Interview

‘We Have No Idea What President Trump Would Do in a Crisis with Russia.’

Poland’s former defense and foreign minister explains how Trump left Eastern Europe in the lurch.

Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish minister of foreign affairs and defense, in Krakow, Poland, on December 17, 2017.  (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish minister of foreign affairs and defense, in Krakow, Poland, on December 17, 2017. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments in Helsinki this week continue to reverberate across the world. Polish politician Radoslaw Sikorski sat down with Foreign Policy to discuss how Europeans should respond.

Foreign Policy: Most Americans have absolutely no idea where Montenegro is and what Trump is talking about. How was his comment read in Eastern Europe? What do Central Europeans and Eastern Europeans hear when they hear that comment about Montenegro?

Radoslaw Sikorski: What we heard was a repetition of the same sentiment that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressed in the 1930s: These are far away countries of which we know little. In Poland, the immediate association is with a song from 1938 to ’39 about Frenchmen not wanting to die for Gdansk. Of course, what we remember was that those who didn’t want to die for Gdansk would have to die for Paris nine months later. The membership in the NATO alliance is an issue decided by treaty. Montenegro didn’t get that by the decision of some ambassador, or even a previous president. The procedure required a two-thirds majority in the [U.S.] Senate. It’s the legal obligation of the United States. So, when the U.S. commander in chief says, “well I don’t know,” it undermines the very foundation of NATO. Now, he is technically correct that an alliance gives a smaller country some influence over when a larger country goes into conflict. But that is precisely why security guarantees that are not credible are so dangerous–because they make small countries braver than they should be, and they limit the scope of action of big countries. And in this case, the president has introduced an element of uncertainty which is harmful to the stability of a volatile region in the Balkans, where as you know, the Russians have been doing some nefarious things.

FP: Do you think Trump is just ignorant of that history, or do you think this was an expression of actual hostility to the notion of alliances in general?

RS: If I were to comment on his ignorance, I wouldn’t know where to begin. But he also doesn’t understand the international dynamics. What is particularly disturbing in this case is he made his comments shortly after that secret, heart-to-heart with President Putin. First of all, I don’t know why he needed this private, unrecorded conversation. Secondly, we don’t know what transpired. The Russians no doubt have a recording. The Russian Defense Ministry says they are starting now to act on the agreements that were made. What agreements? As U.S. allies, we don’t know. The U.S. administration doesn’t seem to know. So, it doesn’t build our confidence in your president.

FP: Let’s talk specifically about Poland. The current government celebrated Trump when he came and gave a speech in Warsaw last year, but it seems that his position on NATO and then calling the EU a “foe” directly threaten both Poland’s security and economic interests. How does a government like that, that has publicly embraced Trump on some levels, view a moment like this?

RS: We have a government of national populists who feel ideological affinity with President Trump. But they are also now caught in a trap, because in two short years they have revolutionized Poland’s foreign policy, wrecking our relationship with the European Union and making us totally dependent on the United States for our security as a result. In light of President Trump’s behavior and words in Helsinki, that doesn’t look so smart.

FP: Is there a real fear? I know that you are not necessarily very close to people in the current government. But what are you hearing? Or, what do you think they are thinking in reaction to what Trump said in Helsinki?

RS: They are keeping quiet because they feel embarrassed. They think that he has undermined their political position at home as well as abroad. In a thousand years of Polish history, we have never had a British or an American soldier fighting in Poland for Poland, because we are just logistically very difficult to reach. The Polish-American alliance only makes sense in the context of NATO and the existence of logistical links that goes through Germany. The current government’s “Israel on the Vistula” concept—the idea that we can have a bilateral Polish-U.S. alliance while having hostile relations with France and Germany—to my mind, makes no sense. I advocated that we persuade the Polish government to mend its relationships with the EU and with Germany. Economically, also, Germany is our most export market by far. We are doing very well making components for German cars so when the president of the United States sees Germany, and in particular German cars, as a threat to national security, we see it as both absurd and harmful.

FP: Looking beyond Poland, what do you think is the appropriate policy response for European leaders, collectively, right now to protect their own security interests?

RS: We’ve had these very glacial movements toward an EU defense identity, and I think we should accelerate them. NATO is still very important. Let’s hope that we live through this presidency. But, clearly, we cannot rely exclusively on the United States, particularly in the south. Libya, for example, is clearly a European problem. We shouldn’t count on the U.S. to help us secure external borders of the EU any more than the U.S. counts on us to build the wall with Mexico. Europe’s Eastern flank has hitherto been a job for NATO. But we have no idea what President Trump would do in a crisis with Russia, and therefore, we should start developing an alternative.

It would be much more expensive and difficult. But, you know, the EU defense budget is twice the defense budget of Russia. If you want to be an aggressor, you usually need a three-to-one advantage. So, I think Poland alone would give Russia a bloody nose. But we need to get much more serious about this. The president of the United States is signaling to us that America is tired of being the world’s policeman, that America can do very well for itself by being just a nation-state and just taking care of its own neighborhood. It’s regrettable. We may think this is contrary to U.S. national interest, but clearly every country determines its own interests. Just because it’s wrong doesn’t mean it won’t be done. And we have to adjust to it.

FP: You’ve spent some time in Washington. You’ve known some of the key players over the years, both in Democratic and Republican administrations. Where are the Russia hawks right now? Do you think they are just holding their tongues, and behind the scenes completely exasperated? Are they trying to keep Trump in check quietly, out of the view of the media? Is there any hope that they might reverse Trump’s position and get him to be more vocal?

RS: I have known [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis for years. I have also met Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo. They are sound on Russia. [National Security Advisor] John Bolton was a colleague of mine at the American Enterprise Institute, and I am astonished. I can’t imagine how conflicted he feels, at the table with a dictator who appears to have some kind of hold over his president. I have always thought that John overestimated America’s power, but that he was a believer in peace through strength, particularly vis-à-vis dictators. He must be imagining he is playing a deep game. I hope it is successful.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. @sasha_p_s

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