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Is NATO in Poland to Deter Russians or Poles?

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a press conference with Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in London, January 22, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

According to Politico, Rex Tillerson’s State Department is reported to have issued quite the ultimatum to Poland over its law prohibiting the attribution of the Holocaust and its crimes to the Polish nation.

First, there will be “no high-level bilateral contacts between countries until the crisis gets solved” — which suggests no meetings between President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Trump or Pence. Second, if the Polish government doesn’t make changes to the law, Congress is likely to block the financing of military projects in Poland. Finally, if Polish prosecutors bring charges against any American citizen for breaching the law, the consequences for Poland would be “dramatic.”

Cards on the table, I think the Polish law is wrong. I think all Continental European laws trying to govern the conclusions of scholarship are misbegotten, as academia and the judgement of future scholars are a sufficient and effective form of governance in these matters. Parliaments need not get involved.

But some of the motivations behind the law are at least somewhat understandable. Charles de Gaulle was doing something similar when he insisted that despite the work of individual collaborators, “the French nation” always resisted Nazi occupiers. Poland, emerging from the aftermath of World War II many decades later, does the same now. Poland also is subjected to weird, even bigoted insults from its supposed partners and allies. Ben Sixsmith, an Englishman living in Poland, contends that criticisms of Central European governments coming from the West, “have blurred into libels of their peoples.” He’s right.

All that throat clearing done, I am utterly baffled by the State Department’s ultimatum. The U.S. reaction seems wildly disproportionate or even hypocritical. Saudi Arabia is far more tyrannical in many more spheres of life, but Trump will still shake hands and jiggle their orbs. That’s the difference between being a payer and a payee, I suppose.

But the second threat to block the financing of military projects in Poland, which comes with a further threat to reconsider the stationing of American troops is very odd. NATO’s recent buildup in Poland is supposed to have a strategic rationale for deterring Russian aggression along the eastern borders of the alliance. This is part of a long-term project to redistribute resources to reflect the dramatic eastward expansion of NATO. Poland’s laws about speech do not change this.

NATO can have a military rationale for being in Poland, or it can have a political and social-engineering rationale, aimed at Central Europeans. Logically it can’t have both.

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