Radosław Sikorski served as Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for seven years, longer than anyone else since the transition from communism 30 years ago. During his tenure, Sikorski faced many serious challenges, from the 2010 plane crash at Smolensk that killed then-Polish President Lech Kaczyński to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Now, he has published a new book, outlining his philosophy of Polish foreign policy.
In Polska może być lepsza (Poland Can Be Better), Sikorski picks up on a 300-year tradition of Polish romanticism, only without all of the accompanying pathologies. His evident fascination with Polish history – even Polish mythology – is a welcome departure from the soulless Realpolitik that dominates so many political memoirs nowadays.
Through tales of hosting foreign guests at his manor in Chobielin to his retelling of Poland’s great military victories in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Sikorski proves always willing to defend Poland’s good name. It was Sikorski, after all, who first campaigned against the use of the term “Polish death camps,” though he did so more skillfully than the current Law and Justice (PiS) government.
Nevertheless, Sikorski’s approach to Polish history is to deconstruct it completely. He questions whether “contemporary nations” are really capable of having “honour” and highlights the damage that grand, demonstrative political acts committed in its name have done to Poland. In the best cases, the acts yield nothing; in the worst cases, they “succeed” by visiting terror and bloodshed upon the country. For example, almost no Poles regard the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a defeat, even though it claimed some 200,000 civilian lives and led to the total destruction of the city.
In contemporary foreign affairs, Sikorski is always mindful of Polish interests, even – or especially – when it comes to dealing with more powerful countries like the United States. It is best, he argues, to start from a position of trust, but not if it means being played for a fool. Poland should demand reciprocity and avoid risks whenever possible. It should set ambitious goals, but only if they are feasible.
That means acknowledging that a country like Poland can never succeed on its own. The attraction the country held for major powers after 1989 stemmed from its accession to major international organisations such as the European Union, NATO, and the OECD. Still, Sikorski’s book serves as a reminder of a time when Poland’s foreign policy did have some significance for the EU, not least during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since PiS came to power, Poland has been left increasingly isolated within the EU.
During his time in public office (2005-2015), Sikorski’s main priority was to ensure Poland’s security by maintaining good relations with America and ramping up the US military presence inside Polish borders. Yet he is quick to add that Poland should avoid becoming a client state.
Indeed, Sikorski does not hide his frustration over the trajectory of Polish-American relations during President Barack Obama’s administration. Poland’s military presence in Iraq did not bring the hoped-for benefits. The anti-missile shield has not been built. The American military presence in Poland remains largely symbolic. If he had to choose, he would rather Poland be a strong country within the EU than a lesser ally of the US. Indeed, Sikorski comes close to saying that the US security guarantee is illusory, which is one of the greatest foreign-policy dangers imaginable.
Sikorski advocates a pragmatic approach to Russia, recognising that it is the only existential geopolitical threat Poland faces. He cautions against the tendency among Poles to “hate Russia much more than they love Poland,” as the father of Polish nationalism, Roman Dmowski, once put it. Sikorski thinks Poland should cooperate with Russia as much as possible, not through empty gestures, but by assuming an influential position within the EU – a body that Russia takes seriously. And he reminds us that Russia is Poland’s largest non-EU trading partner.
Of course, Poland’s single-largest trade partner overall is Germany, which championed EU membership for Poland. Sikorski makes clear that the Polish-German alliance must be nurtured. But that is sometimes easier said than done, as demonstrated by Poland’s opposition to Nord Stream 2, a joint German-Russian pipeline that will allow Russian natural gas deliveries to Germany and the wider EU to bypass Ukraine and Poland.
Sikorski considers Polish concerns about Nord Stream 2 well-founded but exaggerated. The most important component of Polish security is Poland’s relationship with Germany. Under NATO contingency plans, it is Germany that would deploy forces to defend Poland in the event of an attack. The decision to follow through on the North Atlantic Treaty’s mutual-defence clause would most likely be made in Berlin, not in Washington, DC.
Finally, Sikorski explains how, in managing relations with Poland’s neighbours, he embraced the primacy of politics over history. As foreign minister, he pursued the traditional policy of developing a buffer between Poland and Russia, not least by initiating the Eastern Partnership as a way to bring Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova closer to the EU and NATO.
Looking back, Sikorski was smart also to include Sweden in this process, as Sweden and Poland tend to complement and amplify each other’s strengths. For its part, Sweden is wealthy but small. And while it has a good reputation as a longstanding EU member, it is not capable of influencing the bloc on its own. Poland, by contrast, has a larger population and comparable economy but lacks Sweden’s soft power. Both countries are wary of Russia’s imperialist tendencies.
The publication of Sikorski’s bookmarks his return to active politics after a three-year break. He is well-positioned to continue his career among the international elite of public intellectuals. But that will not satisfy his inner political animal. Now that he has presented his worldview, campaigning for a seat in the European Parliament – where he would no doubt play an important role – seems his most likely next step.