In the latest fallout from an increasingly disruptive series of leaked audio conversations in Poland, its foreign minister Radosław Sikorski apparently called his country’s ties with the United States ‘worthless,’ and otherwise disparaged the bilateral Polish-US relationship:
Mr Sikorski called Poland’s stance towards the US “downright harmful because it creates a false sense of security”, according to the new leak. He has not denied using such language.
According to the excerpts, Mr Sikorski told former Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski that “the Polish-US alliance isn’t worth anything”.
Using vulgar language, he compared Polish subservience to the US to giving oral sex. He also warned that such a stance would cause “conflict with the Germans, Russians”.
At one point, Sikorski used the Polish word murzynskosc — meaning ‘slavery’ — to describe the bilateral relationship in a conversation with former finance minister Jacek Rostowski.
So who is Sikorski — and why do his comments matter so much?
Since 2007, Sikorski has served as foreign minister under Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, building an image as one of the European Union’s most hawkish voices on foreign policy, and it’s a role that’s brought Sikorski a higher global profile than the average European foreign minister. Poland, with 38.5 million people, is the sixth-most populous EU country. Since joining the European Union in 2004, Poland has become a leading and, sometimes, contrarian voice on EU affairs. Where EU officials once spoke of a ‘Franco-German’ axis as the guiding force of EU policy, it’s not uncommon today to hear discussion of a rising ‘Franco-Polish-German axis,’ and Sikorski has been at the forefront of Poland’s transformation into one of the EU’s leading powers.
Moreover, Sikorski is one of the most respected politicians within the country, even as the Tusk government’s popularity is waning. Notwithstanding the headlines about his comments today, he’s one of the most respected European leaders among global policymakers. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Sikorski himself become prime minister one day, and he’s also been mentioned as a leading candidate to succeed Catherine Ashton later this year as the next EU high representative for foreign affairs.
The EU job, in particular, might be an appealing option for Sikorski, whose governing center-right Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform) may lose the next parliamentary elections. Due to be held before October 2015, Poles may vote much sooner in the wake of the more serious repercussions from additional recordings released by Wprost magazine earlier this month.
In those recordings, interior minister Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz and the governor of Poland’s central bank, Marek Belka, are heard discussing the coordination of economic policy, as well as how to pressure a Polish company in relation to a bid to mint coins for the Polish treasury. In one part of the conversation, Belka appeared to agree to pursue monetary policies favorable to the Tusk government if it replaced Rostowski as finance minister.
Tusk fired Rostowski in a major cabinet reshuffle last November.
The scandal has brought into question the central bank’s independence, and Tusk has threatened to call snap elections over the recordings. So far, Tusk has refused to ask for the resignations of Sienkiewicz or anyone else in his government. Though the Sikorski recordings are embarrassing, they’re not nearly as damaging as the Belka recordings, and their publication indicates there could be more recordings yet to be released. At a minimum, it’s difficult to imagine that Belka will retain much credibility as a central bank governor.
Even before the news of the Belka conversation was reported, the more nationalist, conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice), led by former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, narrowly won more support than Tusk’s Civic Platform.
Sikorski’s comments were especially jarring in light of his longtime ties to the United States. Educated at Oxford in exile in the early 1980s during the last years of the Cold War, Sikorski spent the rest of the 1980s reporting from around the world, including in Afghanistan. Sikorski is married to prominent US journalist Anne Applebaum, and he spent three years in the early 2000s living in Washington, DC, as a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
But the content of the comments, however inartful for a diplomat who’s worked hard to smooth over his rougher edges, shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. Sikorski is well-known for his hawkish views, especially regarding Russia. Earlier this year, as an increasingly aggressive Russia annexed Crimea and otherwise stirred up mischief in the largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, no one was more outspoken in support of a united, muscular European response than Sikorski, who has warned both US and EU leaders against timidity.
Generally speaking, the US-Polish relationship is strong, and Poland has been a vocal supporter of a strong and growing NATO as a bulwark against a newly assertive Russia. Nonetheless, US president Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a planned missile defense complex in Poland in 2009 has been a minor strain on US-Polish relations throughout the entire Obama administration. Minor gaffes, such as Obama’s 2012 reference to ‘Polish death camps’ haven’t especially endeared the Obama administration to Polish leadership.
For obvious historical and geographic reasons, it’s easy to understand why Poles would be especially keen on a robust defense against Russia, even while Poland continues to forge new and increasingly strong economic ties with Russia. Poland spent much of the past three centuries struggling for existence, dominated by the Prussian/German empire to its west and the Russian/Soviet empire to its east.
When US vice president Joe Biden traveled to eastern Europe in March to reassure its NATO allies in the face of growing concern over Russian intentions, his first stop was in Poland, where he announced new steps for greater training exercises and closer security coordination among the United States and eastern European allies.
Though he joined Tusk’s party, Civic Platform, in 2007, Sikorski previously served as minister of national defence in Kaczyński’s government between 2005 and 2007.
Prior to his time in the United States, Sikorski served as deputy minister of foreign affairs between 1998 and 2001 in the government of former prime minister Jerzy Buzek, like Tusk another center-right Polish leader. He also briefly served as deputy defence minister in 1992 after returning to Poland in 1989 at the end of the Cold War.