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The Polish Model

A Conversation With Radek Sikorski

Radek Sikorski

  • Country: Poland
  • Title: Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Education: Oxford University
  • Known For: "Speaking the truth, even when it is not diplomatic."
  • Awards: Ukrainian Order of Merit, first class (2007), Lithuanian 'Millenium Star' medal (2008), Commander Grand Cross of the Royal Order of the Polar Star of Sweden (2011)
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Radek Sikorski grew up in Bydgoszcz, Poland, where he led a student strike committee during protests against the communist regime in the spring of 1981. He was studying abroad when the Jaruzelski government declared martial law later that year, and he was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom from 1982 to 1989. After graduating from Oxford, he worked as a journalist, returning to Poland after its democratic revolution in 1989 and entering politics. He served as deputy minister of national defense in 1992, deputy minister of foreign affairs in 1998–2001, and minister of national defense in 2005–7; since late 2007, he has been Poland’s minister of foreign affairs. He spoke with Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose in March.

You and your country have lived through a lot of history over the years, a lot of epic ideological and geopolitical conflict. Will Poland’s future be as turbulent as its past, or have you reached an equilibrium that will allow you to have a normal national life? Indeed, both the Second World War and Solidarity started in Gdansk. The twentieth century was a roller coaster for Poland, regaining independence after World War I, then losing it and getting ethnically cleansed by Stalin and Hitler together, and then 45 years of struggle for democracy. Hopefully, we’ll produce less history than in the past. Geopolitically, we are having the best time in 300 years. And we are now contributing to other countries’ stability, being a source of European solutions.

So Poland is finally at the “end of History”? Inshallah, as they say.

You have said that by background and experience, you might well have become a Euroskeptic, and yet you’re the opposite. How come? As a conservative with a small c, I have a healthy suspicion of human institutions and of centralizing too much power at too high a level. And I lived for some years as a political exile in Britain, and if you only read, and believe, the British press, it’s hard not to become a Euroskeptic. But since then, I have learned from experience how the European Union actually works, and it was a surprise. It is very difficult, for example, to pass a European directive, because it’s not at all a fiat by Brussels bureaucrats, but something that needs the agreement of member states.

So the European Union is good for Poland, and you would like to draw even closer into it and join the eurozone? The European Union is extremely good for Poland. It was good for us even before we joined, because it gave us a strategic direction and a sort of civilizational template that secured democratic free markets in law. It required determination to get there, but now it is also the framework in which, for example, we no longer fear Germany, because we are both stakeholders in the same community. And the Visegrad Group -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary -- have the same number of votes as Germany and France combined. The Polish presidency in the European Union was particularly useful. It helped us to improve the quality of our state apparatus, gave us the experience of responsibility for 500 million people, and taught us to think on a continental scale.

The European project has been in crisis in recent years. How does it get past that, and what is its future? As a currency, the euro is doing fine. Its proportion in the reserve baskets of major states is stable, as is its exchange rate against other major currencies. The crisis is one of indebtedness in some eurozone member states. But non-eurozone states -- United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan--also have problems with indebtedness. The eurozone’s problem was that the crisis hit before the European Union had developed an institutional framework able to deal with it. We have now created that framework, and it’s quite a tough one. It will make irresponsibility by politicians much harder. And it has also decided a major economic question of the twentieth century, because it represents the victory of the Chicago school over Keynes. We had come to the limit of Keynesian-style monetary stimulation.

So you don’t buy the argument that Europe’s recent experience shows that austerity has been a mistake? Look at the successful and unsuccessful countries in the eurozone. If Germany hadn’t carried out its labor-market reforms, which today would be called austerity, it would not be in the place it’s in. You have to make your economy competitive. “Austerity” is actually a misleading term, because we should be austere in one particular area -- towards our overblown public sectors. We should do what Latvia did, sacking 30 percent of bureaucrats and cutting the wages of the rest, rather than passing the crisis on to pensioners and socially disadvantaged groups.

So the question is not whether cuts can and should be made but how to make them wisely? And how to sell them to the public, explaining the origins of the crisis and detailing a credible path towards overcoming it. That’s what the Latvians did, and as a result, not only is Latvia growing again, but the government got reelected. This is an inspiration from the former eastern Europe to the rest of the continent.

Poland has been an economic success story in recent years. What lessons does its experience offer? Our economy has indeed grown by almost 20 percent cumulatively over the last four years, and our eurobonds are now more in demand, at lower interest rates, than those of Spain, Italy, and even France. And our economy is going up in various international indices, such as those for industrial competitiveness. All that is the result of fundamental reforms that we carried out 20 years ago and that we continue to push -- without rioting. For example, just last year, we extended the retirement age for women from 60 to 67 years. Since we suffered hyperinflation in the 1980s, we’ve been permanently converted to fiscal responsibility. In that sense, we’ve become northern European.

Our reform program in the early ’90s was carried out in the spirit of a cavalry charge, and it worked. Our recession lasted the shortest, was the shallowest, and left the country better prepared for the recent financial crisis. Others in the post-Soviet world had illusions that dragging it out would diminish the pain. Various countries privatized by various means with different levels of public mistrust. That means our region offers a rich database of what works and what doesn’t work, which can be used in other contexts, such as the greater Middle East, or Burma, or Central Asia. But I think the main lesson is that there really isn’t a “third way” between a command economy and the free market. By delaying reform, you just risk getting stuck in the middle, with crony capitalism and corruption.

You made headlines a while back when you called for a strong German leadership role in carrying out reforms in Europe. What did you mean? That speech came at the precise moment when the whole world was frightened of the eurozone collapsing, with potentially apocalyptic consequences for the global economy. And of course, for good historical reasons, Europeans -- and we Poles in particular -- are wary of an assertive Germany. But if you are economically and financially the strongest power on the continent, you also have the greatest responsibility.

How did the Germans react to hearing this from a Pole? I heard that there was a three-phase reaction at the highest levels. The first was gratitude that a Polish politician would speak about Germany so confidently, at last treating Germany like a normal neighbor. The second reaction was, “No, we can’t lead on reform; we are Germans. We don’t lead in Europe; our leadership is a dangerous thing.” And the third, and apparently final, reaction was, “Maybe he’s right; maybe if we don’t act, the whole thing will collapse, so we’d better do something.” And they did.

Is the lesson from German-Polish rapprochement that even countries with some of the most terrible bilateral histories in the world can still manage to reconcile over time? Absolutely, because I believe our reconciliation with Germany is now complete. We are strong treaty-based allies, but also partners in the EU and joint initiators of important EU projects. But remember, we’ve also achieved reconciliation with Ukraine -- a country with whom we had a history of massacres and ethnic cleansing in the 1940s.

We are working toward reconciliation with Russia as well, but it’s harder because the Russians find it difficult to disentangle their pride in winning the Second World War from what should be their revulsion at Stalinism. So we have to play a long game. Our churches have issued a joint statement modeled on the Polish-German statement of the 1960s, and we appreciate President Putin’s visit in 2010 to Katyn, the site of a massacre of thousands of Polish pows. And we have a joint group on difficult issues which is working to establish the facts of our tragic history.

Can you imagine any kind of renewed geopolitical conflict to your west in your lifetime? As a former war correspondent and a writer, I have a vivid imagination, but no, I cannot imagine an armed conflict between us and Germany.

Does your imagination extend to the possibility of a future conflict to the east? Our relations with Russia, like yours, are pragmatic but brittle. And unfortunately, after the war between Russia and Georgia, I’m afraid conflict in Europe is imaginable. We have an intensive dialogue with Russia on security issues, and I hope we will manage to mediate our differences. For example, now that the U.S. will not be building a fourth phase of missile defense [in Europe], the phase that potentially affected the Russian nuclear deterrent, we hope that Russia will keep its word and refrain from hostile missile deployments on the NATO border.

You’ve been a strong proponent of an autonomous European defense identity. Isn’t that simply duplicative of NATO? What is the reason for such a capacity? In security matters, our first loyalty is to NATO, and we’ve proven this with deeds. When our ally the United States was struck by terrorists, Poland sent a brigade to Iraq and commanded a division composed of two dozen nations. We’ve sent a contingent of 2,600 troops to Ghazni, one of the most difficult provinces in Afghanistan, too. We are still in the Balkans. NATO is the bedrock of our security, and we are one of the few countries that maintain defense spending at nearly two percent of GDP and of even fewer that have increased such spending during the economic crisis.

But we also believe that Europe should never again be as helpless as it was in the 1990s in the face of major emergencies in its own neighborhood. If you remember, it took two years before the United States realized that Europe wasn’t able to bring peace to Bosnia. And unfortunately, 200,000 people died to make the point. Europe should also do more to help shoulder America’s global responsibilities at a time of strained defense budgets. I am glad the United States encourages Europe to become capable of carrying out operations in its vicinity.

Poland has participated in most of the EU’s two dozen operations, such as in the Congo, in Chad, and now in Mali. Europe has also effectively used lethal force. Last year, a kinetic operation was carried out against the Somali pirates in which their boats were destroyed, and as a result, the incidence of piracy off the Horn of Africa has dropped by 70 percent. That is a perfect example of Europe and America working side by side and achieving a joint objective.

Do you worry about the future of democratic stability in Europe thanks to the economic crisis and the efforts taken to address it? I do. When you have a crisis and politicians blame the crisis not on their own past profligacy but on the body that is helping them, the European Union, it’s odd and dangerous. Austerity puts a huge strain on a democratic polity, and it calls for responsible leadership in explaining to people what went wrong, why, and what measures are necessary to fix it.

What is your take on the Arab Spring? We Poles, like you Americans, are a revolutionary people. So when others get rid of their tyrants, our initial reaction is one of solidarity. But we also know the rules of politics, that crises are usually taken advantage of not by the best people but by the best-organized people. There is very little that we as outsiders can do to affect events, except to set a good example. We sponsored a multipart documentary in Arabic on the Polish democratic transition on Al Jazeera. We sent Lech Walesa to Tunisia to tell them how we did it. I was the first EU foreign minister in Benghazi, when Qaddafi was still fighting. And meeting with the then Provisional National Council made me realize that the challenges that these societies face are identical to what we in central Europe faced two decades ago.

For example, are you going to have a unitary state or a federation? What is the role of organized religion in your country going to be? Do you amend the existing constitution, or do you write a new one? Do you want a presidential or a parliamentary system? What do you do about the personnel of the old regime, meaning secret policemen but also judges, teachers, bureaucrats, diplomats, all of whom got tainted in some way? What do you do about the archives of the old regime? These usually contain explosive material about large swaths of a society that can make or break careers. Do you destroy them, lock them up, make them accessible to the public? How do you write a media law in a democracy, and how do you grant broadcasting licences so that oligarchs don’t dominate the airwaves?

In various countries in the post-Soviet world, these issues were dealt with differently, and so people in the Middle East today can see what decisions lead to what results. That is why some of these countries think of us as role models. We are more comparable to them than the United States. And they are more willing to take lessons from us than from their former colonial masters or from countries with strong ties to their former dictators. Poland is true to herself when we play the role of a beacon of international solidarity on democratization. This is what the majority of Poland’s developmental assistance is devoted to. We’ve created a Polish Foundation for International Solidarity. And during our presidency of the EU, we initiated the creation of the European Endowment for Democracy, consciously modeled on its U.S. counterpart.

Some have argued that the greatest contribution of Europe to democracy promotion is the EU’s openness to new members on its periphery, along with strict accession criteria for joining. Can that be used to help further progress? Absolutely. It’s no accident that the Nobel Foundation specifically mentioned enlargement in its citation for the European Union’s Peace Prize. The Treaty of Rome says that any European country can join. It is modulated by the Copenhagen criteria, which include the rule of law and democracy.

We are in the process of admitting Croatia now and have extended a promise of possible future membership to countries in the western Balkans. Then, you get into the tricky business of defining what being in Europe means. Certainly, it applies to countries that have the majority of their territory in Europe. But Poland also supports Turkish admission, and we worked hard during our presidency to open another negotiating chapter, which I hope will happen imminently. Naturally, we can’t enlarge forever. But even the promise of a greater association with us in terms of visa liberalization and trade is a very powerful incentive. I wish we could do it more quickly and more generously in response to political events in our neighborhoods. I wish that we, as Europe, could grant privileges for countries’ good behavior and withdraw them if they stray.

You’re a proud and passionate Polish patriot. You are also a proud European. You’re a proud Westerner. How do such overlapping identities play out in the twenty-first century? Being European does not supersede one’s national identity; it adds another layer. In Europe, we have regional patriotisms and local patriotisms. Europe is another locus of our identification. Often, you discover your European identity while traveling or living abroad, just like Americans have discovered the reverse while staying in Europe. Being in the European Union helps us to build a successful Poland and therefore strengthen a new Polish pride based on success rather than on the wrongs that we suffered in the past.

Speaking of the United States, two of the signature initiatives of the Obama administration in its first-term foreign policy were the “reset” with Russia and the “pivot” to Asia. Both of those could be construed as paying less attention to eastern Europe. Did that bother you? Most countries crave attention from the United States. But we started our reset with Russia before you. When our government was formed, in 2007, we made a cooperative move, lifting our objections to Russia joining the OECD, and waited for the move of the other side. Russia responded by lifting the embargo on our agricultural exports. As for the pivot, the job of freeing and uniting Europe and making it safe is largely done, so it’s no surprise that America is paying attention to those regions where there might be more trouble and also huge economic opportunities. Having lived in Washington, I appreciate America’s global perspective. I wish we in Europe were thinking and acting as strategically. 

Do you worry about Europe’s declining role in the world geopolitically, with the rise of Asia and other developing-country powers? I worry about the whole West’s relative demographic and economic decline. We are still, Europe and the United States together, 47 percent of global GDP. If we create a transatlantic free-trade area, this might be the last moment when we can become a regulatory superpower. We need to co-opt the rising powers and give them stakes in existing institutions, because otherwise, demography being destiny, they will eventually create their own.

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