It’s no surprise that a presidential candidate would make a point of visiting England and Israel. But with the close race for the White House entering its final phase, it’s not self-evident why Mitt Romney chose Poland as the only other destination on his first international trip as the presumptive Republican nominee. Mr. Romney’s visit to a country American politicians have often neglected is best understood, I suggest, as a pilgrimage honoring Poland’s role in the long history of humanity’s quest for freedom, and a clue to some of the likely priorities of a Romney administration.
Poland has received scant attention from presidential candidates in the past. Ignorance about Poland led to two of the most embarrassing presidential gaffes in recent history. The first was amusing, when Jimmy Carter’s translator rendered his attempt to express affection for the Polish nation as his desire to “make love to the Polish people.” The second was shocking, when Barack Obama described the Nazi concentration camps where countless Poles had perished as “Polish death camps.”
A similar insensitivity marked the timing of the Obama administration’s abrupt cancellation in 2009 of a planned missile defense complex that the country’s leaders had agreed to accept despite heavy pressure from Moscow not to do so. Adding insult to injury, the cancellation — widely viewed as a U.S. concession to Russia — was announced on a date that for Poland lives in infamy: the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.
Such slights have not gone down well in a proud country that often has been used as a pawn and treated as expendable by great powers.
Two of the 20th century’s most respected leaders, however — President Reagan and Pope John Paul II — regarded Poland as a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit, proof that the human longing for truth, freedom and dignity can never be extinguished. When Mr. Romney visits Warsaw and Gdansk, he, too, will be honoring Poland’s role in the history of freedom.
While in Gdansk at the invitation of Solidarity hero and former Polish President Lech Walesa, Mr. Romney surely will evoke Reagan’s wholehearted support of the Solidarity movement, born in that city’s shipyards. In 1981, when the Jaruzelski regime launched a crackdown on Solidarity, Reagan gave his unhesitating encouragement to the burgeoning movement, saying: “We the people of the Free World stand as one with our Polish brothers and sisters. Their cause is ours.”
In Warsaw, Mr. Romney certainly will acknowledge the key role played by religion as a motivating force in the nonviolent overthrow of totalitarian communism in Eastern Europe. Mr. Romney can be expected to take the occasion to evoke John Paul’s historic 1979 visit to Warsaw, where thousands gathered to hear the Polish pope warn the rulers of his native land that “the exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.”
Just two weeks ago, on July 15, a still-grateful Polish republic unveiled a statue of John Paul and Reagan walking together, placing it in Ronald Reagan Park in Gdansk. Mr. Romney’s pilgrimage to Warsaw and Gdansk signals that for him, as for those two giants of the 20 century, religious freedom and human dignity are not just pious platitudes. They are at the center of his political and social concerns.
Because Mr. Romney shares the conviction of Reagan and John Paul that religious freedom is indispensable in the quest for peace and democracy, he rejects the cynical approach to foreign policy that dismisses the power of faith and relegates the quest for human dignity to a marginal status. He rejects the misguided realpolitik that caused Mr. Obama to remain silent when Iranians rose up to protest their stolen election in 2009 on the ground that he did not want to “meddle” in Iran’s internal affairs. What, one wonders, would the world look like today if Reagan and John Paul had not wanted to “meddle” in the affairs of Poland by calling good and evil by name?
Mr. Romney’s affirmation of the importance of religious freedom is especially timely, for it comes at a moment when religious liberty is at increasing risk at home and abroad. According to the Pew Forum, nearly 70 percent of the world’s people experience “high restrictions” on religious freedom, some because of governmental policies, some because of societal intimidation, and some because of both in combination. Yet the Obama administration has consistently downgraded religious freedom in its foreign policy.
On the home front, thankfully, we are the beneficiaries of a tradition that has long enabled Americans of all faiths and no faith to coexist in remarkable harmony. Recent developments such as the current administration’s opposition to providing standard conscience-protection language in Department of Health and Human Services regulations have proved that even here, religious freedom needs to be guarded carefully lest it become a second-class right to be trumped by a range of other claims and interests.
Mr. Romney’s staunch commitment to religious liberty not only explains his decision to travel to Poland but provides assurance that the first of freedoms will not be relegated to the sidelines in the foreign or domestic policy of a Romney administration.
Mary Ann Glendon is Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and served as the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in 2008-09.