Having “moral clarity about our values”: A message to democracies from Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski

Roberto Rabel




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Poland’s Radosław (Radek) Sikorski is one of Europe’s most prominent and outspoken foreign ministers.

He assumed his current position for the second time in late 2023 after elections that ended eight years of populist government in Poland. Amongst numerous previous roles, he has also served as Defence Minister of Poland and as a Member of the European Parliament.

Sikorski has long warned of the dangers of Russian aggression and of an illusory post-Cold War peace dividend. He is also half of a transatlantic power couple advocating ceaselessly for bolstering democracy at home and abroad. His wife is the Pulitzer prizewinning writer, Anne Applebaum, whose recent works focus on democratic back-sliding and on threats posed by autocracies.

Roberto Rabel had the opportunity of interviewing Sikorski on 2 July 2024 at his Ministry in a room where the Polish flag stands symbolically between those of the EU and NATO, two key pillars on which the country has based its post-Soviet independence in foreign policy. The following excerpts are an edited and abridged version of their dialogue on Polish foreign policy and wider challenges for democracies.

Rabel: What are Poland’s key foreign policy priorities?

Sikorski: As Henry Kissinger once told me on his visit to Poland, the job of a Polish foreign minister is never boring. We live in a dangerous neighbourhood, with more powerful neighbours. Poland’s foreign policy objectives are similar to other democratic countries. First, to be left alone to pursue the well-being of our citizens, so security first. Secondly, creating the right environment for the growth of our business and thirdly going up in the hierarchy of nations. There are about 200 members of the United Nations, and we would like to belong to the first twenty. In some categories, we are already there: for example, in terms of our defence budget. In the economic sphere, we are on the cusp of being eligible for the G20.

Of course, now we have this war between two of our neighbours, which makes us politically more important in that conflict. But we would rather not have that kind of importance. It's a challenge. We've been invaded by Russia several times over the last 500 years, so we sympathize with our Ukrainian neighbours, with whom we used to be one country for 400 years. And we feel the solidarity also in our own self-interest because we think that if Putin won in Ukraine he would be empowered to go further.

Rabel: Do you agree, as President Joe Biden often suggests, that we are locked in a struggle between democracy and autocracy?

Sikorski: I agree with Joe Biden. I also agree with my wife, whose book called Autocracy Inc. is about to be published. It is about how autocracies collaborate in their dirty deeds across ideological divides: China a country run by the Communist Party, Russia an attempt to create a new empire, Iran a theocracy, and Venezuela a Bolivarian kleptocracy. Yet, they find ways of helping one another, with Iran supplying drones to both Russia and Hezbollah and launching drones against Israel. As democracies, we actually just want to be left alone. And for too long, some Western leaders did not accept that Putin was at war with us. They just thought it was a nuisance and that he can't possibly be serious because it's too crazy. Well now we have to accept that he is sponsoring sabotage and terrorism and death squads in our countries, that he carries out war crimes, both by shelling and rocketing Ukraine but also stealing children. He's an indicted war criminal. And the forces of autocracy and democracy are more finely balanced than they were during the Cold War.

Rabel: What do democracies need to do together?

Sikorski: First, we need to have moral clarity about our own values. Here, Ukraine is inspiring because they are fighting and dying for the right to be like us, for the right to choose where they belong and who governs them, and which alliances or groups of countries they want to join. Let's remember that it all started with the Maidan, which was about wanting to join the European Union. That's what Putin really objects to.

And secondly, we have to acknowledge that the [post-Cold War] peace dividend was drawn upon for too long. We weakened our defences and deindustrialized in the defence area too far and this needs to be corrected. Poland is now spending the highest proportion of GDP on defence in all of NATO, U.S. and U.K. included. We need to get our act together in the defence field. Putin tries to persuade people that Russia always wins in the end, because they defeated Napoleon and Hitler. And it's just not true. They lost the Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War, and the Cold War.

Rabel: You stressed that point at the UN Security Council this February in your pithy correction of Russian falsehoods that went viral.

Sikorski: [With laughter.] There are some moments of pleasure in the job.

Rabel: But you added the important caveat that, after the losses in those wars, there was reform. Do you think Russia is still redeemable?

Sikorski: Russia only ever reforms after lost wars. In every society we have a section of the population which is inclined towards authoritarian values. It's just that the proportions in Russia are higher. And so, the autocracy tries to conquer again and when they lose there is a moment of reflection. So, after the Russo-Japanese war, it was only then that Nicholas the Second gave Russia a constitution, a parliament and freedom of the press. It was after the losses of World War I that Kerensky tried to have a liberal government. It was after the war loss in Afghanistan that Gorbachev and then Yeltsin carried out their messy reforms.

Rabel: So, is Russia still redeemable today?

Sikorski: Yes, but the necessary condition is that she should lose in Ukraine. It would be good for the people of Russia and for the long-term prospects of the country to lose in Ukraine and then reinvent itself as a post-imperial country, just like all other European empires have had to do. It's not a pleasant process. But it's good for you in the end.

Rabel: Polish President Andrzej Duda has just visited China. What kind of relationship do you think European countries should seek with China, especially given its so-called No Limits partnership with Russia?

Sikorski: Collaborate where possible (on climate, terrorism, etc.), compete where needed, confront where necessary. President Duda told President Xi that we think supporting Putin is not the right policy and that China would grow in our estimation if she did to this war what the United States did to the Russo Japanese war, which is to end it by mediating a peace deal. China, through its influence, is in a unique position to do that. And the other thing that we need to do is to help China and the United States resolve their differences peacefully.

Rabel: Do you think there's a role for Europe in the Indo-Pacific region?

Sikorski: Well, we have no forces to send but we have trade relationships. And the trade with China works both ways. China has peaked economically and needs our markets. And we have made it clear that “doing Taiwan”, as they say, would not be without consequences for the relationship.

Rabel: What are your views on the challenge of populism in various countries?

Sikorski: Populists are people who offer simple solutions to complex problems and what always ends up is that, under the cloak of demagoguery, there's a lot of stealing.

Rabel: The 2023 elections here suggested that Poland has bucked the trend and that it's possible to counter populism.

Sikorski: We hope we are now inoculated.

Rabel: But can the wider challenge of populism be managed successfully by those who view themselves as centrists and liberals?

Sikorski: That's a subject for a whole book and Anne Applebaum’s book is very good on this. But there are practical things that we could do, because populists usually exploit an issue that the establishment has neglected. One of those issues is migration. Another one is social inequalities. And a wise establishment heeds the cause of the dissatisfaction and seeks to solve it. So, we won in Poland partly because we outflanked the populists on the right in terms of toughness on protecting the border. I also feel we should address the inequality between generations and income disparities that have become too big. At the last cabinet meeting, we were discussing the minimum wage and I raised the question of why do we not have a maximum wage. I think in our Western countries that taxes are too high on labour and not sufficiently high on capital.

Rabel: You and Anne Applebaum have been champions and activists for democracy since your youth. What advice would you give to today’s young generation of democratic activists?

Sikorski: Ten years ago, I thought it would be boring for them and now it isn't. And you know for Anne it was an adventure to come to communist Poland and see communism collapse. I had my own adventures in Afghanistan and my son has gone to the front in Ukraine and is right now managing a general election in Mongolia, so he's having his own adventures.

So, young people should have an adventure—on behalf of a noble cause.

Rabel: Finally, with its high level of defence spending and Polish leadership in the context of Ukraine, is this Poland’s moment in a way that's comparable perhaps to the impact of the Solidarity movement on the Communist Bloc in the 1980s?

Sikorski: In this part of the world, we have a saying which we believe is a Chinese one and which may be a curse: may you live in interesting times, blessed are boring countries. We would rather be surrounded by friendly neighbours than have this war on our borders. So yes, we have to rise to the challenge, but we did not ask for it.

Rabel: Is Poland rising well to the challenge?

Sikorski: I think so. Look, if everybody else in the West did for Ukraine what we've done, it should be winning.  

Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel is a Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University and Visting Professor at University of Warsaw, Poland. He is also a Life Member and former National Vice President of New Zealand Institute of International Affairs. 


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