Ambassador Mark Brzezinski’s Interview with Newsweek

9 June 2022

Wiktor Babinski, Newsweek: Your father was a refugee from Poland after the Nazi invasion and the Communist takeover before having an illustrious career in the US government. You witnessed and studied Poland’s emerging democratic institutions as an exchange student in the 1990s. Now you have the rare opportunity to be the US ambassador to the country of your parent’s birth. Do you feel that Polish institutions built over those generations, have withstood the test of time and political turmoil?

Ambassador Brzezinski: I witnessed my father’s involvement in Poland from a much earlier day than you even invoke. I remember vividly when he was National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. Well, first of all him traveling with President Carter and Rosalynn Carter to Poland in 1977, as one of President Carter’s very first state visits abroad, and how pleased my father was when he got back, that he had managed to pull together Rosalynn Carter and Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski, that he had met with other representatives of what was really the Polish opposition at the time during a presidential visit to Poland. I remember also, on the eve of martial law, my father coming home and describing as National Security Advisor, literally signing off on the transfer of blocks and blocks of American dollars being smuggled into communist Poland to fund the Solidarity movement. That was one of the ways we supported the Solidarity Movement, literally mass movement of blocks of money, to give them something to work with. And it was our honor to do that.  The solidarity opposition were freedom fighters, but how proud my father was to engage on that. More recently, I’ve witnessed my father’s incredible efforts in terms of the expansion of NATO to include Poland in the 1990s; the transformation of the Polish American Enterprise Fund into the Polish American Freedom Foundation for using the remaining assets of the Enterprise Fund. These were all struggles that vividly captured his passion for supporting the American Polish relationship, Poland as a democratic and free nation, in Central Europe, obviously difficult territory. And those institutions, NATO – which Poland is a member of – the EU – which Poland is a member of – are more important now than in much of recent memory, because it is because of Poland’s NATO membership, that it is safe and secure today. I feel that Poland’s NATO membership has given the Poles a sense of security, and a freedom from anxiety and uncertainty that has allowed them to react the way they wanted to react as a humanitarian superpower, and taking in literally millions of Ukrainian refugees over a short amount of time. I was US Ambassador to Sweden for four years. The Swedes are rightfully proud for having taken in 1 million refugees over 20 years. Poland has taken in 3.6 million refugees in 120 days, 115 days. It’s impressive, how the Poles have reacted, and never again, will there be a mass movement of refugees in the world – and unfortunately, there will be future mass movements of refugees in the world – in which the case of Poland is not invoked, because of Poland has changed the paradigm by putting every single refugee who wanted to stay here into someone’s home.

Wiktor Babinski, Newsweek: Over the past few months Poland became – as you just said – with the full determination and enthusiasm of its population, one of the largest asylum givers in human history. And it was a burden, which the Poles have carried it enthusiastically. How would you say the United States will help Poland and other neighbors of Ukraine in facing this challenge as we move on to the long term?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Let’s be very clear as to what happened here. We had a situation in which we were able to anticipate a mass movement of refugee from several months away. And we were able to work with the Poles, the Balts, the Romanians, the Slovaks, to develop an understanding with them regarding what would happen, and to interpret to each other various scenarios. And it was the Polish people, and the Polish government reacting to the millions of human interest stories.  Each person coming across the border is a human interest story, standing in the cold for four days.  I remember vividly meeting at Medyka border crossing a mom and her two sons, aged 9 and 11. And I’d asked them how long they had been – this was in early March -how long they had stood outside in the cold in the line. And they said “four days.” And the only way I could react was to say “jestem z ciebie dumny” – I’m proud of you. And the Poles gave much more than I did. They drove to the border; they organized on social media; they were present at 11:45 at night, to drive a family to Bydgoszcz, to Krakow, to Poznan, wherever, and to put them into an apartment, and probably to never see them again. But they did something great. They did something truly, that only a humanitarian superpower would deliver on. That’s the greatness of this story. Will there be capacity issues going forward? No question. When a country of 38 million takes in 3 million people, you have to ask that question. At this point, as I see it, and in my engagement with the Polish authorities, the four biggest cities of Poland: Warsaw, Wroclaw, Poznan, Krakow are really, in many ways, getting close to reaching capacity in terms of taking in refugees. And so the question is, how and where will other jurisdictions react in Poland? So part of this is a major logistical question, which will continue, because while we all hope that the war in Ukraine stops tomorrow, a responsible leader anticipates probably the worst version of the result here. And this may last for a long time.

Wiktor Babinski, Newsweek: However, sooner or later this war will end. And what happens with Ukraine afterwards will be no less important for the security and prosperity of Europe than the fighting itself.  How will the security of Ukraine be guaranteed in the long term? And what will be Poland’s role in the future -hopefully, US led – efforts to rebuild Ukraine and integrate it with the transatlantic community to which Ukraine aspires.

Ambassador Brzezinski: Sure, well, first of all, how will Ukraine’s security be guaranteed in the future? You know, first and foremost, we see vividly how the people of Ukraine are fighting for their own security and independence. Ukraine is a dangerous place for a Russian soldier to be these days. That speaks a lot about the Ukrainian will to fight. We admire it; we back it; and we are supporting it, as you well know. What security alliances and organizations Ukraine joins in the future? That’s up first of all, to the Ukrainian people. And we see how, if there is anything President Putin has guaranteed, it is that the countries around it want to be part of a security alliance to protect themselves, to protect Russia’s neighbors from Russia. And I think that’s an important point. Russia lives in a neighborhood in which its neighbors fear it. That’s not a great relationship to have. That’s something that people of Russia should consider in terms of developing a regional and global approach. Their neighbors fear it. They want to join security alliances, to protect themselves from Russia. That’s really a very sad statement in terms of Russia’s role in the region. But that will be up to Ukraine in terms of which organizations to join. And I can tell you that it is absolutely an imperative in Washington, to join Ukraine inward, and indeed, to help it rebuild to help it mesh itself close with the West in the various dimensions that it can.

Wiktor Babinski, Newsweek: The war in Ukraine and Poland’s undeniably commendable role in it have caused a dramatic reversal in the international fortunes of the current Polish government, especially in relations of Washington, from an outlier, marred by violations of institutions, values that the Transatlantic Alliance espouses, Warsaw has seemingly advanced to a celebrated strategic partner. How long is Washington going to continue its more lenient approach to this government’s transgressions for the sake of tactical necessity?

Ambassador Brzezinski: Well, I have to say that I take a different view than the question assumes in terms of how we’ve been engaging with the Polish government. We have been absolutely consistent in our engagement with the Polish government, on security, on democracy, on values, on the economy and people-to-people. One is not subordinate to the other. And we can do several things at the same time. There is no question that we stand four square with the Poles on security. There is no question that we stand with the Poles four square on democracy. I think it’s very important that when President Biden was in Poland, he said, “we all have to work on our democracies, including the United States,” and he invoked January 6.  I think that’s an incredibly important act of leadership. Because we want our democracies to thrive, obviously. Third, the economy.  Since becoming ambassador four months ago, I have worked assiduously to bring US CEO’s to Poland, to the American Embassy, to engage with Polish counterparts, government officials, NGO chiefs, and others on Poland’s future economy, and it’s positive trajectory. And it has been very positive. I welcomed to the embassy, the CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai, who announced 38 million for the Ukrainian cause here – Ukrainian refugees – and working with Poland. And who made very clear his absolute belief in the strength of Poland’s economy, in the strength of its technological, innovative community. I, last week, had Polish American Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube, here – a Polish citizen herself. I don’t know if you knew that, but a Polish citizen, an amazingly engaged woman who announced 1000s of Polish tech jobs in YouTube. These are white collar tech jobs here in Poland. And she absolutely conveyed her belief in the strength of this economy and the tech sector.  I have a program at the American Embassy called the business person states person, Speaker Series, where I invite a US CEO to speak with Polish counterparts and opinion makers in Poland. I hosted those two leaders who I just mentioned: Sundar Pichai and Susan Wojcicki, but also the CEO of McDonald’s. I hosted the global chairman of the Boston Consulting Group, because Poland wants to develop a strong consulting industry.  There’s few better firms than the Boston Consulting Group. And Hans Paul Burkner was the perfect person to engage with Polish counterparts. And so as an embassy, we are engaging very proactively on the economy, and business to business engagement, because we want Poland’s economy to remain strong. And it is, look at the announcements of the first quarter growth rate here: very, very positive, at a time when Russia’s is very negative, I have to say. And these are important statistics. And we are doing our level best at the embassy to back these things. Because we see each of these things: security, democracy, economy, values, people-to-people as interdependent with each other.

Wiktor Babinski, Newsweek: It seems like this war is the best chance we will get to end this ideological standoff that has simmered between the Polish government and its European and American allies who are critical of the government’s assault on democratic norms and values. What is the threshold that Washington would imagine for permanently moving on from this conflict that Warsaw has had with allies for the past several years? Is the possible compromise over the KPO enough? Or should the Polish government commit to more permanent ways to respect the rule of law, media freedom, democratic institutions and minority rights?

Ambassador Brzezinski: I think this goes to my previous answer as well. We have been very clear that our priorities are equal in terms of their value and interdependent with each other. And we have engaged each other as special friends on advancing each of these: security, democracy, rule of law, economy, people-to-people and we’re really thankful to the Duda government for some of the steps that they have taken – and we applaud some of those steps that have been taken. Equally important, as President Biden said when he was in Poland, each of us has work to do. We are doing our work quite proactively in the Biden administration on democracy, rule of law at home.  Witness President Biden’s witnessing of January 6. And also we’re engaging with others around the world. Look at President Biden’s Democracy Summit. That was not meant to be a one off.  That was meant to develop a global approach on the practice of democracy. And every participant, including America, but also Poland and other countries, has follow on steps that they have committed to taking from that particular summit.

Wiktor Babinski, Newsweek: And for a final question: it is clear that Russia will remain a security threat to Central and Eastern Europe in the long term, even after the war is over.  The United States, however, will need to address other important global issues like China, which actually was supposed to be the focus of the Biden administration before the war in Ukraine started. What certainty do we have that NATO will remain a reliable guarantor of security for the years to come here in Central Europe, especially when Washington’s priorities and attention are drawn towards East Asia?

Ambassador Brzezinski: If there ever was a moment that defined why the Atlantic Charter was written, and NATO was created, that moment, has seen its finest hour now, in terms of the consensus, interoperability, shared strategies of the NATO Pact countries that border the crisis on Ukraine. That is the indelible message that Putin is receiving from the transatlantic community. We are united. We are prepared for any contingency. We are deployed. We are working together. And with the addition of Sweden and Finland, we will be even bigger in terms of the number of countries than we were. I think it is an important moment in the history of the Transatlantic Alliance, the longest lasting alliance in history, as I understand it.  And I think its finest hour, or one of its finest hours, maybe is a better way of putting it. One of its finest hours is being witnessed right now. Thank you.