hold office (he is the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice Party), the prime minister and other government officials are personally loyal to him.
As a result, Kaczynski has been able to consolidate power by ordering his party to restrict the freedom of the press and undermine the independence of the judiciary. State-run media, which previously was free to criticize the government, has now become a mouthpiece for Kaczynski’s party. Kaczynski also plans to force many judges into retirement and to replace them with party apparatchiks.
Fearful of Poland’s drift toward authoritarianism, the European Union has for the first time ever begun a formal process to punish a member state via what is colloquially referred to as “triggering Article 7” of the Lisbon Treaty. Although any serious disciplinary action is unlikely, because Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is ideologically aligned with Kaczynski and can singlehandedly veto any sanctions, the political and economic future of Poland is facing its most serious threat in nearly three decades.
If Trump wishes to emulate Reagan, he should intervene. Poland continues to admire the U.S. and to take its policy pronouncements seriously. Trump should leverage this influence to help guide the country back toward a healthy democratic path. There are plenty of carrots and sticks that he could use.
Poland is desperate for visa-free travel to the United States. Through the Visa Waiver Program, citizens from 38 countries — most of them European — can travel to the U.S. for 90 days. Poland’s exclusion from this program causes jealousy and offense, particularly in light of the country’s fierce loyalty to the United States. (Indeed, Poland followed America into Iraq and Afghanistan, and it recently sent more troops to the latter.) There is even a Twitter account devoted entirely to advocating visa-free travel for Polish citizens. (It appears to have given up in November 2016.)
Another carrot involves the sale of Raytheon’s Patriot missile defense system to Poland. Last month, the Pentagon approved the sale, which came with a hefty price tag of $10.5 billion. The Poles celebrated the deal but suffered from sticker shock; they had hoped to spend only $7.6 billion. Trump could offer his skills as a businessman to talk Raytheon down.
If these carrots don’t work, there are sticks that might. In January 2017, Poland welcomed U.S. soldiers on its soil, which was quite rightly characterized by the Associated Press as “fulfilling a dream some Poles have had since the fall of communism in 1989.” A few months later, American-led NATO troops arrived in the town of Orzysz, roughly 35 miles from Poland’s border with Russia. If Poland does not reverse course on its democratic backsliding, Trump could threaten to remove these troops. A bigger threat would be to cancel the missile shield deal altogether.
Unfortunately, Trump is unlikely to tempt with carrots or threaten with sticks because he and Kaczynski see eye to eye. Both are nationalists. Both blame foreigners for their country’s problems. Both are skeptical of international organizations, including the European Union. When Trump visited Warsaw in July, the Polish government lavished him with praise and bussed in supporters. Trump seems unlikely to punish his adoring fans.
Advocating for democratic values does not appear to be a vital part of Trump’s foreign policy, but it should be. Indeed, if Trump aspires to Reaganesque greatness, he would be well advised to ponder, “What would the Gipper do?” And the Gipper would not stand idly by as a great European nation and American ally descended into authoritarianism.
It is in Poland’s strategic interest to be fully united — not just militarily and economically but also politically and philosophically — with the rest of the EU. Spurred on by threats from Russia, Europe is now finally moving forward with its plan to create a continental military. A strong Poland that can stand up to Russia will play a key role in defending Europe and is clearly in America’s national interest. Reagan understood that, and Trump should, too.
A statue of America’s 40th President was unveiled in Warsaw in November 2011. At the ceremony, the first democratically elected president of modern Poland, Lech Walesa, said, “Let us bow before Ronald Reagan,” reminiscing on his role in rescuing Poland from the Soviet Union. If Trump wishes to be revered the same way, he should now intervene to rescue Poland from itself. Doing so will keep America great.
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