Court Geopolitics in the Age of Trump: Decoding the Polish Problem


July 23, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

Op-ed by Jafe Arnold (J. Arnoldski) – 

In recent days, the turmoil that has engulfed Poland has found its way onto the front page of the New York Times and other publications bemoaning the ruling Law and Justice Party’s judicial reforms as a perilous stride away from democracy. Pictures of dozens of thousands-strong protests against the ruling party’s initiative to replace existing judicial officials and subject Poland’s court system to parliamentary authority have swept both mainstream and alternative media. 

From the New York Times’ July 21st print issue

The framing of discourse on the ongoing bout has been rigidly dualistic. On the one hand, we have the narrative of the Polish opposition and much of the EU decrying an “increasingly authoritarian” and “illiberal” ruling party seeking to ensure its grip on power by rendering judicial power dependent on their parliamentary majority. On the other hand, we are told of a Soros-financed color revolution against Poland’s patriotic authorities who are heroically standing up to both the “Brussels bureaucracy” and mobs of “post-communists” and “liberal traitors” in critically reforming Poland’s corrupt judiciary. 

To start with the lowest common denominator, Poland’s existing judicial system is indeed problematic. The system in question is the very same that presided over the plunder and expropriation of the economy of the Polish People’s Republic, thus downgrading Poland into a semi-colony of the West, and is also the same judiciary that has been deprived of the authority to prosecute US-NATO soldiers for crimes committed on Polish soil under the SOFA agreement. Moreover, this is the very judicial system that has denied Poles their right to seek restitution over the annexation of Poland’s former eastern borderlands now part of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania in the name of appeasing Kiev. Finally, these are the very courts which, under the new ruling party’s appointees, have for more than a year continuously rubber-stamped the imprisonment on no official charges of anti-NATO activist Mateusz Piskorski. While “corruption” and “elitism” can be mentioned as well, these issues are beyond tautological and circular. That being said, reforming Poland’s judiciary system is clearly, in one way or another, a natural, domestic political issue which was and is inevitable. Poland’s courts, indeed, have not been “free.” 

If we leave aside the opposition’s hypocritical defense of “free courts” and the ruling party’s equally absurd claims that it is in effect liquidating the last remnants of “communism” in Poland, then merit can be found on both sides of the debate – but only if we restrict ourselves to the technicalities of what is purely liberal discourse, i.e., the one and the same course to which both parties adhere that has consistently driven Poland down a self-destructive course by all indices. To a certain extent, this domestic issue is thus another typical “apocalyptic exaggeration” intrinsic to the hyper-atomized democratic model, whereas the real problem is the liberal paradigm itself. The “controversial court reform” is merely another scene in the spectacle of democratic demagoguery. 

What is left out of sight amidst such commentary on this “war for the courts”, however, is the overarching geopolitical context. Both of Poland’s interchanging ruling parties, the now protesting Civic Platform (PO) and the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), are Atlanticist at their core. Whatever patriotic rhetoric PiS might employ in its drive to reform Poland’s judicial system at a time that benefits them the most cannot hide the fact that it was this “patriotic alternative” which finally brought US Army occupation back in January and whose own “defense” minister has taken the liberty to re-christen Poland as “the Eastern Flank of NATO” whose raison d’etre is supposed to be the suicidal – and typically Polish – role of a cordon sanitaire pitting Russia and Europe in the interests of the US. 

PO, which is oriented towards Brussels in contrast to PiS’ “Euro-Cautionary” or “Eurosceptic” stance, has demanded the same thing for years and has little else to offer in terms of an at least partially subjective vision for Poland’s US-NATO instrumentalization. Let us recall in this vein that in 2015 PiS won the presidency, the premiership, and the parliament with the largest (and first) democratic majority in the history of post-socialist Poland, and only with this popular mandate proceeded to push reforms to the Constitutional Court and other dimensions of Poland’s legal system. This does not, however, redeem PiS of its commensurate role in the liquidation of Polish sovereignty, nor should it detract from the fact that the existing Polish elite on the whole, despite exoteric differences, are Atlanticist offspring. And it is in this context that we should seek to understand the overarching implications of the current judicial squabble. 

With Poland’s fate sealed as a US military base in Europe and following Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw in early July, PiS has simply made its move. The underlying and probably accurate calculation here, one can assume, is that Trump’s America will not condemn PiS nor support Brussels’ threats to sanction Poland for “illiberal backsliding.” The US State Department’s press statement on July 21st rather tellingly concluded: “We remain confident about the strength of Poland’s democracy.” 

In this we can see remnants of the “moderate non-interventionism” or “passivity” that some anticipated as being a hallmark of the Trump Administration’s Europe policy. Rather paradoxically, though, here we can also see Trump being confronted with the fait accompli of a cordon sanitaire which objectively keeps him from even hypothetically adjusting US geopolitics away from the anti-Russian front in Europe. The objective result is the maintaining of the US hegemonic set up centered on Poland and aimed against Russia (and Europe) which Trump’s campaign rhetoric and related changing US geopolitical apperceptions presumed would be subject to austerity in a potential US shift away from Russia towards Iran and China or, in some analysts’ views, towards Latin America. 

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In pushing judicial reform, PiS is therefore seeking to entrench itself for the long haul, and is counting on Trump’s passivity or, less likely, support, all the while holding the card of being the US’ “favorite” in Poland which finally welcomed US troops and whose long-term vision for Poland fits neatly into Washington hegemony, unlike PO’s reliance on the crisis-ridden and inertial EU. PiS has benefitted to a great extent in this by riding the European-wide wave of “patriotic reaction” to the EU and “populism”, despite the fact that it is thoroughly Atlanticist in contrast to the continental (anti-American) populisms on the upswing in other European countries. 

Whether President Duda will sign off on the judicial reform bills in the coming days will depend much on perceptions of the US’ position on the matter. One thing is clear, however: If PiS succeeds in establishing itself in a reformed Polish political system of its making shielded from criticism by “populist” rhetoric and US military presence, then the Trump-led United States will, whether desired or not, have a permanent foothold between Russia and the EU. This would seal Poland’s fate just as much as Trump’s.

In short, the current bickering in Poland is a hallmark of the Trump era. It is an attempt at a foothold in shifting geopolitical sands in which the uncertainty and by all means lingering reversibility of the US’ changing geopolitics can be seized by yesterday’s “beneficiaries” hoping to avert a US-Russia rapprochement and therein preserve their Atlanticist raison d’etre. We have witnessed the same phenomenon in the US Deep State’s war on Trump which at one point culminated in Trump ordering a direct bombing of Syria. 

Unfortunately for Poland, PiS’ long-term calculations are unlikely to succeed insofar as the superpower on which they are predicated, the United States of America, is on its way out – no matter how much Trump willingly or under pressure preserves the architecture of US hegemony in Europe – and the rising actors which Poland is being driven to antagonize are the players of the future. 

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Poland’s court controversy thus belongs to the category of daring, voluntaristic spectacles played along the path of the current transition period. It is a desperate gamble by a state which has set itself up to be cut out from the emerging multipolar era, hoping to reverse this trend by cornering the new “post-Trumpism” Trump. Hence why, despite all the noise, this “scandal” will nevertheless putter out like all the others in the face of the greater geopolitical shuffle which neither PiS nor Poland, nor Trump for that matter, can control. 


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Poland on the chopping block: NATO’s sacrificial lamb

Zmiana, Piskorski, and the Case for Polish Liberation 

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