Today, in Poland, the field of defense is undergoing a silent transformation of the genre. So far, the illiberal government has harnessed its momentum. To overcome uselessness, the liberal left must urgently catch up.
When scores of young people took to the streets in 2020 to protest the Law and Justice (PiS) government over its abortion ban, analysts proclaimed the emergence of a social revolution. Led by young women, and with gender equality at the forefront, this generational rebellion showed that past paternalistic norms and political arrangements no longer matched the way young people actually lived their lives.
Yet far from happening only on the streets, this transformation has also long occurred in less obvious sites – those the liberal left has not recognized, leaving the possibility for illiberal forces to take advantage of it. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the voluntary engagement of citizens in defense.
A changing security landscape
The general feeling of geopolitical stability after 1989 saw the reduction and professionalization of the Polish army, and the gradual detachment of citizens from the field of defense. This professional defense has long remained a “men’s affair”, although military careers have been opened up to women following membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2016, women made up less than 5% of army personnel, and current regulations made military service a male civic duty.
This has created relevant gender gaps in defense-related knowledge and skills in Polish society. In 2014, the Center for Public Opinion Research reported that only 6% of women recalled having received military training and 22% recalled civil defense training (compared to 45% and 61% of men respectively).
In 2016, women made up less than 5% of army personnel, and current regulations made military service a male civic duty.
With the continuing conflict in eastern Ukraine, authoritarian violence in Belarus, the Covid-19 pandemic and coming climate change, the issue of citizen preparedness for hybrid challenges has made a comeback in Central and Eastern Europe, after decades of de-prioritization. In Poland, this changing security environment has led more and more people to defend themselves through voluntary channels, including paramilitary and pro-defense organizations, defense education programs in schools and universities. and the Territorial Defense Forces.
A new opportunity for women
While emphasizing the military elements, these volunteering channels dramatically shift attention to societal resilience, human security, and non-military challenges. This paradigm shift has provided an unexpected opening for women.
Young women in particular are increasingly flocking to defense-related activities, such as rifle associations or volunteer defense programs in schools. As one senior expert told me, “Judging by the participation of women, they are the first to do it – there is no need to encourage them at all”. In 2020, women represented 43% of students in certified military classes and more than 16% of the Territorial Defense Forces, with both proportions expected to increase.
These developments highlight that gender norms regarding security in Poland are evolving, not only among the usual suspects – the metropolitan middle class – but also in provincial areas consistently described as gender conservative. There too, many young women no longer want to comply with the notion of the citizen as a maternal object of male protection.
In a recent survey commissioned by the Polish portal Defense24, 41% of women said they wanted to take basic military training if possible. This percentage could have been much higher if respondents had also been asked about civil defense training. And it is these feelings on the ground that the illiberal right has effectively exploited.
Tolerate the participation of women
Since coming to power in 2015, the PiS has given more support to defense-related activities, while channeling them through state-run channels such as its flagship project – the Territorial Defense Forces, formed in 2016. This has raised legitimate concerns on the part of the state. opposition regarding the ideological orientation of these developments, as the government continues to mainstream religious and illiberal-nationalist values into state policy on a large scale, while rescinding provisions relating to the gender equality and liberal democratic standards.
In fact, the Territorial Defense Forces promote their activities as being “in line with modern femininity,” and the Defense Ministry has organized women-only self-defense courses at military bases across the country, as well as building of its Women’s Council.
So far, however, the government’s radical platform has not resulted in a backlash against the women defenders. In fact, the Territorial Defense Forces promote their activities as “conformable to modern femininity,” and the Defense Ministry has organized women-only self-defense courses at military bases across the country, as well as building of its Women’s Council. While working to withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul convention on violence against women, the illiberal government also smoothly created the national action plan around the UN agenda. “Women, peace and security”, committing to increase the number of women in peace missions. and provide equality training to relevant staff.
Make no mistake: just as the PiS might brandish ‘family values’ on its banners only to freeze the value of social benefits for the most vulnerable families amid the pandemic-induced recession, it may also drop support. including women in building resilience once it no longer serves her immediate political interests. This is where the liberal left can step in.
The rejection of the defense by the left
The problem is that the Polish liberal left does not have an autonomous voice on hybrid security challenges in Central and Eastern Europe. Nor has it developed any alternative proposals to involve civil society in security, in a more civic and democratic way. So far the opposition has been largely reactive, criticizing defense-related developments as dangerous and party-induced – clearly unaware that similar changes are also taking place in the more stable liberal democracies of the Baltic Sea region. .
The pacifist positions of the left do not fully explain this inaction, given that societal resilience can take many forms, including nonviolent, civic and civil. In Poland, however, the liberal left is still trapped in its blind belief in the so-called “end of history” marked by European integration and NATO membership, despite the rapidly changing security environment. In the region.
This not only led to the disappearance of strategic thinking among young social democrats, but also made them deeply suspicious of the concerns and activities related to security within their own constituencies, which were systematically viewed as unimportant. enlightened and potentially “uncivil”. This lack of security strategy on the Polish left also explains why gender equality in the field of voluntary defense has been largely overlooked by Polish feminism. Ignoring the potential of societal resilience for re-gender and national security civilization, feminists have given up on developing effective advocacy in this area.
This lack of security strategy on the Polish left also explains why gender equality in the field of voluntary defense has been largely overlooked by Polish feminism.
Fortunately, the Polish liberal left has vast resources on which to base its programmatic interventions. One is provided by the Nordic states, where the doctrine of “total defense”, recently revived for uncertain times, has been closely linked to the idea of a cohesive welfare state. This has not prevented these countries from excelling in the indices of democracy, peace and gender equality.
Another is comparative research on non-military societal resilience. This is a particularly effective way to tackle hybrid challenges in a democratic way – by strengthening social cohesion, presenting fewer barriers to participation and mobilizing more international support.
If the strengthening of Allied defense and deterrence is rightly supported by Polish voters, the left can still intervene in this dynamic. To break the hegemony of the right, he can advocate the reconstruction of civil defense around groups of local citizens and work for the integration of civic, egalitarian and democratic values in the channels of voluntary military defense.
This article is a joint publication of Social Europe and IPS-Journal.