There’s Still Hope for Poland
Thirty years ago, Poland was an exemplar of what countries could gain by moving from autocracy to democracy. After a decade of protests, the country’s communist regime fell. The winner of its first post-communist presidential race was Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity (the independent trade union whose membership reached one-third of the country’s working-age population), former political prisoner, and winner of the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize. For the next quarter-century, Poland looked like a model for post-authoritarian countries. Through membership in NATO and the European Union, a growing economy,and close relations with the United States, it appeared to firmly place itself in the post-Cold War liberal international order.
Since 2015, however, Poland has slid away from liberal democracy. The ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has run roughshod over judicial independence, forcing judges to retire and punishing them for criticizing government policy. It has assaulted the country’s free press and used state-owned television as a mouthpiece for anti-opposition propaganda. PiS views LGBT Poles as a threat to Polish values, and many of its local leaders have declared their towns “LGBT-free zones.” The party has played on racial and religious fears, refusing to accept refugees from Muslim-majority countries and accusing its opponents of giving in to “Jewish demands.” PiS even attempts to limit historical inquiry; under a 2018 law, it is illegal to refer to Auschwitz and other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland as “Polish death camps” due to the implication that Poles were collaborators in the Holocaust.
There are several reasons to be concerned about this backsliding. First is the symbolism of Poland, whose overthrow of communism was an emblem of the late 20th-century spread of democracy in many regions. If democratization can be undone in the land of Solidarity, where is it safe?
Second, Poland is geopolitically important to the West. Whether it had been Donald Trump or any other U.S. president who proposed the permanent deployment of U.S. troops to Poland, it is still a way to guard against potential Russian aggression. While Vladimir Putin’s threat to the West does not only come in the form of its military, a Russian invasion of Poland should not be ruled out, given the Russian occupation of Crimea and the precarious position of Putin’s fellow dictator, Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko. Reactivating the U.S. Army’s V Corps and placing part of it in Poland is wise, even though it was a mistake to be unfairly critical of Germany in the process.
Third, there is still plenty of liberal potential within Poland. The narrowness of President Andrzej Duda’s two victories (each time he received 51% of votes in a two-candidate runoff) gives hope to opposition parties, as does PiS’ loss of its outright majority in the Senate in 2019. The massive, enduring protests against restrictions on abortion rights in the autumn of 2020 prove how civil society can endure even when a government does not want it to. And there are cracks in PiS’ coalition with other parties; they were divided earlier this year over an attempt to ban kosher and halal meat, a major industry in Poland.
PiS is powerful but still vulnerable.
Finally, even a country whose commitment to freedom has waned can contribute to struggles against worse regimes. By supporting the Belarussian opposition to long-serving dictator Lukashenko, Poland has, in this case, served as a positive force in the world, irrespective of its motivations. This is something the West should welcome.
There are steps Westerners who are concerned about Polish democracy can take. When meeting with government officials in Poland, Western diplomats and heads of state should insist on the opportunity to meet with leaders of the opposition. If government officials complain, at a minimum the Western diplomats should express clear disappointment. The United States could also take the lead in strengthening the Community of Democracies, a multinational organization headquartered in Warsaw, and turning it into a globe-spanning force for democratic values.
The Biden administration should continue with plans to deploy part of V Corps to Poland. It should also consider a possible shift in combat units there, but in consultation with other NATO members, especially Germany. As much as Joe Biden hopes to turn the page on an unpleasant era, he should not dismiss a change simply because the Trump Administration made it.
All the while, Western liberals should avoid hectoring Poles and their leaders for their social conservatism. They will not change the minds of millions of people if they frame their defense of liberal values as moral imperatives and do not show respect for legitimate electoral outcomes. A country need not have liberal abortion laws to be free – it is better that Poland’s Western allies praise civil society, call for negotiation, and avoid taking sides in a debate that touches on deeply-held religious values. Also, they must remember the legitimate economic concerns of low- and middle-income Poles that helped bring PiS to power, concerns Poles often feel are not addressed adequately by the EU.
Liberal democracy does not defend itself. It relies on people who value it to keep it alive. Poland deserves close attention for this reason.