World Biden and Big Tech Have Poland and Hungary in Their Crosshairs | Opinion
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At a town hall event in Philadelphia late last week, former Vice President Joe Biden was asked what he thought of America's foreign policy under the Trump administration. "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." With that half-insulting, half-clueless remark—counting Poland and Hungary among the "totalitarian regimes in the world"—Biden set off a small diplomatic firestorm.
Or he would have, if these were normal times, and if insults to Poles and Hungarians were deemed worthy of major media outlet reporting. 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.
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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.
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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."
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Gladden Pappin (email@example.com, Twitter: @gjpappin) is assistant professor of politics at the University of Dallas and deputy editor and cofounder of American Affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.
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