Poland’s President, Andrzej Duda, met with President Trump at the White House today. Under Duda’s leadership, the Polish government has faced criticism for its reform of (or hijacking of, depending on who you ask) the Polish judiciary. This, along with growing nationalist sentiment, an increasingly strained relationship with the European Union, and perennial concerns about Russia have all played into broader concerns about a new era of authoritarianism.
These may sound like familiar problems to American ears, but the Polish situation is more complicated than easy analogies to Trumpism would suggest. Poland is striving, in a stumbling and halting way, to maintain its identity, an identity that is both European and inextricably Catholic. To do that, it must avoid the twin pitfalls of Russian revanchism and Western cultural decadence.
The Russian occupation of Crimea and continued fighting in Ukraine are taken with deadly seriousness in Warsaw. Polish distrust of Russia, now and in the past, explain Poland’s eagerness to strengthen military ties with the United States. (Poland joined NATO in 1999, and defense cooperation is one of the topics Presidents Duda and Trump discussed today.) This also explains Poland’s frustration with the European Union’s dependence on Russian energy, a frustration President Trump shares, and Poland’s willingness to increase imports of natural gas from the US.
Tugging at Poland from the West is the EU, which Poland joined in 2004, and the promise of prosperity and security that comes with it. Polls consistently show higher approval for EU member status among Poles than among any of their EU counterparts — including the French and Germans.
At the same time, Poles are deeply skeptical of administrative creep from Brussels. They have seen what massive immigration from the Muslim world has done to their neighbors and are eager not to repeat such social experiments at home. If Angela Merkel and Pope Francis disapprove, so be it.
There is tremendous pressure for Poland to accept, along with EU funding and economic benefits, the EU’s commitments to legal abortion, gay marriage, and the other tenets of lifestyle libertinism. Poles are, so far, not buying.
What good would it do, the argument goes, for Poland to seek material security in the arms of the EU only to lose its Catholic soul to decadence and its culture to an influx of unassimilated immigrants?
The Catholic bishops of Poland have spoken against the dangers of nativism and about the importance of patriotism and perils of nationalism. But the bishops have also, with few exceptions, become worryingly cozy with the current ruling party. For the time being, this serves both the politicians and the bishops. But when the political winds shift, and they always do, it could leave the church vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and opportunism. For a nation whose identity is so intertwined with Catholicism, the nation that gave the world Pope John Paul II, this would be a calamity.
Earlier this year, Poland passed a law making it a crime to implicate the Polish nation in the Holocaust. Apart from inviting charges of anti-Semitism, the law was a blundering attempt to enlist the power of the state in defending a revisionist history. If anyone ought to understand the perils of state-supervised historical revisionism, it should be Poland. The law was eventually amended, but that episode was a reminder that Poland still has the capacity to be its own worst enemy.
Ultimately, Poland’s future will depend not only on navigating the challenges posed by its neighbors, but on its leadership’s willingness and ability to avoid the kind of parochialism and petty insecurities that could endanger it from within.
Stephen White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.