Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Blog interview: Radek Sikorski on Afghanistan, Old and New Europe, Ukraine and the march of democracy 

I wanted to interview Radek Sikorski for quite some time now. A fellow Pole, Sikorski left for England in 1981 during the turbulent "Solidarity" era and studied at Oxford. He was a war correspondent in Angola, and one of the very few Westerners to travel with the mudjahedin through Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets (winning the World Press Photo Award for this photograph). After the democratic revolution swept the Eastern Europe, Sikorski became deputy Defence Minister in the Polish government, and later on, deputy Foreign Minister. He is now based in Washington, where he works at the American Enterprise Institute and is the Executive Director of the New Atlantic Initiative.

Now I finally got my wish. Sikorski has recently spoken to a Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" on a very wide range of topics, so instead of reinventing the wheel we decided to use the excerpts of that interview. I translated the parts that I thought might be of interest to readers and then asked a few extra questions. We start off with Sikorski's impressions of his recent trip to Afghanistan:

Sikorski: Not that long ago, I went to Herat where my old friend Ismail Khan was until recently the governor of the province. Herat had witnessed an uprising, like the Warsaw one, except for thirteen years. Between 1979 and 1992 one part of the city was held by the Soviets and the communists, and the other by the mudjahedin. I went there during the fighting in 1987, again after the fall of the communist regime in 1993, and most recently in July 2004. Where previously there was a sea of ruins, which the locals called Little Hiroshima, now there are new commercial districts, roads, hundreds of shops. For the first time in its history Herat has a regular access to electricity, for the first time all children - both boys and girls - go to school.

Ismail Khan, with whom I spent a few days, uses Islamic arguments at his rallies: you can't lock your women away in the house, you can't deny your daughters education; hasn't Prophet Mohammed said that for the sake of knowledge one should walk even as far as China? What sort of men are you that you have to have others arrange your marriages for you and pay for your wives? I suspect that this sort of rhetoric is more persuasive than anything that might come from foreigners. You have to remember that in Afghanistan there was an attempt to introduce secularization by force, through communist terror, killing tens of thousands in the process. Later on, also using terror, the Taliban tried to introduce Wahabbi fanaticism. Hence, a conservative approach, modernization flowing from philosophical and cultural foundations of the Afghan society strikes me as much more interesting approach.

Chrenkoff: Are we seeing the beginnings of a new "Great Game" for strategic influence in Central Asia, this time between America, Russia, China and radical Islam? And what is the role of the free and democratic Afghanistan in this context?

Sikorski: Afghanistan has always been more important as a bridgehead to somewhere else: to India, to Central Asia, to the Indian Ocean. It also has a great nuisance potential - as a terrorist heaven under the Taliban and as a fount of narcotics today. Afghanistan could contribute to the stability and eventual democratization of Central Asia at least two fold: first as a negative example and a warning against the dangers of Islamic radicalism and second as a route for the exportation of the region's oil and gas, which could make these countries less dependent on Russia, and reverse their economic decline.

Rzeczpospolita: September 11 united the West in the cause of the war on terror. Unfortunately, only for a short period of time. What caused the fracturing of this alliance?

Sikorski: The unity was rhetorical, not real. The reason for it lies primarily - and this is not a new thesis - in the way weakness and strength lead to different assessments of the threat. Europe doesn't feel threatened, and above all, is exhausted by the 20th century.

Rzeczpospolita: Does Europe really not feel threatened? There are five million Muslims in France.

Sikorski: There is a difference between internal and external threats. And every threat can either be met with defense or with appeasement.

Rzeczpospolita: Isn't it true to say that the French passivity in relation to the external threat flows from the perception of the internal threat?

Sikorski: Of course, because the demographic reality and an honest assessment of threats conflict with the canons of political correctness. Not that long ago progressive intellectuals were still promoting utopian multiculturalism where tolerance was supposed to lead to an idyllic celebration of differences - multiculturalism as reading Salman Rushdie in a Thai restaurant. But now it transpires that multiculturalism also means female genital mutilation, arranged marriages, physical aggression against social minorities, or murder of people like Theo Van Gogh who are brave enough to speak out about it. Conservatives don't have problem with migrants: people from other countries are guests, and if they want to stay they have to adjust themselves to our way of life and, over the course of generations, assimilate into our society. When I myself was a refugee in Great Britain [in the 1980s], I would not have dreamed of forcing Britons to eat bigos. Instead I learnt to drink white tea. But some Muslims in the West are now trying to impose their culture on us, for example demanding that their women wear burqas for their drivers license photos, or that crucifixes are removed from Italian hospitals. The conservative approach defends the institutions which make liberalism possible. The progressive camp will have to find a better answer than they currently have to the problem of mass migration between civilizations.

Rzeczpospolita: President Bush said in his speech at the Wawel Castle in Krakow last year that Poles haven't had to go through the occupation, tyranny and uprisings to now be told that they have to choose between Europe and America. Doesn't the political situation, however, force Poles to make such Manichean choices - to be a faithful ally of the US, or a good European citizen?

Sikorski: Being a loyal European state as well as a good ally of the United States should be the cornerstone of Polish foreign policy. And we will keep rejecting any attempts to force us to choose between these two objectives. The European cause is most harmed by those who want to create the common identity for the continent out of the ideology of anti-Americanism. Firstly, most Europeans do not want a civil war within the West; secondly, if the United States takes such an eventuality seriously, it has enough resources to sabotage such version of European unity.

For Poland, which lies on the border of both the EU and NATO, it is important that in security questions there is no other point of reference but the United States, because Europe is a military pygmy. It has two million men and women in uniform, but when it comes to the crunch it has problems sending three thousand soldiers and three helicopters to Afghanistan. The US has 350 military transport planes, the whole Europe 15, despite the fact that its defense spending is more than a third of America's. Europe's operational capabilities, however, are maybe around 5 per cent of the US's capabilities. There is a great need for reform because we're currently wasting money and the technological gap just keeps growing. Polish involvement in Iraq is our investment in the alliance and you make an investment in order to get dividends.

Rzeczpospolita: In November last year, you warned the American government on the pages of the "Washington Post" that it can lose the support of other countries of the "New Europe" because it's not fulfilling their expectations of American assistance these countries were counting on in relation to their involvement in Iraq.

Sikorski: There are currently discussions on the highest levels within the Administration about the creation of the Solidarity Fund which would have at its disposal some $500 million a year to support countries which are the true allies in the hour of need. I hope that the proponents of this initiative will get the upper hand, despite the overall moves to rein in spending. Otherwise there is danger, already evident in public opinion research, that Poland will keep shifting from a position that was significantly more pro-American than the rest of Europe, towards a lot cooler attitude.

Rzeczpospolita: Are you concerned that the reelection of George W Bush will cause many countries, in particular the European ones, to turn away from America even more?

Sikorski: I think that joining in the charge of the French light brigade against the United States is neither in the European interest, the Polish interest, nor even the French interest. I'm eagerly awaiting the day when the leadership of the cradle of the European unity will pass into more reasonable hands. For example Nicholas Sarkozy seems to understand that Europe is a community of large, medium and small countries, as well as that it needs reform if it is to regain some economic vigor.

In his turn, President Bush has struck a conciliatory note in his first post-election speeches. Paradoxically, personnel changes in the Bush administration can also have positive implications for a trans-Atlantic greater understanding. Europe is used to foreign policy being run by Ministries of Foreign Affairs. But in the United States, in the White House-Pentagon-State Department triangle, the last one is institutionally the weakest, even more so when the person heading it was a distinguished politician with a limited influence on his boss. This situation should change now.

Rzeczpospolita: Since 2002 you have been the executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. What is the Initiative's role?

Sikorski: The Initiative was founded in 1996 at the Royal Castle in Prague under the patronage of the then Czech President Vaclav Havel, Baroness Thatcher and other distinguished politicians. The primary objective for the Initiative was to open the North Atlantic Treaty and then other Western structures to Europe's new democracies. We've managed to achieve a mental breakthrough in Washington in that all these countries are now recognized as allies. It was America's best investment over the last decade, but by the same token countries such as Poland should think of their involvement in Iraq at least in part as in terms of appreciation of what the US has done to help them achieve their dream of getting them into NATO, and indirectly into the European Union.

We always had three objectives for the New Atlantic Initiative. Firstly, to welcome new democracies into Western structures. Once, it was Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, in the future it will be countries from the Balkans and the Eastern Europe, like Ukraine and the future democratic Belarus. Secondly, we support free trade between the United States and the European Union. We think that our civilization should have a military arm in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty, but it also should be one market, with uniform rules and minimum restrictions. Thirdly, we want to keep an open door for Russia. If Russia wanted to fulfill the joining criteria of our club, we should encourage its movement towards us. It's a pity that Russia is currently drifting in the other direction. In light of the current events I think that the methods we've used in the past to fight the communist tyranny and which had led to the liberation of the Central Europe, can be used again wherever radical ideology and dictatorship still stifle the dream of freedom and prosperity - that is, in the post-Soviet world and in the Arab tyrannies. This model of action through cultural institutions, independent media, scholarships, building interpersonal contacts with the other side seems to be still the most appropriate. That's why, for example, I have organized the biggest conferences in Washington on Belarus and Chechnia. Soon there will be another one about Ukraine, and next year I want to invite to Poland a group of American politicians for the twenty fifth anniversary of "Solidarity". Because "Solidarity" is a great Polish patent of achieving independence and democracy through non-violent means.

Chrenkoff: I wonder whether this model can be successfully applied across the great civilizational divide, in Muslim countries, which might not all necessarily want to be liberated in the Western way? Can there be a New Middle Eastern Initiative?

Sikorski: There already is. The American Enterprise Institute has launched a Project for Arab Democracies on the lines you suggest. Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that their people want democracy but they face many challenges before it is securely rooted there. It's only by looking at how the world of Islam is searching its way towards its own preferred model of representative government, that we can appreciate Christianity's contribution to our own liberty. Division between Church and state, putting the individual before the community, compromise between religion and science or personal liberty and ethics - those are all issues that Christianity once also grappled with and settled.

Chrenkoff: After the third round of the presidential election, what now for Ukraine and the future of the post-Soviet world? And as a supplementary question: is the situation in Ukraine as black and white as we think? - I know some people are concerned that after all it's the pro-Western faction which is withdrawing Ukrainian troops from Iraq, and others are worried about support that Yushchenko has received from some nationalistic elements with a rather unsavoury past.

Sikorski: Starting at the end: you can find unsavoury people in any large movement but the key is how the leadership deals with problems as they arise. President Yushchenko instantly expelled members of his party who made chauvinist appeals. He is after all the son of an Auschwitz survivor. I believe the US should give him a pass on Iraq. Yushchenko had to promise to withdraw troops to neutralize the issue of his American wife, which the Kremlin-supplied spin doctors were using for black propaganda. Now, that he has won, it is in our Western interest for him to be seen to be the kind of politician who keeps his word. The Iraq contingent is a small price to pay for that. Ukraine can be helpful elsewhere. Our overarching interest is for President Yushchenko to be seen to succeed in improving the life of Ukrainians. What we can do to help him is to promptly respond to every reform move with gestures of inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic community. That will give encouragement to the people of Russia and Belorus to follow Ukraine's path. (BTW, I recommend a
paper on this I did for AEI).

You can learn more about Radek Sikorski's work


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