Poland's New Government Seeks Solidarity, Not Provocation

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Radoslaw Sikorski--better known as Radek--has a well-earned reputation as a combative man with a sardonic edge. But since taking charge of his country's diplomacy last year at age 44, he seems to have channeled his ambitions for Poland's foreign policy into a quest for a more measured tone and constructive stance towards fellow European Union members, towards an historic antagonist, Russia, and towards Warsaw's main ally, the United States. On display during his first trip as foreign minister to Washington in late January 2008, it seemed to be effective in reaching a new understanding with the Bush administration about a controversial U.S. missile defense plan that would base 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

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). …