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President Trump’s speech in Warsaw: Problematising ‘Western values’ and the case for inclusivity

President Trump’s speech in Warsaw: Problematising ‘Western values’ and the case for inclusivity
Warsaw Uprising Monument on Krasiński Square, Warsaw. The site where President Trump delivered his speech on 6 July 2017. Photo: Flickr / Jorge Láscar.


On 6 July 2017, in his first major speech on European soil addressing security issues, President Donald Trump focused his attention on the need for states that constitute ‘the West’ to take the steps needed to address what the President labelled ‘dire threats to our security and to our way of life’. The speech emphasized two things: the defence of common interests (where the President focused on military matters), and the confident promotion of shared values.

In relation to defence, a great deal has already happened in a short space of time. The leaders of most Western states now give greater priority to military aspects of security than was the case prior to 2014. The main Western security institutions—NATO and the European Union (EU)—have each initiated programmes intended to enhance and adapt their capabilities in light of changes in technology and the volatile strategic environment. Moreover, the EU and NATO have made a political commitment to cooperate with each other, using their complementary assets, and are putting in place the practical arrangements to make cooperation effective.

Strengthening collective defence against physical violence is now largely a question of ensuring that what has been agreed is fully implemented. How to approach the question of safeguarding values is more problematic. President Trump identified whether the West has the will to survive as the ‘fundamental question of our time’, and characterized Western civilization as under attack from malicious external forces—a message somewhat similar to the one he delivered in his speech to the United States Congress in March 2017.

President Trump used Polish history to try and make his case, but Poland, and the Polish people, were victims of the collapse of Western civilization from within. The behaviour of European states had a global impact, and the principles elaborated after 1945—codified in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—were intended protect all states and all peoples. From this point of view, identifying a separate system of ‘Western values’ is not accurate or helpful.

What is unique to Europe is the common effort to develop an interlocking web of laws, agreements, guidelines and institutions to translate universal principles into a system of governance. The definition of security is comprehensive, covering political, military and human rights dimensions (the environmental and economic dimensions are present, but have never been fully developed). No other world region has anything comparable to the European attempt to build a common and cooperative security system, starting with the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and then greatly elaborated and strengthened in the documents and institutions created at the end of the cold war.

This European system is under great strain. President Trump presumably had this in mind in his oblique call for Russia to ‘cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere’. However, making the European security system work effectively is an internal matter, not related to external threat. The issue is whether European countries can uphold the standard they have set for themselves, and hold each other to account effectively in case of backsliding and bad behaviour.

The West probably does have a special role to play in promoting wider European security, but not because it is more civilized. Western countries have greater experience in applying the rule of law domestically, and in ‘the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms’ referred to in the Helsinki Final Act. They also have more abundant resources to bring to bear on identified issues and problems.

The further consolidation of policy across Western institutions would be beneficial, but not only to promote internal strength. As President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote in a joint article on The Future of Trans-Atlantic Relations, promoting shared values is an inclusive, enabling process to help all countries that want to be part of a wider community.

Excluding European states that are not members of Western security institutions would be counter-productive, and inconsistent with what President Trump referred to as a Europe that is strong, whole, and free. The European system was developed in, and for, Europe, and attempts to export elements of it remain controversial—except in cases where engagement with non-European states is on a voluntary basis.

In his speech, President Trump raised an important question: is cooperation among sovereign states possible in the absence of fear? Framing the issue in this way is a reminder that institutions exist to help states solve problems, rather than the other way around. What the President called his tough stance is a useful first contribution to open and honest dialogue.



Dr Ian Anthony was the Director of SIPRI’s European Security Programme.