President Donald Trump’s address in Warsaw on Thursday made a clean break with the foreign policy philosophy of his predecessor — and translated the principle of “America first” into an inclusive doctrine of international affairs.
Many American observers were watching President Donald Trump’s speech in Warsaw on Thursday closely for signs of his approach towards Russia.
Trump delivered, criticizing Russia’s “destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere,” re-affirming a commitment to NATO’s Article 5, and promising to supply Eastern Europe with energy.
But the Warsaw speech was less about particular nations and more a call to arms in defense of western civilization as a whole.
Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. (Applause.) If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it? (Applause.) We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.
The contrast to President Barack Obama’s speech in Prague eight years ago could not have been more stark.
Obama received, and deserved, credit for traveling to the Czech Republic as a show of solidarity with the democracies of Eastern Europe, who were, and remain, increasingly worried about Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in its former satellites.
But Obama soon broke his promises on missile defense to the Czechs and Poles — in insulting fashion.
Obama violated his pledges in Prague in order to appease Russia, believing that if the U.S. showed the world it could be humble, and if it acknowledged the anxiety of other nations and civilizations facing the challenges of modernity, America’s rivals and enemies would reciprocate.
What attracted Obama to Prague, in retrospect, was not its symbolism as an outpost of democratic values, struggling against both fascism and communism, but rather the fact that its Velvet Revolution in 1989 had been non-violent.
That history, Obama said, “showed us that peaceful protest could shake the foundations of an empire … [and] that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon” — as if the West’s willingness to confront the Soviet Union through arms had played little role in communism’s defeat.
In his Prague speech, President Obama described an “interconnected” world, where the major challenges were “a global economy in crisis, a changing climate, the persistent dangers of old conflicts, new threats and the spread of catastrophic weapons.” These problems, Obama said, “demand that we listen to one another and work together; that we focus on our common interests, not on occasional differences; and that we reaffirm our shared values.” Obama added that “we have an obligation to our common prosperity and our common humanity to extend a hand to those emerging markets and impoverished people who are suffering the most.”
America would lead by giving of itself. Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, it would rule by abdicating. And military threats — such as North Korea, which was firing off missiles even then — would be resolved cooperatively, through the elusive international community: “All nations must come together to build a stronger, global regime,” he said, in reply to the rogue regime in Pyongyang.
Obama concluded by denouncing nationalism as “cowardly”:
When nations and peoples allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens. When we fail to pursue peace, then it stays forever beyond our grasp. We know the path when we choose fear over hope. To denounce or shrug off a call for cooperation is an easy but also a cowardly thing to do. That’s how wars begin. That’s where human progress ends.
Obama’s approach is often referred to as “liberal internationalism,” but a better description would be “socialist internationalism,” because Obama’s global goals depended on Americans limiting our own wealth and freedom, not on spreading liberty to distant lands.
For Obama, reaffirming the “shared values” of humanity often meant stooping to the lowest common denominator, even compromising freedom of expression to appease Islamic taboos.
After eight years of failure, Obama still believes in his approach. “I believe deeply that the liberal international order,” he said last week, “order based not just on military power or national affiliations, but on principles — the rule of law, human rights and individual freedoms — is the only choice.”
He was speaking, of all places, in Seoul, where the principles he purported to embrace only survive because of the massive presence of U.S. forces nearby.
Trump’s approach to the world is proudly nationalist — not just because he believes in “America first,” but because he acknowledges the sovereignty of other nations as well.
He declared in Warsaw: “As long as we know our history, we will know how to build our future. Americans know that a strong alliance of free, sovereign and independent nations is the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests. ”
In Trump’s vision, national identity does not preclude international cooperation. In fact, for Trump, strong nations are the prerequisite for the survival of liberty.
And for Trump, what makes nations strong is their internal adherence to liberal principles, in the classical sense:
We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression. (Applause.)
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. We challenge everything. We seek to know everything so that we can better know ourselves. (Applause.)
And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom. That is who we are. Those are the priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.
Trump stressed tradition and faith — but described them as incubators of liberty, rather than as obstacles to it. It is only when nations honor freedom and defend it, he suggested, that peace and prosperity prevail in the world.
What Trump did in Warsaw was lay out, more clearly than any leader has done in decades, a doctrine of “liberal nationalism” that is a sharp contrast with the “socialist internationalism” of Obama and the left.
Trump’s speech evoked some of the ideas of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Sharansky’s 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, inspired some of the foreign policy thinking in the George W. Bush administration (and came under criticism for that very reason.)
Sharansky’s 2008 sequel, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, won less attention. But it anticipated the case that Trump made in Warsaw on Thursday: that national and religious identities need not be divisive and destructive forces, but can provide the foundations for freedom and for resisting totalitarianism. Sharansky was not only thinking of the Soviet Union’s suppression of religion, but also the threat of radical Islam.
“The enemy’s will is strong because his identity is strong,” Sharansky wrote (original emphasis). “And we must match his strength of purpose with strong identities of our own.” He added: “Identity is regarded by an increasing number of intellectuals and public figures as an antagonist to freedom, a source of conflict, and as a threat to peace. … But I know it is false. Not only are strong identities vitally important to individuals who hope to lead a life of purpose, they are essential for the ability of a democratic nation to defend its cherished freedoms.”
Sharansky did not endorse what we know as identity politics, which is a force that detracts from the unity of society as a whole. He also acknowledged a tension, at times, between identity and freedom. But he argued that unless individuals, and the West in general, knew who they were, they would be easy prey for determined enemies.
And so Trump’s Warsaw speech was not, as Charles Krauthammer claimed Thursday on Fox News’ Special Report, a “root and branch” refutation of his Inaugural Address. Rather, it was the extrapolation of “America first” to an international level.
In January, Trump declared:
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.
We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
His speech in Poland extended those principles. The test of their success awaits.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.