In 1795, Poland was wiped off the map. Partitioned between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the country would not reemerge for over a century. 98 years ago from yesterday, the First World War ended and Poland reemerged as an independent state. As a result, November 11 is celebrated as Poland’s National Independence Day. This year, however, Poland’s government did not laud the country’s independence. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the country’s governing party, the Law and Justice Party, instead lamented the loss of sovereignty to the European Union. Meanwhile, tens of thousand of Polish citizens took to the streets of Warsaw. They set off flares, shouted ultranationalist slogans, and carried banners. One banner read “God, Honor, Fatherland,” and another read “Death to the enemies of the fatherland.”
In recent years, Poland has lurched far to the right. It has cultivated nationalism and rejected internationalism. It is riding the very same wave that has led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the shift in public opinion throughout Western Europe. Contrary to what many in the United States believe, it is impossible to escape this wave by fleeing to Canada. The people of Poland, Europe, and the world, too, appear to be rejecting the very foundations of the post-WWII global order.
Ever since Law and Justice took power last year the Civic Platform Party, once led by a man named Donald Tusk, Poland has turned sharply away from the European Union and towards authoritarian nationalism. It has gutted the country’s highest court, strengthened its grip on the media, promoted “traditional” catholic values, encouraged nationalism and xenophobia, rejected refugees, and taken a strongly eurosceptic position. Yet economically, it is not right-wing as imagined by most Americans. It is a strong proponent of the social safety net and opposes cuts to welfare spending. Thus its platform can be described a fusion of right-wing ultranationalism and left-wing socialism.
This same recipe is taking the world by storm. Donald Trump won the US presidency with the same formula, appealing to “America first” white nationalism while also pursuing protectionist and pro-welfare policies. Brexit, too, followed this formula, combining little-Englander nationalism with the economic concerns wrought by globalization. France’s FN, whose Marine Le Pen is set to be one of the country’s presidential candidates in 2017, is also staunchly protectionist while at the same time encouraging a resurgence in French nationalism. Political parties that merge left and right in a rejection of international integration have sprung up across The West.
While this ideology may seem like an honest expression of the alienation of the working people, it is in truth an insidious affront to the very ideals upon which the post-WWII global order was built. To see why, one needs not look any further than the Second World War. One of the most important effects of the Second World War was that it taught the lesson of how democratic systems of government come crashing down. When the global financial system crashed in 1929, economic insecurity skyrocketed. When faced with economic adversity, the population responded by blaming outsiders and retreating into nationalist tribes. Lower living standards made the people susceptible to grandiose promises to restore prior glory. The ability to recognize nuance was destroyed by fear, anger, and oversimplified narratives. As a result, Germany’s “national socialist” party would lead the world into a dark cloud of genocide and war.
Out of the ashes of Europe rose a new western order based on the ideals of international integration and multiculturalism. Leaders convened to ensure that the lessons of the Second World War would be learned and its horrors never repeated. Leaders promoted economic growth and created welfare states to ensure that citizens would never become so economically downtrodden that they felt compelled to blame scapegoats. They promoted globalization and economic integration to make countries dependent on one another and therefore more likely to cooperate. They embraced a multicultural society as a rejection of the racist horrors of the Second World War. Today, the champion of these values is the European Union, and Poland’s loudest cheerleader for these values is former-Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union has spread its model across Eastern Europe. Poland transitioned to democracy, became a member of NATO in 1999, became a member of the European Union in 2004, and has has seen some of the greatest gains of any country following the fall of communism. Like the rest of The West, Poland has enjoyed relative stability and prosperity under the guidance of the post-WWII order. International dependence has meant that no major war has broken out between global powers, international trade has opened up markets and enabled economic growth that has lifted millions into the middle class, and international interaction has meant that the world has become far more tolerant towards individuals from different backgrounds and nationalities. The benefits of this system were so apparent to the Polish people that, in 2011, they re-elected a Prime Minister for the first time. That Prime Minister was Donald Tusk, and he is now the President of the European Council, one of the most important bodies of the European Union.
Yet the events of yesterday indicate that millions of Polish citizens have now rejected the international global order. And as of earlier this week, so too have millions of American citizens. Across Europe and the United States, the far-right is once again wedding nationalism and socialism. At no time since the end of the Second World War have these two ideologies been so closely intertwined. And at no time since the end of the Second World War has the international integration that ushered in stability and prosperity been so threatened.
The all-important question, then, is whether this rejection is temporary or permanent. Is it the desperate dying breath of an old ideology of division, or is it the violent awakening of a new chapter in the international state of affairs? In order to ensure that this new wave of illiberalism does not threaten the stability and progress enjoyed by The West since the end of the Second World War, European leaders must not let their continent go in the same direction as the United States. Now that the enforcer of the current global order has abandoned it, it us up to the leaders of the European Union to position itself as the global defender of international integration and cooperation. Donald Tusk, meet Donald Trump. You may have lost Poland to this movement, but it is not too late to save Europe and the world. Good luck.