During his first official speech on foreign soil, President Trump presented himself as someone whose foreign policy expertise reaches far beyond a collection of Twitter jabs.
Of course, the Polish government may not feel completely satisfied. For instance, there was no clear mention of specific security guarantees or a permanent U.S. military presence. Let us add that relocating some of the bases from Germany would be a move that the Polish authorities would welcome with enthusiasm. What’s more, the restructured bases could be less costly for the American taxpayers than the huge cold-war complexes that are now maintained in many Western-European states.
Nevertheless, in general, Trump’s speech met the short-term expectations of the Polish people and displayed a considerable diplomatic acumen. He skillfully recognized the Polish penchant for historical reference and laced his speech with mentions of the country’s turbulent history. But there was also some real meat on the historical bones of his oration.
President Trump clearly stated that the United States stands “firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment,” which was greeted by loud applause from the crowd gathered at Krasińskis’ Square in Warsaw. Trump also identified Russia as a clear threat and urged it to “cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes—including Syria and Iran.” He also commended Poland’s military cooperation with the United States and saluted the country for “being one of the NATO countries that has actually achieved the benchmark for investment in our common defense.”
In general, the speech mentioned three main threats to West’s stability: international terrorism, Russia, and “government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.” That third element in the Polish context meant something far more than it would in the United States. For an American ear, this would be merely an element of traditional conservative or libertarian rhetoric. Right now in Europe, however, this seems to be a reference to the bureaucratic model of integration that takes place above the heads of citizens.
Recently, for instance, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed creating a super-state out of the Eurozone—an idea shunned by Poland and other East Central European countries. If such a proposal were to be enacted, the people of these states know their countries would become second-class EU members or be eventually forced to accept a political solution that has very little public support.
The impression that Trump was making in reference to the European Union was further reinforced when he mentioned, “Americans know that a strong alliance of free, sovereign and independent nations is the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests.” In Poland, this was seen as clear support of the Polish vision of EU as a community of states rather than a structure that is evolving into a super-state. The president also voiced support for regional cooperation initiative of the “Three Seas” that includes 11 post-Soviet countries and Austria, all located in the belt from the Baltic to the Adriatic.
Trump’s diplomatic acumen was visible in the fact that all those suggestions and declarations were made without directly attacking or criticizing anyone in Europe, apart from Russia. The words “European Union” were never mentioned in a critical context. This allows the president to have more flexibility when negotiating with Germany and France and at the G-20 summit.
It also shows that Trump does not see it as his responsibility to interfere directly in the internal affairs of the EU. Nevertheless, being a member of the Western family of free countries, he feels entitled to voice a general opinion. This is well understood in Warsaw and appreciated since the country itself prefers difficult negotiations with the Franco-German alliance to a hostile, confrontational style.
At the same time, it is worth mentioning that President Trump made one of his more politically conservative speeches. Apart from the reference to freedom from bureaucratic control he also made a clear and strong reference to God and Polish Christian heritage. The word “God,” in fact, appeared in the speech 10 times. This might lead to some discomfort among the European secular Left, but was generally well-received in Poland.
In general, the speech was quite optimistic and focused more on building bridges than creating divisions. Even President Trump’s criticism of EU bureaucracy was couched in conciliatory remarks such as, “A strong Poland is a blessing to the nations of Europe, and they know that. A strong Europe is a blessing to the West and to the world.”
In the past year we have seen the surprising birth of Donald Trump as a politician. With this speech we might well have seen the birth of Trump as a diplomat.