Trump's Powerful Speech in Poland

Trump's Powerful Speech in Poland
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President Trump landed in Poland to an enthusiastic welcome, and he responded in kind. In the best statement yet of his foreign policy, Trump showed a clear-eyed recognition of the threats from Russia and radical Islam, promised continued U.S. engagement in Europe, offered to support Poland against Moscow, and wrapped it all in a full-throated defense of Western civilization and its achievements.

It was everything the Poles had hoped for, and more. They remember, with a shudder, how President Obama tried to buy goodwill from the Russians in 2009 by reneging on the United States' promise to Poland to install an anti-missile defense system. Obama got nothing in return, and the Poles were left twisting.

They weren’t certain the new U.S. president would be any better. After all, he had proclaimed "America First" at every campaign stop, excoriated NATO as an out-of-date alliance filled with free-loaders, and focused on inward-looking policies instead of leading the free world. President Trump reiterated those themes in his inaugural address. He also raised concerns on his first trip to Europe, when he conspicuously failed to mention NATO's Article 5, which says an attack on one member is an attack on all. It is the heart of the alliance.

Slowly, President Trump turned. By the time he spoke in Warsaw's KrasiƄski Square on July 6, his pivot was complete. That alone would have made the speech important. But it was important for other reasons as well.

First, it was a robust, Reaganesque defense of the West and its achievements. Trump spoke clearly about the threat from radical Islam, as he often does, but this time he framed its defeat as part of a broader effort to uphold the achievements of Western civilization. Second, it was a clear statement that the Trump administration finally recognized the greatest threat to Central Europe: a brutal, aggressive Russian neighbor. Trump gave his statement historical depth, citing chapter and verse on Russia's history of dominating the region and suppressing its people. For Poland and its neighbors, the message was clear: the United States would stand with them as a firm ally. Third, Trump underscored America's continued commitment to NATO, specifically mentioning Article 5 and eliminating any ambiguity from his earlier omission.

Taken together, those three pillars not only rejected President Obama's tentativeness, they reversed Trump's own inward-looking nationalism on the campaign trail.

His defense of the West was eloquent, going beyond prosperity and free markets to emphasize the rule of law, free speech, religious tolerance, and a wide range of cultural achievements. He spoke of the West as "our community of nations." That, too, was an important signal to the Poles, who know that, for many in “old Europe,” Central Europe is a liminal region, not clearly part of the West and its civilization. That’s also why Trump’s list of Poland’s historic figures was more than a courteous nod. He was saying this country and its people are integral to the West and its civilization.

Trump offered a concise, powerful statement of western achievements and why they are worth defending. “We write symphonies,” he said. “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 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.”

Those achievements are now under withering attack -- from abroad by Islamists and autocrats in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang -- and from within by radical critics who think of Western history as one mainly of oppression, exploitation, slavery, sexism, racism, inequality, and colonialism.

When he turned to Russia, Trump showed no trace of his former warmth for Vladimir Putin. He recognized the importance of Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Crimea, pointing out Putin's unwillingness to accept Europe’s post-1991 settlement and is willing to overturn it by force.

Trump was brutally frank, implicitly linking Russia's past with its present. He remembered the Polish freedom fighters who died during their "desperate struggle to overthrow oppression." He recalled one of the darkest moments in Polish history, when they rose up in August 1944 to evict the Nazis, expecting help from the nearby Red Army. Instead, “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. But there is a courage and a strength deep in the Polish character that no one could destroy.”

Moscow’s cold calculation -- that dead freedom fighters would pose no threat to Soviet control -- was a harbinger of the Cold War to come. When the news reached the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Ambassador Averill Harriman and his second in command, George Kennan, lost hope for a peaceful alliance between the Soviets and Americans after World War II.

Trump depicted the same dark strains today when he urged "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."

This pivot to American leadership does not mean Trump will play nice with NATO partners, who have upped their defense expenditures but are still well below the 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) they promised. Trump’s repeated scolding of European free-riding irritates them. But who doubts he is speaking honestly and accurately?

The problem in getting NATO’s rich nations to pay their fair share is simple: their leaders believe America will defend them even if they will not defend themselves. After all, it is still worth it to America. They know, and we know it. Trump tried a bluff, saying, in effect, we won’t defend you if you won’t help. His calls for “America First” reinforced his position.

After the Warsaw speech, however, the bluff is over. We’re staying in NATO. Full stop. Trump will continue to hector Germany, France, Belgium, and the others about their financial commitments, but they know they can free ride. In Central Europe, though, the stakes are much more immediate. They want to prove to America they are worthy of a strong defense.

Trump’s speech in Warsaw said, “We hear you. We believe you. And we will work with you to defend something precious.”

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at and can be reached at

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