Contrary to Tim Ottevanger’s view (Letters, 16 October) of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, a pact that astonished the western world, I think it was one of the most significant in the last 200 years. At that time any intelligent observer, including Stalin, knew that the Nazis planned to eradicate Bolshevism and to gain Lebensraum in eastern Europe. The Soviets were engaged in a gigantic educational, agricultural and industrial transformation lasting less than a score of years, a process that took the UK over a century. They had to ensure that they were capable of defeating an onslaught from the greatest military machine ever known. The pact not only gave the USSR an extra 22 months of further industrialisation, but also allowed it to occupy eastern Poland after the Nazis attacked it on 1 September 1939. But for this extra 100+ miles of “buffer zone” the Nazis would have probably captured Moscow in 1941 and much land beyond it. Instead, as Churchill said, the Soviets “ripped the guts out of the Wehrmacht”. But for this the Nazis would have won the war in Europe with cataclysmic implications for the UK. David Davis Chesterfield
Not all that long ago the European Union seemed to inspire doubt not hope: a project reaching its 60th anniversary looked to many as if it might be heading for its death bed, or at least the emergency room. The eurozone, some said, would soon crumble as a result of faulty construction and rash policies. A populist wave was certain to sweep away institutions based on liberal democracy and shared sovereignty. Citizens would irreversibly turn their backs on a club which apparently combined high-mindedness and inefficiency.
With Brexit, 2016 was the EU’s annus horribilis. The year before that the refugee crisis, critics said, had exposed the EU as a fair-weather construct – unable to cope with the unforeseen. In 2014, extremist parties had already made spectacular gains in the EU parliament. In its bleakest moments the EU, it was said, had been a reputable and worthy project but one with perhaps a limited lifespan. The politics of fear were about to send it to the dustbin of history. Today, this doomsday narrative no longer applies. For one thing, Brexit has produced no domino effect. Britain’s despondency serves as daily proof that the path must be avoided by others. Far from breaking up, the eurozone is set to grow at the fastest annual pace since 2011. The migration issue hasn’t disappeared, but with the numbers down, its disruptive impacts on politics seem for now contained. Populism is no longer seen as an irrepressible force. Far-right slogans calling for a continent-wide Patriotic Spring in 2017 have come to nothing.
On Wednesday Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU commission president, will echo this sense of renewed confidence in his annual “state of the Union” address, notably outlining a more robust approach to foreign takeovers to win support among European citizens for trade deals. In France, president Emmanuel Macron will face a stern test over his proposed changes to the labour market with thousands of protests planned. The French president was wrong to describe those who oppose his plans as “lazy”. He is perhaps too confident – with the trade unions divided and a big majority in parliament. Nowhere is this being more closely watched than in Germany, where Angela Merkel looks poised to be re-elected later this month, quite a political feat given that her downfall had been described as all but inevitable after the 2015 refugee crisis. It’s true the anti-immigrant AfD party is set to enter the Bundestag for the first time, but the traditional parties are still in charge. Elsewhere, in Austria, the Netherlands, Finland, populists have failed either to reach power or remain in government coalitions.
The mood in the EU is, if anything, upbeat. Plans for deeper eurozone integration are being floated, as are moves to enhance security cooperation, and the creation of a common digital market. Public trust in the EU is rising. No doubt, there are still tensions and uncertainties. Poland’s and Hungary’s populist governments are up in arms with the EU institutions over rule of law and migration quotas. The bloc’s cohesion on values is its biggest challenge. Doubts hang over the future of eurozone governance. France and Germany have a chance to correct monetary union’s flaws, which they should seize. Italy’s politics, with elections next year, and the state of its banking sector are a concern. Post-Brexit, 80% of Nato defence spending will be non-EU. An upcoming Russian military exercise has already put nerves on edge.
But those who believed Brexit and Donald Trump would be nails in the EU’s coffin need to rethink. Viewed from the continent, Brexit is all but a side show – not even mentioned once in the German election TV debate. Trumpism has helped convince more Europeans they need to stick together, not come apart.
Europe has been under strain, but it has not cracked. If anything, the setbacks have given the EU a stronger sense of what it is – and what it is not. Better awareness of this in Britain is long overdue.
Denmark and Sweden are to boost defence cooperation to counter what they described as a growing threat from Russia, including from “dangerous” fake news campaigns and cyber-attacks, the two countries’ defence ministers have said.
Peter Hultqvist of Sweden and Claus Hjort Frederiksen of Denmark said in a statement before a meeting in Stockholm that Russian hybrid warfare – cyber-attacks, disinformation and fake news – could create uncertainty.
When nations “cannot clearly distinguish false news and disinformation from what is true, we become increasingly unsafe”, the ministers said, adding: “We have both been exposed to forms [of this] and want to better defend our societies in this area.”
This year Stockholm’s Institute of International Affairs accused Russia of using fake news, false documents and disinformation in a coordinated campaign to influence public opinion and decision-making in Sweden.
The study said Sweden had been the target of “a wide array of active measures” including misleading reports on Russian state-run news networks and websites, forged documents, fabricated news items and “troll armies”.
Moscow’s main aim was to “preserve the geo-strategic status quo” by minimising Nato’s role in the wider Baltic region and keeping Sweden out of the international military alliance, the study said.
Hultqvist and Frederiksen said the two countries would also increase more traditional forms of military cooperation, citing the increased presence of Russian naval vessels in the Baltic and airspace violations by Russian military aircraft.
“We already have good cooperation with Sweden and the other Nordic countries, but believe we can expand this more,” Frederiksen said. “We need to stand together when we have an unreasonable Russia moving into the Crimea and building up in our immediate neighbourhood.”
Joint exercises and more cross-border exchanges of military and intelligence expertise would follow, he added.
For those approaching the border crossing from the Lithuanian side, the Russian guards and military personnel are obscured by a bend in the road and the trees of the Ramoniškiai forest. Only a towering communication pole, watching and listening, shows how close they are.
Barely 50 vehicles a day pass through here making their way between Lithuania, once part of the Soviet Union, and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. Wedged between Lithuania to its north and east, and Poland to its south, Kaliningrad is about 800 miles (1,300km) from Moscow.
This doesn’t look or feel much like a modern-day version of Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. Yet the 45km of land border on which the Ramoniškiai crossing sits – between the watery demarcation provided by the rivers Lepona to the south and Neman to the north – has become a worry for the government in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, a swift tank ride away.
In a few weeks Russia will roll out its massive Zapad (west) military exercise, bringing an estimated 100,000 troops and hardware to the European Union and Nato’s eastern borders. It follows constant cyber-attacks on Lithuanian government departments, described by officials as a “massive information war”, and the deployment last year of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Russia’s Baltic fleet base in Kaliningrad. On 1 August Nato fighters identified 18 Russian military jets in international airspace above the Baltic Sea. Most had been flying to and from the airbase in Kaliningrad without flight plans and with their transponders off, according to the Lithuanian ministry of defence.
Such is the anxiety, that when Russian military personnel take the military train from Kaliningrad to Moscow, a Lithuanian air force helicopter hovers overhead to ensure that no one illegally hops off en route. Earlier this year NATO deployed four battalion-sized battle-groups to Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.Those with the darkest imaginations suggest Russia could one day choose to close the so-called Suwałki Gap, a 60-mile-long stretch of the Polish-Lithuanian border stretching from Kaliningrad to Russia’s close ally, Belarus, and cut off the Baltic states from the rest of Europe.
These are anxious times, thus Lithuania is building a €3.6m (£3.2m), two-metre-high border fence either side of the Ramoniškiai checkpoint,standing opposite the barbed wire erected by the Russians five years earlier.
Opposition politicians have condemned it as a feeble waste of money. “It’s stupid,” said Eugenijus Gentvilas, the leader of Liberal Movement in the Lithuanian parliament. “What can we avoid? Tanks? Of course not.” It is a view shared by locals who hold no great hope of resistance at the border. “If it happens, it happens,” said Jolanya Disjaitiene, 31, from the nearest village, Surdago, as she pushed her sleeping baby, Domas, home in his pram.
But just as Checkpoint Charlie was not really, at heart, about creating a physical barrier to invasion, but rather demarcation, control and red lines, so it is true of the Ramoniškiai fence.
Eimutis Misiūnas, Lithuania’s minister of the interior, told the Guardian the fence was primarily to deal with alcohol and tobacco smuggling and prevent illegal border crossings, but conceded that was not all.
“I have a second reason, everybody knows,” he said. “Estonia accused Russia of abducting an intelligence officer and we in Lithuania don’t want this to happen with Lithuanian officers. It is like a red line for Russia.”
The incident to which Misiūnas refers occurred three years ago, and has left a chill in the bones of politicians in the Baltic states ever since. On a Friday morning in September 2014, smoke grenades were detonated at an Estonian customs post, all radio and telephone signals were jammed, and armed Russian men dragged away a local official. His name was Eston Kohver. He was paraded on Russian TV and a year later sentenced by the Russian courts to 15 years in prison for espionage and other charges, including smuggling arms.
Estonia insisted the officer was abducted on Estonian soil. Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, continues to claim, successfully in the Russian courts, that Kohver was on a “spying operation” on Russian territory, and deserves his punishment.
There are suspicions that the move was really about punishing the Estonian government. The incident had occurred two days after Barack Obama visited the capital, Tallinn, and vowed that an attack on Estonia would be regarded as being against all of Nato. He also hinted at a US naval base being established in the country.
The abduction confirmed to many in Lithuania just how easily the Russians could do what they wished and avoid any repercussions, and that they were able to play fast and loose with the truth. Vilnius does not want to give them any chance to play the same tricks on Lithuanian soil.
In the fashion that Kremlin watchers have become familiar, Russia has responded to the building of the fence with a mixture of mockery and indignation. “In Kaliningrad area they have a brick factory and they suggested that to us we might need bricks for our fence [from that factory],” Misiūnas deadpanned.
“But we apologise. In this fence we don’t use any bricks … Usually we are building bridges between countries, but on this occasion we are building fences.”
He smiled. “We don’t fight with Russia, we don’t want to fight with Russia. We have this neighbour, we know how to live with this neighbour, and we live.”
Overshadowing all this is a three-cornered US constitutional face-off between Trump (accused of links with Russia), his attorney general (who barred himself from investigating the Russian links) and the special prosecutor who is investigating Trump, whom Trump is trying to sack.
Let’s be brutal: democracy is dying. And the most startling thing is how few ordinary people are worried about it. Instead we compartmentalise the problem. Americans worried about the present situation typically worry about Trump – not the pliability of the most fetishised constitution in the world to kleptocratic rule. EU politicians express polite diplomatic displeasure, as Erdoğan’s AK party machine attempts to degrade their own democracies. As in the early 1930s, the death of democracy always seems to be happening somewhere else.
The problem is it sets new norms of behaviour. It is no accident that the “enemies of the people” meme is doing the rounds: Orbán uses it against the billionaire George Soros, Trump uses it against the liberal press, China used it to jail the poet Liu Xiaobo and keep him in prison until his death.
Trump told a rally of supporters in Ohio that the federal government was in fact “liberating” American cities from immigrant crime gangs. They “take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15 and others and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die”, he said. At school – and I mean primary school – we were taught to greet such claims about racial minorities with the question: “Really? When and where did this happen?” Trump cited no evidence – though the US press managed to find examples in which gang members had indeed hacked each other.
This repertoire of autocratic rule is of course not new; what makes it novel is its concerted and combined use by elected rulers – Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, Trump, Maduro, Duterte in the Philippines and Modi in India – who are quite clearly engaged in a rapid, purposive and common project to hollow out democracy.
Equally striking is that, right now, there is no major country prepared to set positive global standards for democracy.
In her 2015 book, Undoing the Demos, UC Berkeley political science professor Wendy Brown made a convincing case that the world’s backsliding on democratic values has been driven by its adoption of neoliberal economics.
It is not, argues Brown, that freemarket elites purposefully embrace the project of autocracy, but that the economic microstructures created in the last 30 years “transmogrify every human domain and endeavour, including humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic”. All action is judged as if it has an economic outcome: free speech, education, political participation. We learn implicitly to weigh what should be principles as if they were commodities. We ask: is it “worth” allowing some cities to protect illegal migrants? What is the economic downside of sacking tens of thousands of academics and dictating what they can research?
In his influential 2010 testament, Indignez-Vous (Time for Outrage!), the French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel urged the rising generation of social justice activists to remember the fight he and others had put up during the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They fought for the word universal (not “international” as proposed by the main governments) in the full knowledge that arguments about sovereignty would sooner or later be advanced to deny the rights they thought they had secured. It seemed odd, back then, even to those of us sympathetic to Hessel, to receive this long, repetitive lecture about the concept of universality. But he was prescient.
The tragedy today is that there is not a single democratic government on Earth prepared to defend that principle. Sure, they will issue notes of displeasure over the death of Liu Xiaobo or Maduro’s crackdown. But they refuse to restate the universality of the principles these actions violate. The fight for universal principles has to begin – as Hessel recognised – with individual people. We must keep restating to ourselves and those around us that our human rights are, as the 1948 declaration states, “equal and inalienable”. That means if one faraway kleptocrat steals them from his subjects, that is like stealing them from ourselves.
Every democratic advance in history, from the English revolution of 1642 to the fall of Soviet communism in 1989, began when people understood the concept of rights they were born with, not to be granted or withdrawn. Today that means learning to think like a free human being, not an economic subject.
The family of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the second world war before disappearing when Hungary came under under Soviet rule, are suing Russia’s security service for access to its files, their lawyer said Thursday.
“The relatives of Wallenberg filed the lawsuit at the Meshchansky court in the Russian capital on Wednesday,” their lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, told AFP.
The Wallenberg family “wants to force the FSB [the successor to the KGB] to give it access to the originals of the documents” that concern Wallenberg’s fate, Pavlov said.
He said Wallenberg’s relatives have made many attempts to gain access to the FSB archives dating back to the Soviet era. These were either rejected or the documents they received were incomplete, Pavlov said.
“This case isn’t just about the possibility of restoring the memory of a remarkable person. It is also yet another attempt to fight the inaccessibility of the FSB archives,” he said.
As a special envoy in Nazi-controlled Hungary, Wallenberg issued Swedish identity papers to tens of thousands of Jews, allowing them to flee Nazi-occupied Hungary and likely death.
But when the Soviets entered Budapest in January 1945 – months before the war ended – they summoned Wallenberg to their headquarters. After that he disappeared, aged 32.
In 1957, the Soviet Union released a document saying Wallenberg had been jailed in the Lubyanka prison, the notorious building where the KGB security services were headquartered, and that he died of heart failure on 17 July 1947.
But his family refused to accept that version of events, and for decades have been trying to establish what happened to him.
They specifically want to know if Wallenberg was “Prisoner number 7” who, according to records, was interrogated on 23 July 1947 – six days after Wallenberg’s alleged death.
The family learned of the mysterious prisoner from two historians who said they had been told by FSB archivists the prisoner was likely to have been Wallenberg.
“The majority of our questions revolve around this prisoner,” Wallenberg’s niece, Marie Dupuy, told AFP.
“Every time, they [the Russian authorities] tell us that they are not able to answer. But we are sure they know.”
A serving Polish deputy defence minister has been accused of having links with pro-Kremlin far-right groups, after a German newspaper reported that he travelled to Moscow with a far-right delegation.
Bartosz Kownacki, a key lieutenant of defence minister Antoni Macierewicz, was a member of a group of Polish international observers during Russia’s 2012 election.
He was accompanied by Mateusz Piskorski, the founder of a Polish thinktank, the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) who is now in detention in Poland, facing charges of spying for Moscow.
According to the Central Russian Election Commission, Kownacki was one of four representatives of “Polish NGOs”, alongside Piskorski and other figures connected to his thinktank.
A leading member of Piskorski’s pro-Russia Zmiana (Change) party confirmed to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that Piskorski had made arrangements “on the Polish side” for Kownacki’s participation as an election observer.
Two years later, Piskorski was a member of a delegation to observe Crimea’s referendum to secede Ukraine – a vote which was described by the OSCE as illegal.
The British National party’s former leader, Nick Griffin, has served as a vice-president of the group, which has been at the centre of concerns that Russia is sponsoring and promoting far-right movements in an attempt to undermine European unity.
Kownacki denies Zmiana’s claim that Piskorski was involved in arranging his participation in the delegation to Moscow in 2012, saying that he travelled at the invitation of the AENM, and has had no contact with Piskorski before or since.
“It is no coincidence that the German press baselessly attacked me at the moment of [Poland] signing a key agreement with the US on the acquisition of a Patriot missile system, which may affect the interests of German defence firms,” he said.
But the Guardianhasseen a text message exchange between Griffin and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in which Griffin confirmed that the AENM was working with Piskorski at the time of the delegation.
In his statement, Kownacki also says that he went to Moscow as a replacement for a senator from Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS). However the senator in question departed the senate in 2011, the year before the Russian presidential election.
The revelations have exacerbated concerns that Macierewicz, the defence minister, whose political roots can be traced to the radical nationalist right, is compromising his country’s security by bringing associates with hardline nationalist and pro-Russian views into the heart of Poland’s security establishment.
According to a March report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, rightwing parties in Poland have been targeted by Russian attempts to build relationships with fringe political movements across Europe, and especially in central and eastern Europe.
Documents published by a Ukrainian website revealed extensive contacts between Alyaksandr Usovsky – the coordinator of “a loose network of nationalists, radicals, and neofascists across eastern Europe” – and a number of nationalist Polish parties.
The documents suggest that in addition to maintaining contact with Piskorski, Usovsky transferred €100,000 (£88,615) in 2014 to the far-right Great Poland Camp party (OGP) and other groups in order to promote rallies denouncing the Ukrainian government and defending Russian actions in Ukraine.
Piskorski’s Zmiana party, which describes itself as “the first non-American political party in Poland”, blames Polish politicians for exacerbating the Ukraine crisis and advocates a pro-Russian orientation in foreign policy.
Donald Trump said the survival of the west was at risk, as he lashed out at hostile forces ranging from Islamic terrorism to Russia, statism and secularism, during a speech in Poland.
At the start of a four-day trip to Europe, the US president gave a highly nationalist address in Warsaw suggesting that a lack of collective resolve could doom an alliance that had endured through the cold war.
“As the Polish experience reminds us, the defence of the west ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail,” Trump said at the site of the 1944 uprising against the Nazis. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive.”
Trump, who delivered the speech on Thursday before flying to Hamburg for the G20 summit and bilateral meetings with the leaders of China, Russia and Germany, painted a picture of the west facing existential challenges in the effort to “defend our civilisation” from terrorism, bureaucracy and the erosion of traditions.
Trump pointed to Poland, which in the last century endured Nazi and Soviet occupations, as an example of resolve. “The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never forgotten who they are,” he said.
“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” he said. “We must work together to counter 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.”
According to Polish press reports, Trump was enticed to Warsaw by promises of a rapturous reception. The Polish government, which paid for supporters to be bussed in from provincial areas, appeared to have delivered, as the president was greeted by a boisterous, highly partisan, crowd in Krasinski Square, one of Warsaw’s smaller public spaces.
The crowd expressed its sympathies ahead of Trump’s address, chanting the name of a Law and Justice politician as he took his seat and chanting “thieves” and “traitors” at opposition politicians as they entered the event’s VIP area.
The US president’s address was regularly interrupted by chants of “Donald Trump!” and “USA”, though he hit a less popular note when he praised the contribution to Poland’s freedom of Lech Walesa, the former dissident, president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has long been denounced by Law and Justice leaders as a traitor and Communist informant.
For the first time Trump said he “stood by” article 5 of the Nato charter – the provision requiring members to defend each other from attack – but he coupled that much-sought promise with a fresh attack on unnamed Nato states for “failing to meet their full and fair financial obligations on defence spending”.
He claimed his tough criticism of those states that had not met the Nato target of raising defence spending to 2% of GDP was paying off, with billions more being committed to defence across Europe.
Trump made repeated references to threats posed by Islamic terror. “Our borders will always be closed to extremism and terrorism,” he said. “We cannot accept those who reject our values and use hatred to justify violence.”
He made a rare criticism of Russia, accusing Moscow of “destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere”, and claiming Vladimir Putin was supporting “hostile regimes including Syria and Iran”.
He also issued a Reaganesque call to tackle bureaucracy, which he framed as more than just an inconvenience or byproduct of a rules-based society. “On both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger – one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles. The steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The west became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”
In addition to the people gathering around Krasinski Square, many of whom appeared to have turned up out of curiosity, Trump was faced by a message lasered on to the city’s Stalinist-era Palace of Culture that read “No Trump, Yes Paris”, a reference to the Paris climate change agreement from which Trump withdrew the US.
A small left-wing party held a protest with activists dressed as women from The Handmaid’s Tale, an American TV drama series based on a novel about a future totalitarian society, in protest over Trump’s treatment of women.
Some of Trump’s supporters were also disgruntled. Most of the space in Krasinski Square, Warsaw’s fourth or fifth largest public space, was taken up by VIP seating and media and security zones, leaving many supporters who had been bussed into Warsaw from the countryside, perhaps early in the morning, to stand in nearby side streets.
“They should let us in with them, after all they are here because of us,” one supporter told a reporter, referring to government politicians. “Not one of them looked at us as they walked in.”
Earlier in the day, Trump and Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, discussed their disapproval of their respective countries’ domestic media outlets, as Trump defended his criticism of CNN and his tweet depicting him body-slamming a figure bearing a CNN logo.
“They have been fake news for a long time, and they have been covering me in a dishonest way,” Trump said, as Duda nodded enthusiastically. “We don’t want fake news.”
After Poland’s ruling Law and Justice assumed office in 2015, Duda signed a media law allowing the government to take political control of state media outlets. Liberal media outlets have been squeezed financially by the cancellation of subscriptions by state institutions, and the withdrawal of advertising revenues.
“I think it could very well have been Russia,” he replied. “I think it could well have been other countries. I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows for sure.”
Donald Trump used the word “civilisation” 10 times in his first speech in central Europe. The man who brought us “America first” has expanded his vision, to a clash of civilisations.
And at a time of anxiety over America’s role in the world, the message was clear: the US is still the leader of western civilisation, whether western civilisation wants it or not.
The crowd gathered in Warsaw – many arriving on free buses laid on by Poland’s conservative ruling party – seemed happy enough at this prospect. They chanted “Donald Trump! Donald Trump!”, echoing one of his barnstorming rallies in the homeland. From Britain, the former UK Independence party leader Nigel Farage quoted the speech approvingly on Twitter.
But Trumpsceptics across Europe are unlikely to have been impressed by a speech of two halves: a reassuring pledge of support for Nato and dig at Russia mixed with coded – and sometimes not so coded – warnings that the barbarians are at the gate.
“Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” said Trump, wearing his customary red tie. “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.
“If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”
It was not hard to detect the voice of the White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, the nationalist-nihilist who once promised that the Trump era would be “as exciting as the 1930s” and is a student of The Fourth Turning, a book that argues history moves in cycles and America is on the brink of its latest violent cataclysm.
Nor was it hard to see the hand of Trump’s speechwriter Stephen Miller, principal author of Trump’s inaugural address in January, in which the word “America” appeared even more frequently than “civilisation” did this time, most notoriously as “American carnage”.
Speaking at Krasinski Square – which memorialises the Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation – Trump tried to conflate Poland’s second world war history with the defence of western traditions.
“The people of Poland, the people of America, and the people of Europe still cry out ‘We want God’,” he said.
In 1939, Trump recalled, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east. “That’s trouble,” it occurred to him. “That’s tough.”
He made reference to the Katyn massacre, the Holocaust, the Warsaw ghetto and the murder of millions of Poland’s Jewish citizens. Then came four decades of communist rule.
From there, Trump tried to make the leap to contemporary external threats including terrorism and extremism, propaganda, financial crimes and cyberwarfare. In a paragraph guaranteed to please Republican hawks at home, he offered rare criticism of Vladimir Putin, urging Russia to end its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.
But then came a bizarre pivot to Bannon’s stated goal: the deconstruction of the administrative state.
“This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people,” Trump said. “The west became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.”
It would have been hard to imagine Ronald Reagan declaring: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall of bureaucracy!”
Trump changed gear to more traditional ground for US presidents in Europe. He praised the “community of nations” and said the bond between the US and Europe was maybe “even stronger” than ever. Despite his own war on the media, he heralded “the right to free speech and free expression”. He spoke of empowering women and valuing the dignity of every human life. And finally he threw his weight firmly and explicitly behind Nato’s article five, the mutual defence commitment.
Nevertheless, this was a speech about reassuring doubters around the world that America is still flying the plane, even if the passengers would prefer Barack Obama to be the pilot. The implication that cultural essentialism and national purity face existential threats hovered ominously throughout.
In what the pro-Trump Fox News called “a staunch defence of western values during a rousing speech”, the president insisted: “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 civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
A few minutes later, he answered his own questions: “Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the west will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilisation will triumph.”
Trump was following in a long line of American presidents who made historic addresses in Europe, including John F Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Reagan. But his attempt to set out a Trump doctrine will be remembered not for a quotable zinger but for muddled thinking and dark nativism.
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