July 6, 2017 7:00 p.m. ET
The White House description of Donald Trump’s speech Thursday in Warsaw was simply, “Remarks by President Trump to the People of Poland.” In truth, Mr. Trump’s remarks were directed at the people of the world. Six months into his first term of office, Mr. Trump finally offered the core of what could become a governing philosophy. It is a determined and affirmative defense of the Western tradition.
To be sure, Mr. Trump’s speech also contained several pointed and welcome foreign-policy statements. He assured Poland it would not be held hostage to a single supplier of energy, meaning Russia. He exhorted Russia to stop destabilizing Ukraine “and elsewhere,” to stop supporting Syria and Iran and “instead join the community of responsible nations.” He explicitly committed to NATO’s Article 5 on mutual defense.
But—and this shocked Washington—the speech aimed higher. Like the best presidential speeches, it contained affirmations of ideas and principles and related them to the current political moment. “Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty,” he said. This was more than a speech, though. It was an argument. One might even call it an apologia for the West.
Mr. Trump built his argument out of Poland’s place in the history of the West, both as a source of its culture—Copernicus, Chopin—and as a physical and spiritual battlefield, especially during World War II. The word Mr. Trump came back to repeatedly to define this experience was “threat.”
During and after the war, Poland survived threats to its existence from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Mr. Trump believes that the West today confronts threats of a different sort, threats both physical and cultural. “This continent,” said Mr. Trump, “no longer confronts the specter of communism. But today we’re in the West, and we have to say there are dire threats to our security and to our way of life.”
He identified the most immediate security threat as an “oppressive ideology.” He was talking about radical Islam, but it is worth noting that he never mentioned radical Islam or Islamic State. Instead, he described the recent commitment by Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations to combat an ideological menace that threatens the world with terrorism. He compared this idea of mutual defense to the alliance of free nations that defeated Nazism and communism.
But the speech’s most provocative argument was about our way of life. It came when he described how a million Poles stood with Pope John Paul II in Victory Square in 1979 to resist Soviet rule by chanting, “We want God!”
“With that powerful declaration of who you are,” Mr. Trump said, “you came to understand what to do and how to live.”
This is a warning to the West and a call to action. By remembering the Poles’ invocation of God, Mr. Trump is clearly aligning himself with the same warning issued to Europe some years ago by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict.
Cardinal Ratzinger’s argument was that Europe needed to recognize that its turn toward aggressive secularism posed a real threat to its survival. In Mr. Trump’s formulation of that threat, we are obliged to “confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.” He warned about a “lack of pride and confidence in our values.”
Mr. Trump is taking a clear stand against the kind of gauzy globalism and vague multiculturalism represented by the worldview of, say, Barack Obama and most contemporary Western intellectuals, who are willing, even eager, to concede the argument to critics of the West’s traditions.
This is the speech Mr. Trump should have given to introduce himself to the world at his Inauguration. In place of that speech’s resentments, his Warsaw talk offered a better form of nationalism. It is a nationalism rooted in values and beliefs—the rule of law, freedom of expression, religious faith and freedom from oppressive government—that let Europe and then America rise to prominence. This, Mr. Trump is saying, is worth whatever it takes to preserve and protect.
It was an important and, we hope, a defining speech—for the Trump Presidency and for Donald Trump himself.
Appeared in the July 7, 2017, print edition.