Even before he left for Europe, Donald Trump had started with the demands and acrimony he brought with him to this week’s NATO summit. So right beforehand, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, pushed back. He urged America to appreciate its allies, pointing out that America didn’t have that many. Trump’s tone at the summit indicated he was more interested in hectoring them about military spending. But Tusk’s own biography shows exactly why the alliance is about so much more than defense budgets.
Tusk got his political start in the 1980s as an activist in Poland’s democratic dissident movement and in Solidarity. That was no game during communist times in Poland: Tusk and his fellow democratic activists were risking their own freedom in order to make their country free.
In the Cold War years, American and other NATO troops held the line in Europe, containing Soviet power. In the end, America won the Cold War. But it didn’t win by itself, through military power alone. It won because American and NATO military strength helped create the space for democratic dissidents in Eastern Europe—people like Donald Tusk and his associates—to gather a different kind of strength.
It was Polish dissidents and Polish workers like Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s leader, and others throughout the Baltics and Central Europe that brought down communist rule from within. They were inspired by the example of Western values and democracy. Many were also inspired by President Ronald Reagan, who spoke in the name of these values, which he believed should extend to all of Europe, not just Western Europe. Even more were inspired by the Polish Pope, John Paul II, who urged the people of Poland to “be not afraid.”