Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, a common favorite for the job of European Union foreign policy chief, has been recorded calling the U.S. a worthless ally. That must have been a nasty shock for the State Department, coming from a diplomat perceived to be more pro-American than many of his European colleagues.
The Polish weekly Wprost has somehow come by a number of recorded conversations between various Polish government officials. It is now Sikorski’s turn. In an exchange earlier this year with then finance minister Jacek Rostowski, Sikorski allegedly said this:
“This Polish-American union is worthless. It is even harmful because it gives Poland a false sense of security. Complete bulls―. We get into conflicts with the Germans, with Russia, and we think everything’s great because the Americans like us. Suckers. Complete suckers.”
The conversation then moved on to the Polish national character. Sikorski expressed the view that Poles had “a very shallow pride and low self esteem,” amounting to what the foreign minister called murzynskosc. Rostowski, who grew up in the U.K., appeared not to understand the term, so Sikorski had to repeat it. It’s a rare word that could be translated as moorishness, and Sikorski has helpfully tweeted a link to a Wikipedia article on “negritude,” a movement of black Francophone intellectuals against French colonialist racism in the 1930’s. It’s clear why Sikorski likes the link: He is being accused of racism in Poland for using the word.
Clearly, Sikorski meant no racial slur: Rather, he was complaining about Poles’ provincial awe of its stronger Western allies. Another accusation, that of hypocrisy, is harder for the minister to dodge. Only last year Sikorski said “the Polish-American relationship has a strong foundation. Our peoples have strongly-rooted ideals of freedom and human rights.”
Asked on Twitter about Sikorski’s remarks on Wprost, U.S. ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull replied: “I’m not going to comment on alleged content of private conversations. As for our alliance, I think it’s strong.” Perhaps I’m not alone in perceiving an overtone of doubt in the “I think”: surely Mull knows of the mutual mistrust between U.S. and European diplomats. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland expressed it concisely in another leaked recording in February, telling U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt: “F― the EU.”
The substance of what Sikorski said about the U.S. providing a false sense of security should be troubling to Washington. There, American support for Europe in the defense area is seen as very real. The U.S. contributes the greatest share of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military budget ― 22.2 percent, compared with 2.6 percent for Poland. Besides, the U.S. is responsible for 73 percent of NATO members’ total defense spending. “Quite simply, this is unsustainable,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a recent speech. “If we Europeans want the United States to remain committed to European security, we must show a commitment to pick up our part of the bill.”
Would the U.S., however, really stand up for each and every one of its NATO allies, from Albania to Iceland? France, Germany and the U.K. represent 50 percent of the non-U.S. defense spending in NATO, and these countries are capable of standing up for themselves in most currently imaginable scenarios. Smaller and poorer member countries, Poland included, would have to depend on U.S. intervention in case of a black swan event such as war with Russia, which, after the Crimea annexation, is a less remote possibility than a year ago. Sikorski, who has pushed aggressively for NATO to be more active in Eastern Europe, seems to have had his doubts and may still harbor them. He has seen Russian troops in action: in a previous life, he was a journalist covering the Afghan was in the 1980’s (he even won a World Press Photo award).
The Polish minister’s ambivalence about the U.S. and his reluctance to be a “sucker” undermines Poland’s status as one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Europe and could hurt Sikorski’s chances of replacing Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy coordinator. A lot depends, however, on the source of the Wprost leak. If it turns out to be a Russian special operation, such as the publication of Nuland’s conversation with Pyatt, it may be seen as a plot to defeat Sikorski’s candidacy because of his relatively tough stance on the need to confront Russia in Ukraine. Nuland kept her job after the leak, so Sikorski’s career may still advance.
By Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is a Berlin-based writer, author of three novels and two nonfiction books. ― Ed.