Trump in Poland: A Clash of Civilizations Battle Cry, or, Reality TV as Policy

In the a.m., he offered Poland ‘no guarantees’ against Russian aggression. In the p.m., he endorsed NATO’s common-defense clause. Will the real Donald Trump please stand up?

Kancelaria Prezydenta RP/Krzysztof Sitkowski/Handout via REUTERS

WARSAW—Early Thursday, the big hope behind bringing American President Donald Trump to Warsaw seemed to have been crushed by Trump himself, when the president was unwilling to state publicly the U.S. security guarantees to Poland. But that was the unscripted Trump, the evil Mr. Hyde full of suggestive and sinister ambiguities.

Then, in a soaring speech only hours later, worthy Dr. Jekyll appeared—Trump triumphant—holding up Poland as a paradigm of courage and of Western values, whatever the threat, as he issued a compelling battle cry in the clash of civilizations.

That the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism” is not in fact a threat to civilization unless the civilized forget their own liberal values was not part of his discourse, but credit where it’s due: The speech was brilliantly written for the Polish audience and the Polish-American voters, and well delivered behind a bulletproof shield and two teleprompters in front of a bussed-in crowd.

During the morning press conference with with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump’s remarks were uncharacteristically measured. He praised Poland effusively, thanked the “so fantastic” and “majestic” Polish people and noted that whenever the U.S needed Poland, Poland was there for it.

But at that initial presser, Trump visibly disappointed the hosts by not issuing a guarantee that U.S. forces in Poland, currently some 5,000 troops, will stay long-term. He said American troops had already been in Poland for a long time. The reality is that U.S. forces have been in Poland for just several months. And he then went on to say that U.S. troops will continue to be there—but explicitly said there was “no discussion of guarantees.”

Somewhat vaguely, he told the press that the U.S. is committed to maintaining peace and security in Central and Eastern Europe and is “working with Poland in response to Russia’s actions and destabilizing behavior.” He blew smoke when asked to say specifically whether he believed Russia had fiddled the U.S. elections, saying it might not be the only country that did so, trying to blame President Barack Obama for not taking stronger action (when Trump has as far as we know taken none), and dissed the U.S. intelligence community once again, harking back to its screw-ups before the Iraq War. The overall impression: He still has a soft spot for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The refusal to talk about “guarantees” in the morning came after extensive attempts to impress the American president, which included bussing in supporters, shutting down parts of the city, and delivering high praise from the likes of Polish Minister of Internal Affairs Mariusz Błaszczak, who said that Trump is a figure of Reagan’s historical stature.

Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s current minister of foreign affairs, said it was very significant that Trump chose to visit Poland so early in his presidency, believing it meant an elevated position for the country. The minister quoted Casablanca, saying “it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

But it was really more like a reality-TV show, where contestants are led to believe they’ve failed, before, wow, they discover they’ve won.

Given the lack of “guarantees,” the head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, Paweł Soloch, tried to put on a brave face, saying that “the facts speak for themselves” and that Article 5 of NATO still applies. He also cited the preliminary deal on the Patriot missile-defense system made on the day of the visit. This is something which Poland has long sought—and to which Russia strongly objects.

Expanding on Soloch’s words, Mateusz Morawiecki, the deputy PM and minister of development, said U.S. military support for Poland already exceeds expectations.

“What seemed impossible just two years ago is now a fact,” said Morawiecki, “the number of troops is increasing by the month. This is not some symbolic deployment, but a serious battalion group.”

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Morawiecki said he hopes Poland will follow the examples of South Korea and Turkey, where the U.S. military presence has brought along American business investments. The deputy prime minister, who just last year described the choice of U.S. voters as the choice between “cholera and the plague,” referring to Hillary Clinton and Trump, now said he was delighted by Trump and his attitude. He’s especially happy about the “very strong” endorsement by Trump of the Three Seas Initiative, a big regional project involving former Soviet satellites and a pet project of the Polish government, whose major goal is to release the region from its dependency on Russian gas.

“We are entering a new era, and thanks to liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports, countries like Poland can offer a real alternative to Russian resources,” said Morawiecki.

Trump indicated he is extremely eager to supply the region with U.S. natural gas, telling Duda they could finish the negotiations in 15 minutes, if he liked. The LNG from the U.S. would be cheaper than Russian gas in the short term, but could be more expensive in the long term. Trump joked the price might go up, because after all he’s a “tough negotiator.”

Then, later in the day, in front of a monument dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, Trump took to the stage to chants of “Donald, Donald!” and “USA! USA!” from adoring Polish supporters.

It may well have been his best speech in office.

He began by heaping praise onto Poland for its national spirit and pride, as he spoke glowingly of Poland’s dignity in the face of war. The speech began slowly, full of praise for Poland’s place in Europe, until Trump got on to the topic of terrorism. Trump, playing to the great and devout Catholic population, said “while we will always welcome new citizens, our border will always be closed to terrorism,” and “we are fighting hard against radical Islamic terrorism, and we will prevail.”

The message will be sure to reverberate inside the country, which is led by a vehemently anti-immigrant party, Law and Justice (PiS).

Trump’s speech also touched on organized crime and cyberwar before he urged Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in neighboring Ukraine and elsewhere. Finally, the president mentioned a new threat, claiming that “on both sides of the Atlantic, citizens are confronted by the steady creep of government bureaucracy,” going on to say that “the West became great not because of paperwork and regulations, but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”

As Trump talked about strengthening Europe by ensuring that all members of NATO met their financial obligations—a favorite theme, as if they were paying dues at a club—the self-declared artist of the deal could look back on the one sealed for Poland to purchase the U.S. Patriot missile defense system for roughly $7.6 billion.

And then—the climax of the clash of civilizations reality show: President Donald Trump chose Warsaw as the place he would finally, firmly embrace Article 5 of NATO guaranteeing, in fact, that an attack on any one member would be treated as an attack on all, and thus committing the U.S. unequivocally to stand up not only against “radical Islamic terrorism” but—a much bigger preoccupation in this part of the world—rampant Russian expansionism.

Naturally, the crowd went wild.