Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Interview with Do Rzeczy

20 December 2022

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: Earlier this year, your mother, Emilie Benes Brzeziński, a relative of Edvard Beneš, president of Czechoslovakia in 1935-1938 and 1940-1948, died. She was famous artist-sculptor. As your sister, Mika Brzeziński, wrote: “your mother was an independent and modern woman”. What was your mother like?

Ambassador Brzezinski: My mother was an artist, and she was an artist in Washington, DC – which is not an artist’s city; it’s more focused on government and politics. So, she was on her own as an artist, but she had the support of my dad who was proud of her work. She would make these big rubber molds of trees and cast them into resin sculptures. Later she started working with wood and carved huge sculptures that have a strong ecological message. What I learned from her is the strength of personality that an artist must have to stand alone, to challenge convention, to do something that others may not understand – but they realize that it’s beautiful. When I was growing up, there was true gender equality in the Brzezinski home. My father was an important guy, but her work was just as important. When we kids came home from school, if my mom was working with her chainsaw on a huge sculpture, we did not interrupt her until she finished her work. Looking back as an adult, I respect my dad’s support of her in everything she did.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: Zbigniew Brzeziński was also called a Russophobe. Many American politicians were not as determined on this matter as your father was. In Andrzej Lubowski’s book, “Zbig the Man Who Undermined the Kremlin,” I read that Zbigniew Brzezinski competed with Henry Kissinger, who was not so anti-Soviet with the republicans. Wasn’t his perception of Russia influenced by the experience of your grandfather, Tadeusz, a participant in the Polish-Bolshevik war, the consul in Kharkiv until 1937, who left this post for Canada on time?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Let me say something about Henry Kissinger. Seeing Henry Kissinger, another immigrant from Central Europe, playing a policy role in Washington, helped convince my father that he could leave academia and enter the policy arena also. Some people say that they didn’t like each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. You know, Jerzy, I have a copy of Henry Kissinger’s book about China, and the copy I have is inscribed: “To Zbig Brzezinski, who travelled a parallel road with distinction from his friend” – and then he added in parentheses – “we’ll keep that secret, Henry Kissinger.” So whatever people may have said about them, they were intellectual soulmates.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: Did your grandfather tell you about his work in pre-war Polish diplomacy? In 1931-35, he helped Jews by issuing Polish passports to escape from Germany. In the years 1935-37, he witnessed the disappearance of people in the USSR. And finally, your grandfather’s involvement in his post-war work for the Polish diaspora. I heard that it was mainly because of him that the Wawel treasures were brought to Krakow after the war.

Ambassador Brzezinski: My grandfather, Tadeusz Brzezinski, was one of many who chose to stand up, who did what he knew was right despite the risks his actions caused. In 2008, I wrote of his incredible story in the New York Times, how he went beyond the call of duty in his role as a Polish diplomat. Serving as Poland’s consul general in Leipzig, Germany, during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s, he saw the unjust evil brew and grow. At that time, Jews were already being moved to concentration camps and losing their legal status. My grandfather provided Polish passports to Jews, both Polish and German, so they could be freed from internment or be able to escape Nazi Germany. When indifference was the easy choice, he made the hard choice. He made the right choice. He chose not to be indifferent in the face of atrocity. He chose to take action to protect lives.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: I also found information that the United States, thanks to your father’s prompts, supported the election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope. What was the relationship between the Holy Father and Zbigniew Brzeziński?

Ambassador Brzezinski: My father met with John Paul II shortly after he became Pope. Do you know how the Pope started that conversation, Jerzy? He said, “Today we are speaking as two Poles.” So, they were both Poles who found themselves abroad in the late 1970s. One happened to be the Pope and the other happened to be the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States at the height of the Cold War. They collaborated for the global good, but their roots were in Poland. Poland remained their North Star that informed their worldview. For the Pope, it informed the advice that he gave to his flock, to the whole world of Catholics, and to my father, to people involved in foreign policy in America. Let me also tell you a more personal story, Jerzy. When the Pope came to America, my whole family had dinner with the Pope. My father spent the whole morning teaching me to kiss the Pope’s ring, but when I met the Pope and went to kiss his ring he asked me, “Why are you doing that? You’re an American; we can shake hands.”

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: Your sister wrote that as a teenager she went with her father to Palestine to meet Arafat. In Lubowski’s book I found information that President Carter was at your Sacrament of confirmation because of your father’s business trip. Did these youthful contacts with politicians decide about your later life?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, I was raised in a household that really valued and, I feel, understood the unique role for America in the world, in terms of advancing values, and making a difference in improving people’s lives. And I was able to watch my father through his diplomacy, his work with President Carter and many others, using the alignment between countries to advance peace and humanity. The example that comes most immediately to mind is the Israel-Egypt peace treaty between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. As a young person, I had the great fortune to be taken by my father to the signing ceremony between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and both said, at the ceremony, “but for the President being willing to risk his presidency to advance peace, this wouldn’t have happened.” This is the longest lasting peace treaty in the history of the Middle East. My brother, sister, and I were all able to sit at the elbow of my dad, to see what works in world politics.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: Your brother Ian is also a diplomat. Republican. He was Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and worked closely with the famous senator and presidential candidate John McCain. Does involvement in the opposite poles of politics negatively affect family relations, as is often the case in Poland?

Ambassador Brzezinski: I love my brother – just as I love my sister – so family relations are wonderful. You know, Jerzy, we have an expression in America that politics stops at the water’s edge. Which means that we have very vibrant debates about domestic politics, but when it comes to foreign policy there is a broad consensus on many issues. So, if you look at the policies of different administrations, Democratic and Republican, towards Poland you will find a lot of continuity. We support strong security cooperation based on shared democratic values. We’ve had over a hundred members of Congress come to Poland since February 24th, and there has been a strong bipartisan consensus in support of Ukraine and a deep appreciation of Poland’s role in that support. Right now, my brother is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and if you look at what he has been saying about the intense allied collaboration in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you will see that we agree on a lot.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: You are considered one of the best American experts in the history and practice of Polish constitutionalism from the historic May 3rd Act to the present day. You were an advisor to Bill Clinton and Barak Obama on Eastern Europe. In the presidential campaign, you actively supported Mr. Joe Biden and participated in the formulation of his program of European foreign policy. You also mobilized the American Polish community to vote for the Democratic party. You are well prepared to run an embassy in our country, and yet you had a problem in taking over it. The Polish government did not agree to take over this institution because of … your Polish citizenship. How was this resolved?

Ambassador Brzezinski: It’s a long process to become an ambassador, as you know. You have to be thoroughly vetted first. I’d been through that process before when I was Ambassador to Sweden, so that made it a little easier. Of course, the host government has to agree also, and the U.S. Embassy here shared my name before I was nominated to make sure that the Polish government agreed that I could be Ambassador here. And the Poles do their own vetting – just like we do on our side, and, as you suggested, one of the issues that they looked at was this question of citizenship. Now, Jerzy, I’m proud of my Polish heritage, but I’ve never claimed to be a Polish citizen. I was born and grew up in the United States. When I came to Poland as a Fulbright scholar, I came here as an American. But whether I consider myself a Polish citizen and whether Polish law considers me a Polish citizen are different issues. This isn’t the first time this issue has come up. Nicholas Rey, who was U.S. Ambassador in the 1990s was born in Warsaw. So, there is a process to resolve that sort of issue. We talked earlier about my mother. It turns out that according to Polish law, based on my mother’s heritage, I am a citizen of Czechoslovakia – which isn’t even a country anymore! So, I’m an American citizen, but we did have to sort that issue out.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: You became an ambassador two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is definitely a huge burden because you did not even have time to unpack your suitcases …

Ambassador Brzezinski: I presented my credentials two days before the invasion. I actually arrived in Poland about a month before that, but that’s still not a lot of time. So really, yes, I did have to jump right in.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: We are impressed with the enormous help of the United States for Ukraine. Many older people who remember the Second World War look at this help with disbelief. However, bearing in mind the loneliness that Poland experienced in the September 1939 campaign, these people fear that in the event of Russia’s aggression against Poland, we may be left alone again. How can you assure these people that it will never happen again?

Ambassador Brzezinski: That’s a very important observation – that in many ways for Poles, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is like 1939. The difference is that this time Poland is part of the NATO alliance. I lived in Poland for two years in the 1990s – on a Fulbright Scholarship. So, I can see the difference now that Poland is a NATO member. There are thousands of American troops here in Poland. President Biden declared during the Madrid Summit that the Fifth Corps Forward Headquarters in Poznan is now permanent. Poles can feel more secure. That’s why, in my opinion, Poles have been so willing to open their homes and their hearts to those who are fleeing Ukraine. When I say repeatedly that Poland is safe and secure, I’m not just speaking for myself. I’m also speaking on behalf of President Biden, who came here to Poland to declare that we will defend every inch of NATO territory.

Jerzy Dabrowski, Do Rzeczy: Thank you for your time, Sir.