Donald Trump received a rapturous welcome in Warsaw yesterday when he addressed crowds in front of the Warsaw Uprising monument and delivered an unequivocal commitment to uphold Article 5, the mutual defence clause of the NATO Treaty.
Having recently declined Theresa May’s invitation to visit the UK, on the grounds that he did not want to be exposed to large public protests, Trump was lured to Poland, according to local media, by the government’s promise of “cheering crowds”.
They came from all over Poland to Krasinskich Square
And the government delivered. People were bused in from all over Poland, many of them from rural areas where the government is more popular–many at the government’s expense. Unfortunately, the square in which the speech was delivered is quite small, so thousands of people who travelled hundreds of miles to see the US President never will. Most of the crowd was packed into side streets where they had to content themselves with watching the speech on large digital screens.
Down one of these side streets was a small band of protesters, held back by a police cordon, brandishing placards that questioned the president’s hawkishness as well as his intelligence.
Anti-Trump demonstrators near the Warsaw Uprising monument
The Polish conservative Law and Justice government broadly shares Trump’s views about immigration, EU bureaucracy, and freedom of the press, as well as his nationalist and populist tendencies and Christian faith. Its supporters vastly outnumbered its detractors on the day.
Trump began his speech by declaring, “America loves Poland, and America loves the Polish people!” From then on he was regularly interrupted by chants of “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”
He launched into his theme of “resistance”, by invoking Warsaw’s wartime struggle against the Nazi occupiers: “It is a profound honour to stand in this city by this monument to the Warsaw Uprising.”
He called first on the crowd to “fight like the Poles” to resist radical Islamic terrorism, “this menace which threatens all of humanity”. The Polish government is already on board, with the PM resisting Muslim immigrant quotas and describing the EU approach to terrorism as “the madness of the Brussels elite”.
Next to be resisted were “new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare”, followed by “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people”, a dig that might have been directed at either or both of US Democrats and the EU, adding, “The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”
There was a risk in Trump’s choice of the Warsaw Uprising monument as a backdrop: Warszawiaks only rose against the Nazis in 1944 because they were expecting the help of America and other allies. Apart from some food and arms drops, help never materialised. US President Roosevelt did not support British PM Churchill’s proposal to send more allied planes to help Warsaw, telegramming, ‘I do not consider it advantageous to the long-range general war prospect for me to join you in the proposed message to Uncle Joe’.
Far from helping the Poles, ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin kept his Russian tanks waiting on the east bank of the Vistula River until the Nazis had worn themselves out crushing the Polish resistance. Stalin’s tanks only crossed the river when the city was rubble and 200 000 of Warsaw’s one million inhabitants were dead. For most of the next 45 years, Poland was a colony of Soviet Russia.
Trump delayed the announcement Poles really wanted to hear, segueing from the theme of resistance into a list of the shared values Europeans seek to protect: “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 honour God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”
Of these, the theme of honouring God was developed at greatest length. Poland, like Trump’s support base, is overwhelmingly Christian, with 92.2% of Poles identifying as Roman Catholic on the 2011 Census, and the current government is very close to the Church. The Church and Pope John Paul II were rightly credited for their role in the overthrow of communism. Trump waxed lyrical about a mass in Victory Square in 1979 when “a million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: ‘We Want God.’”
Trump described as “incredibly successful” his meeting prior to the speech with the Polish President and leaders of the Three Seas Initiative. The Initiative is an alliance of 12 central and East European countries bounded by the Adriatic, Baltic and Black seas (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria), which formed in response to the energy and security threat posed by Russia. Russia provides most of the gas and oil in the region and has regularly reduced supply to member nations for political reasons.
Many of the Three Seas nations are former Soviet satellites and they are worried about what they see as Russia’s attempts to rebuild its Soviet empire, following the Russian invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine, and the perpetual “hybrid war” Russia wages against its eastern neighbours with weapons including political subversion and assassination, financial support for nationalist groups, fake news and cyber-attacks.
For the citizens of a country which borders Russia, Trump’s call for Russia to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes – including Syria and Iran” was like music.
Republican sentiments, Polish style
He went on to say, “[W]e are committed to securing your access to alternate sources of energy, so Poland and its neighbours are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy,” highlighting the opportunity the region represents for the American shale gas industry. Poland recently received its first LNG shipment from the US, and other countries in the region are interested in following suit. Later in the speech, Trump congratulated the Polish government on signing a deal to buy the US Patriot missile defence system—“ the best anywhere in the world”.
The crowd excused him a number of rhetorical stumbles, including the mistake of saluting Lech Wałęsa, the former electrician from Gdansk who led the overthrow of Poland’s Communist government, which began the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The incumbent government and its supporters despise Wałęsa, who was recently identified as a Communist informer. Wałęsa stood to acknowledge the President and received a smattering of applause from dignitaries which was quickly overwhelmed by boos from the rest of the crowd and chanting of his secret police codename, “Bolek”.
But what people like Maria, the uniformed civilian militia woman from the Ukrainian borderlands, had come to hear about, and what the Polish government really wanted from Trump today, more than gas or rockets, was an acknowledgement that he would honour Article 5 of the NATO treaty. Article 5 stipulates that if one NATO member is invaded, other NATO members will come to its aid.
Maria, from a town near the Ukrainian border, was one of many citizens’ militia volunteers who travelled to hear the President’s speech
In Brussels in May, Trump disappointed European leaders by failing to declare his commitment to Article 5, instead scolding NATO members who have consistently failed to spend the agreed minimum 2% of GDP on defence.
He excused his “tough stance” in May by saying, “As a result of this insistence, billions of dollars more have begun to pour into NATO. In fact, people are shocked. But billions and billions of dollars more are coming in from countries that, in my opinion, would not have been paying so quickly.”
The fact that Poland is one of the five countries that does spend more than 2% of GDP on defence drew lavish praise from Trump: “[W]e salute the Polish people for being one of the NATO countries that has actually achieved the benchmark for investment in our common defense. Thank you. Thank you, Poland. I must tell you, the example you set is truly magnificent”.
In the end, Trump gave an unreserved commitment to uphold Article 5: “we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment”. It wasn’t backed by the promise of extra troops stationed in Poland that some had hoped for, but Trump’s sincerity was evident in his closing plea to the crowd and to Europe: “let us fight like the Poles!” Most people left happy in the knowledge that Poland is united with America in rockets, gas, and God.