European Affairs

The negotiations exemplified a new sophistication in Warsaw about dealing with its allies in NATO and in the European Union – and thus a new promise of regional leadership. The meetings had been billed as a tough session of hard bargaining over how much the United States would pay Poland for accepting the defensive missile base on its soil. Sikorski, however, split the issue into two tracks – Polish acceptance of missile defense and U.S. help in modernizing Polish air defenses. This distinction may sound merely cosmetic, but in fact, this dual-track approach offers greater diplomatic flexibility designed to rally wider support for the plan. It is a recalibration with some political risks: the process, like any compromise, offers time for opponents to mobilize their attacks. But the negotiations have now been put on a new footing based less on trade-offs and more on the need for allied solidarity.

The word has special resonance in Poland, where the Solidarity movement led the country to independence and democracy in the late 1980s. Sikorski put it in Washington, “In Poland we like to define our relations with the United States as a strategic partnership, and we hope that the relationship is strategic not just on our side. We think that’s the best way to describe relations between nations which share the same democratic values, often act hand in hand to combat global terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Poland, as a country that loves liberty and knows how to export it, is also with the United States in promoting democracy and freedom, not just in Europe, but in the world.”

His forward-looking speech eschewed a recent habit in Warsaw of reminding other countries what they “owe” Poland for its 20th-century sufferings. Instead, his approach was couched in terms of the Polish government’s need to get support for its foreign policy from its allies in Washington and in EU capitals – solidarity that Sikorski clearly views as a way of neutralizing some domestic opposition to Poland’s stance. Asked by European Affairs about the views of Poland’s EU neighbors on its acceptance of the proposed U.S. missile defense base, Sikorski acknowledged dissent in Europe about the missile defense initiative: “This is an unusually complicated equation because in addition, there are some uncertainties about what the next U.S. administration might do. There are also some people in Europe who say, well, why should Poland do this bilaterally with the U.S.? Europe’s security is at stake, too.” In his statements in Washington, he repeatedly made the point that Poland was trying to take into account the interests of its NATO allies.

Sikorski’s apparent readiness to consider other countries’ views does not mean that the Polish government is ready to give way on its own convictions. That would not occur to anyone familiar with Sikorski’s record as a youthful anti-Communist in Poland who then became a war correspondent chronicling the demise of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. But it does signal a shift in Warsaw to a subtler way of handling its international relations. Foreign policy was the thing that other European countries disliked most about the very conservative and nationalistic Polish government led by Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski (whose twin bother, Lech Kaczynski, is still Poland’s president). It was so objectionable partly because of it confrontational style. When Warsaw threatened to block the new EU treaty unless it got more votes in EU decision-making, the diplomatic row caused bad blood that threatened Poland’s long-term interests. On the issue, Poland was not isolated at the start: some other EU countries were willing to ride Poland’s coattails. But Warsaw’s special pleading – that Poland needed to be compensated for Polish suffering at German hands in World War II – does not work in the contemporary EU. The Kaczynski brothers were so strident in pushing their pro-American convictions in ways that any gratitude on the part of the Bush administration was often offset by the way Polish behavior grated on leaders’ nerves in other EU capitals – and in Moscow. Perhaps the most visible instance of this dynamic involved the natural-gas pipeline, called Nordstream, that is planned to run under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. It is a costly plan, whose only “advantage” seems to be that it avoids running through Poland. Despite Polish complaints (and U.S. pressure), Germany has not encountered resistance to the idea among most other EU governments except for Sweden and the Baltic states, which have voiced worries about the environmental risks of the long undersea pipeline. So the project still seems to be in the cards.

Trying to change the losing hand it inherited on this issue, Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new Polish government appears willing to run some domestic risks as the price of shifting to a more credible international position. For example, there are rumors (unconfirmed by Polish officials) that Warsaw is considering dropping its opposition to Nordstream, and perhaps even joining the project. There are advantages to this move. The pipeline seems likely to be built, and the Russian gas arriving in Germany would flow close to Poland. So Warsaw might be able to rely on Germany to share its gas supplies if Moscow threatens to shut off its own deliveries to Poland. Any such deal, though, would expose the current government to accusations by its predecessor of “caving in” to Russian pressure. So if the new government ever wants to seriously explore such a shift, it will first have to build up its own credibility – at home and abroad – to survive any charges of weakness.

Part of this task falls on Foreign Minister Sikorski, who has earned strong credentials as a champion of Polish national interests and freedom (especially against Moscow) since his days in the student wing of Solidarity. Thanks to his early prominence in the opposition, he was among the people who were propelled from the underground to high government positions after the communist regime was toppled in 1989. Even in this historic group, Sikorski has had an extraordinary trajectory that exposed him to the risks of resistance and warfare and also included extensive experience in Britain and the United States. His life took a special turn when, still a teenager but already active in the anti-communist movement, he was stranded in Britain in 1981 when martial law was declared in Poland. Certain to be arrested if he returned home, he enrolled at Oxford University, where he studied politics, and then became a journalist. As a roving correspondent for National Review, the conservative American magazine, he covered the wars in Afghanistan and in Angola, writing widely translated books about his experiences. When Solidarity triumphed, he went home and served in ministerial posts in the country’s new democratic governments in the early 1990s.

With Poland finding its way in after a half-century without freedom, Sikorski won admiration for his stands, but also triggered controversy, notably as an architect of laws that refused to recognize foreign passports that had been acquired by Polish emigrants until they renewed their citizenship in Poland. He moved in 2002 to Washington, where he spent three years as a resident at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. He maintained his high personal profile internationally as the executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative, a prestigious AEI-affiliated international group (including Henry Kissinger, Vaclav Havel and Margaret Thatcher). Its goal was to consolidate U.S. ties to European nations, notably by extending NATO membership to the countries that became known as “the new Europe.

In 2005, he went home to run for office. He was elected to the Polish Senate and became the Minister of Defense, handling the expansion of the Polish military contingent in Afghanistan to 1,200 troops deployed in Kandahar, a key front against the Taliban. As Minister, he became embroiled in a domestic political row over a shake-up in Polish military intelligence that eventually led to his resignation. As he explains it, “we were going from 100 guys in Afghanistan to 1200. In other words, a serious operation… we were going to the south, to Kandahar. I know a thing or two about Afghanistan. You have to be serious when you operate in Afghanistan. So part of the conversation which led to my departure was ‘look, if you are telling me to go to war, I need the instruments to win. I need the commanders that I trust and I need intelligence chiefs and intelligence officers that I think are capable.’” He resigned in February 2007, but this time Sikorski did not have to spend long in the political wilderness.

After elections in November 2007, he was named minister of foreign affairs in the new government. In his post, he entered a special league of high-profile foreign ministers in EU countries such as France’s Bernard Kouchner, who also has experience on the ground in great danger as founder of Doctors without Borders, and Greece’s Dora Bakoyannis, with her background as a hands-on mayor of Athens and an architect of the first visit by a Greek Prime Minister to Ankara since 1959, when a settlement was reached by Greece, Turkey, and Great Britain on the independence of the Republic of Cyprus.

When Sikorski took office, the burning dossier in his in-tray was missile defense. The U.S. has proposed a new set of anti-missile systems based in Europe, with 10 interceptors in Poland and associated new radar stations in the Czech Republic. Washington insists that the system’s purpose is to intercept missiles fired from Iran. But Moscow contends that this plan amounts to a disguised version of its old nemesis, the Reagan administration’s strategic defense initiative, which was designed to neutralize long-range Soviet missiles. Most Western strategic analysts dismiss Russia’s alleged fears about the limited U.S. system as technically ungrounded; the Bush administration says that Moscow is simply creating a false issue to drive a wedge between Poland and other EU countries, and between the EU and the United States. But Russian President Vladimir Putin contends that the plan “threatens our national security” and has threatened to target missiles at EU states where any parts of the planned U.S. missile shield are sited. In any case, the missile defense plan – the biggest U.S. military investment in Europe in decades – obviously touches a raw nerve in Moscow because it would mark the first time that NATO has set up a major installation, with some attached forces, in any of the new alliance member states that were once part of the Warsaw Pact and now border Russia.

Public opinion in Poland has been divided about the plan, but the previous Warsaw government pledged to proceed with it, apparently relishing an opportunity to defy Moscow and flaunt its pro-American disposition. To sell it in Poland, Warsaw made it known that it would seek a quid pro quo in terms of a big boost in U.S. military aid to Poland. So there were fears in Washington that the new Polish government might feel it needed to launch a “bidding war” for more U.S. help in order to forestall attacks from the domestic opposition. The prospect alarmed U.S. officials, who said that their hands were tied financially because U.S. funding for the missile defense program had already been set by Congress for the coming year. The Bush administration, in its last year in office, had no appetite for a losing battle against Congress on this issue. Already, Poland is the top European recipient of U.S. military assistance, totaling $750 million since 2001. So there was concern of a possible deadlock when Sikorski arrived in Washington in January for the first high-level visit of the new Polish government. His trip was to set the stage (and tone) for subsequent visits by the new Polish defense minister and Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

“It would be disastrous for the U.S., Poland and in effect NATO to buckle to Russian pressure on this issue,” a former Bush administration official said. The worry was that Sikorski, despite his ingrained habit of standing up to Moscow, would prove just as tough in demanding compensation from Washington that would enable him to sell the agreement to domestic opinion in Poland. Some observers speculated that Sikorski might delay negotiations in hopes that the next U.S. administration, which takes office in January 2009, would make a better offer for the Polish base, which they may need badly by then to keep the U.S. program on track. Such a delay, U.S. officials fretted, would embolden Moscow by suggesting lack of resolution in Warsaw. In the event, Sikorski displayed diplomatic skills that seemed to match the quality of his writing and political activism. Ahead of his U.S. trip, he visited Moscow to listen to Russian concerns. In Washington he gave a talk outlining his government’s subtler position on missile defense, reframing the issue as a dialogue about Western strategic solidarity, not just a bilateral bargain. The new Polish presentation (see below) kept up the momentum of the program without any public commitment about a calendar or a price tag.

That formulation seemed to work for the Bush administration, and Sikorski ended his visit with a joint news conference with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Both sides announced their satisfaction with this dual approach, the right formula for keeping up momentum bilaterally and with NATO – and possibly even with Moscow. Sikorski seems to have brought back the statesmanship that was part of the renowned success of Solidarity.

Foreign Minister Sikorski laid out a comprehensive presentation of Poland’s approach to the U.S. missile defense plan in a speech in Washington on January 31, 2008. Following are excerpts from the transcript of his speech, which he made in English at the American Enterprise Institute.

For Poland, the missile defense project, with its far-reaching security implications, is the most important security issue since our entry into NATO. Thus nobody should be surprised that there is so much attention devoted to it and so many expectations built around it. We have already been consulting with the U.S. administration on it for several years. Exactly a year ago, we received an offer and regular negotiations began.

I have closely followed the process from the beginning. We have discussed many aspects of this initiative, including changes in Poland’s security environment that will result from it. And I have to admit that for all of this time, our assessment of challenges and means to confront them have not yet jelled fully with those of the U.S.

Let us get back to the basics. In general terms, we share the American threat assessment, though Poland does not feel directly threatened by Iran or any other Middle Eastern states. However, we recognize that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology are important challenges in the years to come. There are countries that perceive WMD as a tool of international politics and a potentially effective instrument of blackmail. There are what we used to call rather coyly “rogue regimes” – I think the politically correct way now is to say “states of concern” – that do not comply with international law and do not cooperate in good faith with the international community. And we must not preclude a situation in which the WMD and means for its delivery could become available for violent non-state actors.

In such a dark scenario, economic incentives, diplomacy and traditional non-proliferation and control regimes will not be sufficient. Therefore the MD project adds to our options a much needed element of force and thus contributes to our deterrence capability. We are glad that there are signs of understanding within NATO on these issues. The possibility of interoperability of the American project with the anti-missile defense programs developed by the alliance will make NATO militarily stronger in case of potential threats. It will also enhance a genuine visibility of security for the entire alliance.

There are ideas that both parties in this negotiation keep close to their hearts. There are, however, issues that have not so far been shared by our American partners. The first important factor in this regard is that the potential U.S.-Polish MD cooperation will make our security mutually dependent for decades to come. It will affect our security in military terms and all other aspects of our security. Therefore it is crucial that we establish a new and solid legal foundation that will make this concept stable and resistant to political disturbances, or rather, turbulences.

The second factor is that the missile defense project does not exist in a vacuum. The missile threat does not constitute the only challenge to the alliance and to both of our countries. There are other risks that require the development of new capabilities and a sufficient political effort to collectively address them. I have already pointed out the fight against terrorism, reconstruction, and stabilization. One can add also energy security, cyber defense and other issues….

Thus in the negotiations that we have, we aim at a comprehensive, political, military agreement that will comprise initiatives to enhance NATO, to deepen our bilateral cooperation and to support the modernization of our armed forces. Our aim is to contribute to the security of the What we expect from the United States is solidarity, a word that in Poland we treat very seriously United States, of NATO, but also to make Warsaw more secure.

The adherence to shared values has led us to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the first case, it has been keeping us there for some five years, it has cost Poland a number of dead, wounded, and half a billion dollars in expenditure. In the times of the Afghanistan ISAF operation, growing demands and limited response from other allies – as I mentioned before, Poland has twice increased its military presence there with no caveats on the activities of our soldiers.

…What we expect from the United States is solidarity – solidarity, a word that we in Poland treat particularly seriously. And that the cooperation that we have enhances the security of both of our countries.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.