Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Interview with Atlantic Council

23 May 2023

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: Hello and welcome to a special Warsaw Week episode of Atlantic Debrief the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center series on pressing issues in the transatlantic relations today. This week, we have been celebrating Warsaw Week, which is a week long series of programming on-ground in Warsaw available virtually, and to our international audience dedicated to highlighting the importance of the US-Polish relationship and Poland’s role in Europe and beyond. You can watch all Warsaw Week programming using the link below. My name is Aaron Korewa, I am the Director of the Atlantic Council’s relaunched Warsaw Office. And today, I have the great and distinct honor to welcome none other than the US Ambassador to Poland. Mr. Mark Brzezinski.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Thank you, Aaron, for having me.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: Thanks for joining us. It’s great to see you. So welcome to the Atlantic Debrief, Ambassador. Let me just start with a bit of a personal question. You’ve been ambassador here in Poland for about a year and a half, right?

Ambassador Brzezinski: About 16 months.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: And more so, you know about Poland. Your father was the great Zbigniew Brzezinski. So Poland isn’t new to you in that sense. But is there something that has surprised you over this year and a half?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, Aaron, thanks to the Atlantic Council for having me here today and for hosting Warsaw Week. This is a moment like none other for think tanks in Poland. There are so many challenges and opportunities that require new ideas, and new ideas are what think tanks make. To answer your question: I lived in Poland 30 years ago. I lived here. I was here on a Fulbright scholarship for two years here in Warsaw. I wrote a book about the struggle for constitutionalism in post communist Poland and spent a lot of time at the Constitutional Tribunal. And I must say, coming back here, 30 years later, what has struck me, Aaron, is the degree of certainty and sense of safety that the Poles have about collective defense. When I was here 30 years ago, you could still hear Soviet troops on their morning jogs around Krakow, singing their songs. Today, 30 years later, there’s a crisis immediately to the east, but Poland is part of a collective defense alliance, that they know works. And that’s the NATO alliance. So although we are on literally the frontlines of crisis and war, Poland is a normal country: kids go to school in the morning; businesses are open. I’m hosting all kinds of American businesses investing or thinking of investing in Poland, despite the fact that it is on the edge of a war zone. That to me is progress. That for me is capacity for change. And I’m not so sure I would have expected that in the anxious, uncertain more insular Poland of 30 years ago.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: I am too young to remember communism, but I do remember the early 90s. I can see the journey this country has made.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Definitely.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: So quickly, where would you say we are in the US Polish relationship today? What are some challenges and opportunities going forward.

Ambassador Brzezinski: So I think Poland and the United States have never been as meshed together before as they are right now. Because we’ve never been practically as an operational reality doing as much together. The fact is that on the security side we have over 10,000 US troops in Poland, spread out all over the country, mostly on Polish bases – although we have the first ever US military permanent facility, the US Army Fifth Corps (Forward) headquarters is now a permanent facility in Poznan, Poland. Whether its military exercises or being prepared for any and every contingency given the war to the east, the military side is incredibly intensively aligned. On the humanitarian side, the Poles have welcomed millions of refugees, not only into their country, but literally into their houses and into their homes as a product of national policy. So there I think the Poles have evidenced a reactive mobilization that I’m not sure people would have expected before this happened. Literally the entire country has embraced the refugees from the east, 1.5 million of whom have registered with the government – and most Ukrainians I have met don’t register with the government. So I suspect it’s way more than 1.5 million, but all are in Polish homes and apartments. The President of Poland has gone on National Television and said that this is the right thing to do. So naturally, our humanitarian agencies and the NGOs that it works abroad with are very much deployed on the situation. But this in particular in Poland is very much a Polish lift. So there’s the humanitarian peace. There’s the business piece, despite the fact, as I said, before, that we are on the edge of a warzone. Google purchasing the Warsaw hub for $1 billion. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, announcing thousand of polish jobs for YouTube here in country. Chris Kempczinsky, the CEO of McDonald’s, opening further McDonald’s stores shows an assurance that the Polish economy is worthy of American investment. I can tell you, just generally speaking, in 2023 we are expecting to see further major investments in different sectors in Poland – and so the the business to business piece is very much aligned. On democracy rule of law and values, while both of our countries have work to do to protect our democracies, we very much have a robust conversation with the Polish government, which basically makes the point: the American troops in Poland, are not here to protect a particular political party, or a particular political leader. The American troops are here to protect and advance democracy, rule of law, human rights and freedom. And that point is not lost on the Duda administration. So on democracy, rule of law and human rights, I very much think we are step by step, having a robust dialogue that produces results for the American interest here in Poland. And so we have a rigorous engagement with the Poles right now, that continues, despite the fact that there are challenges, especially pertaining to the crisis in Ukraine.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: War in Ukraine, the Russian unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is, I believe, the most important conflict in Europe right now since World War Two.

Ambassador Brzezinski: It is. it is because we don’t know what Putin will do next. So we have to be ready, all across NATO for every contingency. Too, because we are supporting the Ukrainians, as they successfully push back the Russian attackers. Our tactics are changing as Russian tactics are changing. Witness the President’s recent announcement regarding training of F 16 pilots. Even going back to the beginning of the war: we first started by providing Javelins to the Ukrainians, then HIMARS, and then tanks. So there is a dynamic quality to the tactical support. And again, the Ukrainians are winning. And ultimately, I feel that when the Ukrainian people win, in pushing the Russians out of Ukraine, there will be a transformational moment, both in terms of an endorsement of political democracy and free market economy that will be like one of a kind you see in 100 years in the heart of Central Europe, but the rebuilding and modernization of Ukraine will have itself a catalytic effect. What do I mean by that? What I mean is 30 years ago, Aaron, when the Soviet bloc collapsed, 26 countries emerged from it. Some have been successful, like Poland and the Baltic states. Some have had a tougher start, and were weaker, and more victimizable: Ukraine, Moldova, and were victimized, as you can see, by Putin. We will have a moment in the rebuilding process to have a renaissance in terms of drawing in that part of Eurasia to Europe, and to the Western orientation of free market democracy, that we missed the chance to consolidate before and that we have the chance to consolidate now. Poland, and all the countries along this NATO eastern flank, will be in a critical critical geostrategic position to advance that or not. So it’s a moment and it’s a moment for thinkers at the Atlantic Council to help everyone get organized and prepared for: Americans, Poles, Europeans, the world alike.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: Absolutely. We had a great Warsaw Week and you were so generous to come and join us at the kickoff of Warsaw Week. In that speech, you mentioned this great opportunity that is ahead of us. You mentioned the importance of sort of strategic planning as well. I was wondering what role do you think Poland can play in this reconstruction and transformation of Ukraine that we’re going to see going forward?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, thank you, Aaron, for that question. You probably remember that in my opening speech for Warsaw Week for Atlantic Council, I quoted my late father Zbigniew Brzezinski, who always used to tell his kids: Ian, Mika and myself, “you guys need to engage in strategic planning.” What he said strategic planning was is thinking two/four/ten years ahead and remaining flexible and getting organized and ready to pivot and move quickly when the time is right. That’s the essence of strategic planning. So we don’t know how long the war in Ukraine will last, but one day, it will be over and I believe the Ukrainian people will win. It will be imperative for us to be organized and ready, and the thinking up for that starts now. You ask what could be Poland’s role? Well, that depends on the constellation of international interests that are pulled together on this as well. As you know, the G7 has a steering group around this very subject that I hope the Poles are insinuated into. Generally speaking, the Poles – despite history – have generated a lot of legitimacy in Ukraine, by the love they have shown the Ukrainian people, by embracing them when the Ukrainian people are refugees, and not knowing where to go in the West to sleep that night. The town in eastern Poland that my late father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, comes from is Przemysl, Poland. In that town there is a train station, where most of the refugees arriving from Ukraine flow through as they get onto trains to go into western Poland and beyond. There is a banner that hangs over that train station that reads three words: “Tutaj jestescie bezpiecnie.” It means “hereyou are safe.” Who in the world does not want to feel safe? That is the essence of what the Poles provided the Ukrainians. It is like the Natalie Hawkins song “Love is the Answer.” The Poles have extended love, and the Ukrainians will not forget that. That legitimacy will be important will be an important icebreaker and door opener when there is a rebuilding and transformation. There will be a role, of course, for the international community because it will cost a lot of money. Some of the World Bank estimates show the cost of rebuilding Ukraine being quite into the hundreds of billions of dollars. This is infrastructure and contracting at European prices. But whether it’s construction, or logistics, or transportation, or healthcare, the Polish people and their business community could offer a lot. Just let me give you an example: Budimex is Poland’s infrastructure company. That’s around 55,000 employees, roughly speaking, in Poland. One quarter of Budimex’s 55,000 employees are Ukrainian. That could be relevant – I’m not saying it is – but that could be relevant for a rebuilding plan.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: That’s a great concrete example. Thank you so much, Ambassador, for your time. That’s all we have time for today.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Thanks for having me.

Aaron Korewa, Atlantic Council: Great. It’s been great to have you and thank you for joining us for Atlantic Debrief. You can follow more of our work on Twitter at AC Europe. And you can also use the hashtag Warsaw Week to check out more of our programming. Thank you so much and tune in next time