There’s an old joke from the Cold War era: Two trains pull into Warsaw’s Central Station — the westbound Moscow-Paris express and the return train from Paris heading in the opposite direction. A Frenchman peers out of the eastbound train, looks at the city and thinks, “My Lord, Moscow is every bit as gray as I expected!” A Russian on the westbound train takes a quick look around and exclaims, “Ah, que c’est beau, Paris!”
I was reminded of this by the reception of President Trump’s speech in Warsaw last week. Those who feared that the American president would use the occasion to attack liberalism and corner Germany believed that he did just that, although in a more measured way than they might have anticipated. Those who had hoped that the president would express America’s commitment to Europe were also buoyed by his words. But like the men on the trains in the joke, both turned out to be wrong.
In Warsaw, Mr. Trump boldly stated, “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.” In saying that, he demonstrated his administration’s born-again commitment to preserve America’s post-Cold War Western alliances, though at the price of redefining the very meaning of “the West.”
In the heady days of the Cold War, “the West” referred to the so-called free world — a liberal democratic order. Today it has been replaced by a cultural, rather than political, notion. But unlike in the 19th century, when a “white man’s burden” took pride of place, today what dominates are the “white man’s fears.”
After reading President Trump’s Warsaw speech, one can imagine future historians rummaging through the Trump Library and discovering two brief, undated private memos addressed to the 45th president. They are written by Stephen Bannon, his chief political adviser, and H. R. McMaster, his national security adviser. Both memos urge the president to make a big speech in Europe — but they request sharply different speeches.
In this imagined scenario, Mr. Bannon urges the president to challenge the European willingness to live under the emasculating malady of political correctness: “Make clear to them that the West is under siege, threatened by radical Islam, and for it to survive it must cling ever more closely to its Christian identity. Tell Europeans that we need God, if they even still remember what God is.”
Mr. Bannon goes on: “Force them to understand that the liberal nonsense that prevailed in the Cold War is now making us weak and vulnerable in the face of a world saturated with terrorists and immigrants. Neither a free press nor any quaint separation of powers will protect us in today’s world. Even if European leaders can’t understand you, the European people will.”
In his memo, Mr. Bannon suggests that the ideal locale for his boss to deliver this history-making speech is Paris — soon after Marine Le Pen is elected president of France. “I’m sure she will make it,” Mr. Bannon avers. “The French are only one terrorist act away from voting her in.”
The second memo, written by Mr. McMaster, couldn’t be more different in tone and style. “America’s leadership in the world and our own security will depend on our ability to preserve our post-Cold War alliances,” he argues. He refers to a recent international relations book by Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell, “The Unquiet Frontier: Rising Rivals, Vulnerable Allies, and the Crisis of American Power,” to argue that at a time when American leadership is challenged by rising powers, the major risk is that America’s rivals will test the alliance by destabilizing small- and medium-size American allies on the alliance’s periphery.
“We face a double challenge,” Mr. McMaster suggests. “We must not only preserve NATO but we should also ensure that our smaller allies will invest in their security and struggle for their freedom, in the ways Poles bravely fought during the 1944 Warsaw uprising. But our allies must be confident that we have their backs, otherwise they will be tempted to cut deals with Russia or some other revisionist power.”
Mr. McMaster counsels President Trump to make his epochal speech in Warsaw or the Baltic States and to underscore America’s unwavering commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which commits signatories to collective defense. He also stresses the significance of the speech for United States-Russia relations: “Mr. President, if you want to achieve anything in your inaugural meeting with Vladimir Putin, it’s better to go to Poland first. After all, it’s only the pope who can provide indulgences, and when it comes to Russia, only the Poles can grant you license to conduct business with Putin.”
In the end, Mr. Trump ended up delivering both of these imagined speeches — combined as one. And it worked. Central Europe appreciated the president’s speech. It resonated with the very real fears of societies traumatized by the refugee crisis and the equally real prospect of a two-tiered European Union. (The irony, of course, is that Poles accept a vision of a planet wrecked by terrorists and sullied by migrants when not a single terrorist act has taken place in Poland for decades and there are almost no refugees within the country’s borders.)
What stands out most in Mr. Trump’s speech is not its oft-quoted illiberalism but its stark pessimism about the future of the West. He was elected on a promise of restoring American triumphalism, but he appears preoccupied by the fear of defeat. What he promised his listeners was not the West’s “victory” but that the West shall never be broken. In this way it was a very Polish speech. More than anybody else, Poles are deeply conscious of their own history, which is replete with noble and heroic defeats rather than glorious victories.
But while Mr. Trump is right that we live in a dangerous world and that citizens should be ready to define their way of life, building a new identity of the West around the idea of a fortress under siege is a risky enterprise. America and Europe might find themselves in the position of the man who, so panicked by death, decides to commit suicide.