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Image: White House

By Lukasz Grabowski

On September 18th, Polish President Andrzej Duda visited the White House, where he joined Donald Trump to sign a strategic partnership pact between the US and Poland “to boost defense, energy, trade and security ties.” On paper, the meeting affirmed an important partnership amidst a breakdown of diplomatic relations across the liberal order. Yet, a picture of Duda and Trump taken during the signing – Duda slouched over the paperwork besides a comfortably-seated Trump – painfully captures the flimsiness of foreign policy conducted between two inward-looking nationalists.

Months ago, when asked about his “biggest foe globally” in a CBS interview, Donald Trump’s first response was the European Union. He also added Russia and China to that list, but tellingly clarified that it “doesn’t mean they are bad. […] It means that they are competitive.” European Council President Donald Tusk (himself a former Prime Minister of Poland) took to Twitter to respond, insisting that the US and EU are “best friends.” The exchange, one of many between the current cadre of populist leaders and their thwarted liberal counterparts, speaks to the clash of two foreign policy worldviews. But despite the familiar framing, it is not the classic struggle between realism and liberal idealism.

Populists like Trump and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party have made nationalism into its own foreign policy program, offering a distinct lens through which to understand state behavior in the international arena. At times, this program hides behind realist rhetoric and business-as-usual photo-ops to feign coherence – but ultimately, it fails as a legitimate counterweight to liberal internationalism, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Beneath the makeshift theatrics, the US and Poland exemplify the frantic and emotional vision of nationalist foreign policy, both in their independent platforms and as supposed partners on the global stage. Such programs are net detriments to each state, and have concerning implications for the security and stability of the global community. Unlike the great-power politics of the Cold War or contemporary liberalism (embodied by the European Union), populist nationalism spills over from domestic projects of nationcraft. And when the nationalist virus infects foreign policy, the resultant policies trigger aftershocks at the domestic level, fueling a cycle of disruption, uncertainty, and fear. In other words, far from being a fleshed-out strategic agenda, nationalist foreign policy is merely an extension of the chaotic, opportunistic whims that have brought populists to power across the Western world.

Poland, steered by de facto leader Jarosław Kaczyński and PiS, showcases the deep-rooted flaws of nationalist policy when applied to international issues. Behind Duda’s congenial public appearances, recently appointed Minister of Defense Mariusz Błaszczak has brought a ruthless brand of politics to foreign affairs. In February, he committed to a comprehensive modernization of Poland’s military arsenal, which included the formation of a military agency that would be wholly responsible for military spending. And instead of tending to diplomatic relations with the EU, NATO, and Western European powers, Błaszczak has put all his eggs in the Poland-US partnership, a position he has asserted time and time again. Following Trump’s visit to Poland last year, Błaszczak commented: “Poland is a safe country, [that] Poland is a welcoming country – in Germany there are problems…real problems related to unrest in the streets.”

Nationalist political ends drive Błaszczak’s project and a warm reception for the visiting Trump was part of that effort. He speaks in hyper-patriotic wartime lingo – “We will maintain high morale so that soldiers will be convinced of the honor of serving in the Polish Army” – a longtime populist tactic. But his fixation on the American partnership is a strategic blunder for Poland. Any long-term plan involving Trump is a risky move due to the President’s impulsive whims and disregard for alliances. Moreover, by alienating key allies like Germany and defying the EU’s big stick in the face of a domestic crackdown on media and the judiciary, Poland is disrupting its place in the West-East balance of power. Realist Review contributor Jan Gerber succinctly sums up the stakes: “[O]ne thing remains clear – the age-old truth that Poland, no matter its internal politics, must not stand against both Berlin and Moscow, or it may not stand at all.”

The nationalist capture of Polish foreign policy has led it to doing exactly that. PiS posturing may work for a time as a dog whistle and mobilizer of voters, but it is not a legitimate national security strategy. PiS has made the country’s foreign policy program a worrisome contradiction: Poland is cozying up to Trump – who has repeatedly shown admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin – while alienating geopolitical allies and institutions that are genuinely concerned with Russian aggression (such as their destabilizing military exercises and cyber-attacks).

On this side of the Atlantic, similar paradoxes abound. Trump’s petty, transactional handling of Mexico, Germany, and other decades-old allies exemplifies the dysfunctionality of politics guided by post-truth nationalism. In fact, the Trump administration’s foreign policy is perhaps the most obvious example of nationalism displacing both the alliance-based liberalism and the interventionist neo-conservatism of previous administrations – which, in turn, are sometimes indistinguishable.

His reaction to Russian intervention in American elections has been tepid at best; self-serving and cowardly at worst. He stoked the flames of the Israel-Palestine conflict by moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem to score points with his political base. He has threatened allies new and old. As The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman puts it, “everyone is a frenemy: a selfish competitor, be it Germany or Russia or North Korea, to be coerced or courted depending on what Trump believes suits American interests at any given moment.”

The danger of Trump’s impulsive approach to politics is most starkly seen in foreign affairs because national security depends on years-long planning, calculated strategy, and measured deliberation. Day-to-day decisions should be flexible, but must ultimately defer to a broader policy arc envisioned by an array of makers. Nationalist policy, on the other hand, thrives on incessant upheaval, which is why even a seemingly firm alliance like that of Poland and the US is always on thin ice.

Undergirding the partnership is a series of microaggressions, which highlight how compromised global alliances are under populist governments. For instance, in February, Duda signed a PiS backed “Polish-death-camps amendment” that effectively criminalized claims of Polish complicity in Nazi crimes, despite well-chronicled instances (like the 1941 Jedwabne pogrom) that such complicity existed. The polarizing bill, which has since been amended, infuriated American and Israeli officials. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert warned, “We are…concerned about the repercussions this draft legislation, if enacted, could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships.” Although Duda and PiS ultimately shaved off the most offensive aspects of the bill – after six months of compromised relations with the US and Israel – the episode shows the nationalist trade-off of prudent foreign policy for short-sighted political gains.  

Even more positive diplomatic interactions between the two states have been fraught with empty words and lack of substance – Tuesday’s meeting is a case in point. Polish officials have been pushing for a permanent US military presence to bolster defensive capabilities against Russia, and during the recent meeting, Trump commented: “If they’re willing to do that, it’s something we will certainly talk about.” Poland is certainly willing to talk, as Warsaw has offered to pay for the entire operation. Duda went a step further, saying he would gladly call the permanent base “Fort Trump.”

However, the gushing on both sides has been met coolly by some national security officials in the administration who understand the institutional underpinnings of such talks. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has previously stated that a permanent US military base in Europe is contingent on NATO member deliberations. Trump and PiS would much rather circumnavigate the greater alliances involved and continue peddling anti-institutional rhetoric in pursuit of nationalist agendas that, in this instance, just so happen to overlap.

Most importantly, neither side has acknowledged the comical conflicts of interest in Trump and PiS foreign policy aims when it comes to Russia. And why would they? Their programs don’t require consistency because, for all their blistering us-versus-them talk, the mission of nationalist foreign policy is not national security.

Trump’s defense of Putin seeks to ridicule Democrats in their “witch hunt” of Russia’s all-but-certain meddling in the 2016 elections; in the eyes of his most avowed supporters, this only cements his place as a political outsider with an independent streak. Similarly, PiS is juggling a politically favorable myth of the noble Polish nation assailed on all sides, one that both detests Russia and stands up against European forces that supposedly pose a threat to its culture and economic wellbeing.

So even as both PiS’ and Trump’s approval ratings steadily slip, we should not expect a quiet return to liberal compliance or hawkish conservatism. Rather, nationalism generates precarious new ways to rally support and extend populists’ lifeline at the helm of government – even if it means allies, nationalist or not, are left without a seat at the table.

Lukasz Grabowski writes about American and European foreign policy with a focus on populist and nationalist trends. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in political science earlier this year, and can be found frantically reading somewhere in San Francisco.

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