Earlier this month at a town hall in Philadelphia, Joe Biden took aim at Trump’s foreign policy—and fired at Hungary and Poland, two democracies with NATO membership. “You see what’s happened,” he lamented, “in everything from Belarus to Poland to Hungary, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world, and as well, this president embraces all the thugs in the world.”
In Newsweek, Gladden Pappin, assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas, broke down how earth-shattering the comments should have been—although they landed in the political pond with scarcely a ripple:
Protestations from Poles and the Hungarian foreign minister aside, however, no firestorm broke out in English-speaking media—and for one very simple reason. To the media class, the categorization of Poland and Hungary as “totalitarian regimes” was not a gaffe at all. It did not lead to fact-checking or hasty denials. (Notably, no EU diplomats defended their member states, either.) Rather, it points to new levels of laziness in American foreign policy thinking, where vague impressions of “totalitarian” (read: nationalist, culturally traditional) rule are enough to cast aside countries that have been allied with the United States for generations. For these viceroys of global liberalism, the new hostility is fully intentional.
Indeed, hostility to the culturally conservative governments of Poland and Hungary is part and parcel of the progressive pushback to so-called populism. (As Viktor Orban recently noted: Populism is when you say one thing and do another when elected. Democracy is when you do what you say you would.) Obviously, neither Law and Order nor Fidesz are beyond criticism–and there’s plenty to criticize. But considering the fact that they have been stauncher allies of America than, say, Canada—whose prime minister is currently threatening to call an election in order to prevent a corruption investigation without any comment from the international press—these comments are a slap in the face to long-term allies who fought and died alongside American soldiers:
Poland and Hungary are no mere idle participants in global affairs, however. Both are members of NATO and reliable U.S. allies. Both deployed alongside American troops in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Poland, in particular, has welcomed multiple U.S. military bases. According to the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of Poles viewed the United States favorably in 2019, and 66 percent of Hungarians did the same. As Dan Gouré of the Lexington Institute put it earlier this year, “Poland is more than just a good host for U.S. forces. It has committed to spending billions of dollars to create the infrastructure to support the additional U.S. deployments.” In recent years, however, liberal elites have soured on Poland and Hungary, with major American and Western European media outlets regularly insinuating that Poland and Hungary have become nothing short of totalitarian regimes.
Ironically, throughout the last four years, national security experts have claimed that the Trump administration is the gravest threat to NATO. After Trump’s 2016 comments insisting on greater contributions to NATO from our allies, The Atlantic speculated that “America’s NATO allies may be on their own after November if Russia attacks them.” One Washington Post columnist captured the media mood around the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels with a column titled, “Will Trump Destroy NATO and Every Other American Alliance?” The media’s message has been clear: Only by a return to the standard formula of global liberalism and democracy promotion can the United States regain its lost stature on the world stage.
But any “return to normal” in the foreign policy sphere will be quite different from the one we left behind. In particular, the foreign policy establishment that has been waiting to return to power will, if Biden’s comments are any indication, look coldly upon any NATO allies whose voters dare dissent from U.S. elite cultural preferences—to the point of smearing them as “totalitarian.”
Such treatment toward Poland and Hungary is unlikely to take the form of immediate hostility, of course. Rather, it will be insinuated that continued American support is dependent on embracing cultural liberalism and hewing to the “democratic” norms that alone make them worthy partners.
In short, progressives aren’t interested in coalitions. They are interested in cultural colonialism. They use foreign aid to accomplish that goal in Africa, and now they use accusations of totalitarianism to accomplish the same thing in formerly Communist countries that don’t adhere to their standards. We saw this when Viktor Orban implemented a COVID-19 lockdown substantially less onerous than those imposed in other Western countries—progressive commentators declared that Orban was officially a dictator, and that anyone who had previously defended him needed to apologize. Of course, Orban’s lockdown ended earlier than many in other countries, and thus what Michael Dougherty sarcastically referred to as the “82-Day Dictatorship” came to an end. As Hungary’s deputy minister explained when I interviewed him, this was simply about taking another cheap opportunity to bash a nation implementing policies that progressives find distasteful.
Historian and journalist Anne Applebaum has been leading the charge in referring to nations like Hungary and Poland as post-democratic, most recently in her book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Totalitarianism. As I noted in my lengthy review, Applebaum misses the point entirely—and gives away her progressive bias in the process. To progressives, anything that doesn’t suit their agenda is now “totalitarian.” Words mean nothing once they’ve been redefined, which is how democratically-elected leaders become “dictators” and NATO democracies get dubbed “totalitarian.” It’s a dangerous game, but progressives are playing for keeps.
Read the rest of Pappin’s analysis. It’s worth your time—and it illustrates perfectly how progressive politicians work to delegitimize democratically-elected leaders in other countries if they believe those leaders to be insufficiently woke:
Indeed, the former vice president’s suggestion that Poland and Hungary exemplify “the rise of totalitarian regimes in the world” is not just another “Biden gaffe.” These countries—which suffered under Soviet oppression within living memory and which not long ago were celebrated as models of transition to democracy—are routinely subjected to similar insults in the U.S. media echo chamber, which likely inspired Biden’s remark. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine in September, “Putin, Orbán, Duda and Trump…are joined in a common project to discredit liberal democracy.” The grounds for that criticism are more than a little ironic. In Poland—whose Law and Justice government was reelected with 43.6 percent of the vote in 2019 (in a proportional system with five major party lists)—the government sought, beginning in 2015, to remedy the continued occupation of the country’s judicial branch by former communist judges and their subsequent appointees. Now, the criticism of Poland comes from a presidential candidate who has deliberately left open court-packing as an option for (in one columnist’s words) “diversifying” the American judiciary.
The real problem with Poland and Hungary, though, is not that Andrzej Duda and Viktor Orbán have charted supposedly authoritarian political courses. Indeed, faced with the loss of political control over the Supreme Court, the Democratic Party is more than willing to consider tactics that would be pilloried as “authoritarian” in any other context. Rather, Poland and Hungary are successful countries that insist on maintaining their national identities and traditional values—and doing so with the use of democratically earned political power. Liberals abandoned “democratic” concerns long ago, when the European Union was justified in pursuit of substantively democratic outcomes—even while popular opinion was opposed.
The former vice president’s comments have gone unreported in English-speaking media for the simple reason that they are now unremarkable in the eyes of the liberal foreign policy establishment. The reasons for their horror at Poland and Hungary, however, are rapidly leading to a bizarre trap for American foreign policy itself. If Russia is the great strategic enemy that it has been said to be over the last four years, strengthening the American alliance with Poland in particular—which shares traditional American cultural aspirations, as well as historic concerns with its neighbor to the east—would be a natural choice. It was for that reason that Polish President Andrzej Duda invited President Trump to Warsaw in July 2017, when he delivered a speech acknowledging the heroic efforts of Poles to defend their country throughout the chaotic course of the 20th century.
Additional recent events in U.S. media should give pause to Poland, Hungary and other popular, nationally oriented regimes. Both Facebook and Twitter have taken extraordinary steps, in recent months, to implement what Twitter calls a “civic integrity project”—to wit, giving the leadership of the communications platforms a new mandate to bolster “civic integrity” however they conceive it. Twitter’s recent suspension of the White House press secretary’s account, as well as the account of the New York Post, are clear indications of how the social media giants will throw their weight around politically in the years to come. In addition to any official pressure from a future Biden administration, Poland and Hungary may soon find themselves in the crosshairs of the newly empowered censors at Facebook, Google and Twitter.
In both Poland and Hungary, the most prominent social media platform is Facebook; Twitter plays a smaller role in political life. Both Poland and Hungary should look into alternative social media networks and communications technologies, in order to build an internet in the national interest that can stand against Silicon Valley’s attempts to meddle in their own political affairs. Other governments moving in a more nationalist direction should consider the same measures. In the worst-case scenario, it may be necessary to transfer social media interactions to national internet platforms to properly secure against foreign interference.
To be sure, Turkey (a NATO member) and other allies, like Saudi Arabia, have faced criticism and even sanctions from the United States—but nothing like the round-the-clock media denunciation seemingly reserved for Poland and Hungary.
The real reason that Poland and Hungary have been demonized in the United States is that they represent a successful alternative to the failed American combination of industrial and family collapse. In recent years, Poland has pursued a policy of modest domestic re-industrialization, while also supporting Polish families with direct government support. Hungary has done the same, including appointing a minister of state for family affairs (Katalin Novák) tasked with helping Hungarian families thrive.
For American conservatives, Poland and Hungary are important allies of the United States against a decadent global liberalism that has left Western countries shells of their former selves. They are also military and commercial partners, and the United States is a place that many Polish and Hungarian emigrants call home. For all the laments about foreign policy incoherence over the last four years, it is breathtaking to see the casual dismissal of key Central European allies. The transatlantic alliance, in all its elements, is clearly more important than ever. The priorities of a new liberal foreign policy, however, may quickly reveal that Biden’s words were not an accident.