Interview: Radoslaw Sikorski

Visiting Washington this week, Poland's foreign minister spoke with FP about the Russian reset, his country's interests in Afghanistan, the legacy of 1989, and how better communication could have prevented the missile defense debacle.

Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski listens during a debate organized by the German Marshall Fund of The United States attended by Georgia's Reintegration Minister Temur Yakobashvili and Russia's Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov on the sidelines of an emergency summit of European Union leaders on the crisis in Georgia at the headquarters of the European Council on September 1, 2008 in Brussels. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Foreign Policy: Shortly after the Obama administration’s reversal on the missile defense system in Central Europe, you were quoted as saying that you hoped this would disabuse Polish leaders of the "dream of basing everything on a bilateral alliance with the United States." Do you still feel that way?

Radoslaw Sikorski: The administration has now explained its position more thoroughly, and we are now satisfied and want to go where the U.S. is leading, toward a more adaptive and more proven system. [The new system] will take longer to construct, but will create fewer tensions in our region. I think we’re now on the same page with the U.S., and we are ready to address the details and the amendments to the agreements I signed with the previous administration.

FP: What was the reason for your initial dissatisfaction with the change?

RS: The news management and the decision-making management could have been better, but it was not unanticipated. We knew when signing the agreement with the previous administration that the new one would take a fresh look at it. So, that’s been done and we now think that missile defense will be a fruitful but not exclusive part of the U.S.-Polish relationship. If the new system gets built, we like it more than the previous one.

FP: There had been reports of a probable change in strategy for months. How much of a surprise was the announcement on Sept. 17?

RS: We were not surprised by the content of it, but we were surprised by the timing. I spoke to senior administration officials on the first of September, and we agreed on a timetable for reaching the decision. It included a pre-decision consultation. We expected to jointly handle the news management of it. That did not come to pass.

FP: The announcement came on a very sensitive date for Poland, the anniversary of the Soviet invasion in World War II. Do you think the administration is committed enough to researching and understanding your region?

RS: We had a visit by the vice president since then, a good visit. We have a rich calendar of contacts over the next few weeks. Now that the administration has found its feet and listened to our concerns, I have every confidence that we will be working with this administration as we have with every previous administration.

FP: Are there differences in the tone or approach of the Obama team, as opposed to the last administraion?

RS: One thing I would say is that in the previous administrations, there were more people who knew and had served in our region for part of their career and knew our region from firsthand experience. But there is plenty of time to correct that.

FP: What’s on the agenda for your meeting with Secretary Clinton this week?

RS: We have issues to discuss having to do with our region. President Obama has invited our prime minister to a disarmament conference in April. We think that should deal with not only intercontinental ballistic missiles, but also tactical. I hope to persuade Hillary Clinton to come to Poland next year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies, which was a program of support for democracy launched by our predecessors. We need this program even more than we did 10 years ago. Ten years ago it looked like history had a direction toward more democracy; today the trends are much more ambiguous.

Of course, we are also partners in Afghanistan. Poland has 2,000 troops. We are responsible for Ghazni province — 1.1 million Afghans. And this is, I understand, a crucial decision-making time for what we are going to do in Afghanistan. I have some personal perspective because I’ve been involved with Afghanistan for 25 years. I wrote my first book in Afghanistan. I spent six weeks in Tora Bora. I brought out the first pictures of stinger missiles from Afghanistan. So I’ll be giving her a piece of my mind.

FP: So what is it you’re going to recommend?

RS: If you’ll allow me, I’ll tell her first.

FP: From what I understand, there’s growing opposition in Poland to the mission in Afghanistan. What, in your view, is Poland’s strategic interest in keeping troops there?

RS: I haven’t met any enthusiasts for the war in Afghanistan in the United States either! It is, like all missions, expensive and risky, and the public doesn’t usually like it. In Poland, the opposition is quite wide, but not very deep. That’s because our interest in Afghanistan is really our interest in NATO succeeding. We invoked Article 5 in defense of our ally, the United States, and so we want NATO to succeed so as to maintain conviction for future challenges. When NATO goes to war, NATO wins. We have no selfish national interests in Afghanistan. Just a general Western interest in keeping terrorists far from our borders.

We also feel some solidarity with Afghanistan. They defied the Soviet Union in the 1980s at the same time we defied the Soviet Union, but we’ve been more lucky. We would like them to be able to benefit from democracy and a free market economy, just as we have. But we have to take a fresh look at this mission because our resources are not limitless.

FP: Do you think that Obama administration’s "reset" with Russia is worthwhile? Are there enough common interests for it to work?

RS: I’ve heard that the prisoner’s dilemma has been solved with supercomputers, and apparently, the most rational behavior is to do one good thing for your partner and then to do exactly what he does. I see the Obama administration doing the rational thing: making a positive step toward its difficult partners — not just Russia, but Iran, Cuba, and North Korea — and then seeing how the other side responds.

I would only advise that the more you talk to Russia, the more you should talk to Russia’s neighbors, who sometimes feel vulnerable, particularly after what Russia did in Georgia a year ago. We would like relations between Russia and the U.S. to be better than they are. We don’t want to be a front-line state. Russia is our second largest trading partner. If there were a return to confrontation, we would be much more adversely affected than the United States. The trick is to persuade Russia that she can be a significant partner without using 19th- or 20th-century instruments that have been tried with such tragic consequences.

FP: Have you seen signs that Moscow is reciprocating these gestures?

RS: We’ve improved our relations with Russia over the last two years. I’ve been to Moscow several times. Both the Russian prime minister and foreign minister have been to Poland. We’ve signed several agreements that couldn’t have been signed before.

I find Russia’s internal discussion about its own history extremely important and interesting. What President Medvedev has said in the last few days about the crimes of Stalinism is hugely important. With a Russia that recognizes its own history, we can have much better relations than with a Russia that builds on neo-Stalinist interpretations of history. Agreeing on facts is crucial in international relations. Look at France’s relationship with Germany. Trust and friendship is possible only on the basis of facts.

FP: Do you think Prime Minister Putin also agrees on these facts? As I remember, there was some controversy over his statements about World War II during his last visit to Poland?

RS: He came to Poland on the first of September, which we regarded as a positive gesture. In Stalin’s time, that wasn’t regarded as the beginning of the Second World War. Only when Germany attacked its erstwhile ally did it become the Soviet war. So that’s a gesture in the direction of the European mainstream. But we feel that it’s a conversation that Russia needs to have more.

FP: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of communism in Europe. How close is Poland today to what you would have imagined in 1989?

RS: Well, we are speaking on the second of November. I’d like to remind you that 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall was still standing and nobody expected it to fall anytime soon, while Poland already had a non-communist government.

We had gone ahead and created an atmosphere in which things became possible. I have some personal reminiscences from [that November]. I drove from Warsaw to Berlin with an American journalist to cover the fall of the wall as it happened, and we’ve been happily married for 17 years now!

To answer your question, I think we’ve done rather well. If you look at the map of GDP growth, Poland is a green island in the map of Europe. So we must have done something right. On Jan. 1, 1990, we passed 13 laws that introduced capitalism in Poland. It was a very bold move, but it meant that our recession was the shallowest and lasted the briefest time. Today our economy is the 18th in the world. And we are still growing despite the recession. So we feel we have something to offer other countries in terms of a successful economic and political transformation.

FP: Where do you see Poland positioned in Europe 20 years from now?

RS: We want to be for the east of Europe, what Spain is for the south: a country that gives a good example, that can speak up for the interests of its region and draws our neighbors toward the benefits of full integration. We want to have Western neighbors on both sides, and that includes Russia, by the way.

FP: Do you still think it’s fair to call Poland a "post-communist state"?

RS: Well it depends how you define it. Poland used to have a communist government, that was imposed on us by the Yalta powers. And we will never escape that. After all, many people in the United States are still obsessed with the Civil War. But we have overcome that horrible legacy in more ways than one. Of course we still have some catching up to do. Infrastructure and highways, for instance. But just look at cell phone coverage: In Warsaw I get 3G everywhere. Here … [shrugs].

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