Poland Needs to Be Hungry for Its Own Success

Interview with President of Poland Andrzej Duda.

Sławomir Dębski, Director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs: Mr President, the Polish Institute of International Affairs is resuming publication of Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny (Polish Diplomatic Review), a periodical drawing on the tradition of Przegląd Dyplomatyczny (Diplomatic Review), which was first published after the rebirth of Poland in 1919. Similar to 2001-2012, we want Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny to provide a forum for reliable and informed debate on Poland’s place in the world, its foreign policy and the challenges confronting it. We appreciate you agreeing to this interview.

President Andrzej Duda: I am pleased that Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny is being revived. After all, it was an important forum for reflection on Poland’s foreign policy. There are people in this country, and certainly there are many of them abroad, who really feel no need to think too much about the matter. Perhaps they believe that somebody else should be thinking on our behalf and that it would be quite enough. Being fundamentally against such an approach, I wish Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny success.

Thank you very much. Let’s begin with the most important issue. What is Poland’s raison d’état today? How should it be understood today?

We should bear in mind that that very notion explains the reason for having our own independent state. For what does an independent and sovereign Poland exist? The answer is simple and obvious: having an independent, sovereign state provides the best living conditions for Poles. In the past, we were denied a state that was truly ours. We were denied security and the right to our own culture and language, at times the entire nation was in danger of annihilation. We were too often denied the right to determine our own fate. So, our experience makes the Polish raison d’état a continued concern to ensure Poles the best possible conditions for development and wellbeing. Within a democracy, free and fair elections determine which political party is entrusted to execute the Polish raison d’état. Today, it is the responsibility of the Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość—PiS).

What, then, is presently the greatest challenge to the implementation of the Polish raison d’état?

At a time when the foundations of the peaceful co-existence of nations are being undermined and social inequalities are fuelling political radicalism, Poles need, above all, the defence of peace in the world. This cannot be accomplished without ensuring universal respect for international law. For this reason, we must strengthen our own security and that of our allies. We must condemn war as an instrument for achieving territorial and political aspirations. To be able to do this successfully, we must build a Poland that is strong and just and which develops in a sustainable, rather than an insular or elite way.

The international situation has recently deteriorated...

True. We live in a very uncertain world. Our situation could be compared to sailing in a stormy sea. There may not be a hurricane or a squall yet, but the wind is snapping masts all around us. We are in danger of drifting, whether it is because of waves that are too high (that is, external conditions), our own neglect and laziness, or as a result of accepting solutions promoted from the outside without adequate reflection. We must act. This means creating effective instruments. Some may not like it, but politics is not about pleasing everyone. Political “adjusters” who preach nothing but “adaptation” are in fact conformists, “fat cats” focused on themselves and content with their own status. We need politicians who are hungry for Poland’s success. Ask Poles if they are satisfied with what they have and their prospects and you will find out something about the Polish potential. Poles need ambitious politicians who do not fear reform and change. We must take care of Poles and act in our own, Polish interests. While doing so, we must look for means to help create synergy alongside the efforts of the other participants in international affairs, particularly in the region. This is broadly understood to refer to the entire Europe. The motto of Polish foreign policy should always be: “Nothing about us without us!”

This motto is familiar even to some U.S. presidents, but how can it be implemented in practice?

This principle must not be reduced to our begging others to kindly take into consideration our existence, views and interests. I shall never consent to this. I believe we should understand our motto as an obligation to conduct an active policy. To actively influence what experts refer to as the international environment, to pursue our own autonomous foreign and economic policy.

What if this autonomy is seen by some as competition?

Exactly ... or if our contribution to defending peace in Europe is not welcomed by someone? Should we give up? Of course not! Instead, we must defend our and our allies’ security by other means. Nobody, no [Normandy] “format”, releases us from the obligation of pursuing our vision of a secure Poland. The same goes for economic policy. We are a member of the European Union, however, the EU is an instrument of our policy, which must remain sovereign. The European institutions cannot disregard Polish economic interests, as they directly impact the economic prosperity of millions of Polish families. If faced with such a situation in the EU, we certainly will not keep silent and we shall act.


Either we will change the people running these institutions or we will build coalitions to change the institutional model of the Union to ensure that the subsidiary function of the European institutions vis-à-vis the Member States and their democratic authorities is not ignored.

These are political means with which to strengthen Poland’s position in the short run. How can it be done in the long run?

The primary instruments must be our economy and domestic industry. Poland is one of Europe’s most dynamic societies, hungry for success and increasingly confident of its huge potential. I look with admiration at today’s Millennials, who don’t hesitate to compete with their peers in other countries. Determination and ambition are their hallmark. Our policy must find a way of using this potential successfully. It cannot be wasted under any circumstance! Poland needs, first and foremost, its own large businesses capable of competing in global markets to provide Poles entering the [labour] market with opportunities to spread their wings. No democratic state has built its strong international position without its own powerful corporations. The international impact, including the strength of diplomacy, largely reflects the strength of the economy.

I believe a majority of our readers will endorse this view. Yet, what is to be done to ensure that all of this does not end with just consensus with no practical consequences? Drafting strategies has never been a problem in Poland, but their practical application and implementation has been a different thing altogether.

Visions largely reflect aspirations. They mobilise. Therefore, our old paradigm must be changed. So far, we have thought of our economic relations with developed countries along these lines: “How much can this country invest in Poland? Which firms can we encourage to open their branches here? What products will they sell us?” Yet, it is our businesses that should be expanding their activities, investing and opening branches abroad. We must start thinking of Poland not as a place “attractive to investors”, but as an attractive investor in its own right. If we want to pursue an active foreign policy, we must put more emphasis on promoting Polish companies, brands and technological innovation. Growing economic potential should be Poland’s soft power, helping us influence the outside world.

In a democracy, foreign policy is shaped in the fire of political debate. How should this debate be conducted?

The political elites must consider the national interest in their arguments. This means excluding certain matters from the field of political rivalry, even if their politicisation could bring short-term political gains.

Can you give us an example?

We should not condone questioning efforts aiming to defend peace and strengthen Poland’s security. On the occasion of the NATO Summit in Warsaw, some said that it would have been to the advantage of the political camp competing with the present government if the NATO summit had not taken place in Warsaw or had it been a spectacular fiasco. Yet, the summit was an instrument to strengthen Poland’s security. Those following that line of reasoning would have accepted Poland’s misfortune if only it had brought them closer to winning power. This conduct was a reprehensible assault on the vital interest of Poles—brutal political foul play.

Perhaps it was prompted by emotions rather than political calculation?

Even if so, when speaking about the state’s foreign policy and vital interests, such emotions are usually harmful. The rule we should follow in our foreign policy public debate is to remain level-headed. We must at all times soberly assess what best serves Poland’s national interests, both today and in the future. Poland’s foreign policy must not be dependent on our divergent historical judgments. Let us learn from history. The most important lesson is that Poland needs to avoid political isolation. Being the strongest state in the region, we bear the greatest responsibility for its security. This means that we must at all times be able to build a rational community of interests. Emotions must not take the upper hand over pragmatism. It is natural, in a way, that in our discourse the scars of the past play a much more important role than in other countries. Yet, it is important to combine remembrance with the ability to create a present without emotional baggage that would exclude rational political calculation.

So, we should consider when and where our national interests are at stake, be less emotional, more pragmatic?

And we should not allow our perceived shortcomings, particularly the inferiority complex, to govern our foreign policy. While one’s position and strength should never be overestimated, we should not allow ourselves to be persuaded that we have no influence on anything and that nothing depends on us. We must take the initiative.

Yet, it takes appropriate political potential to be capable of such initiative. How will this potential be generated?

Close cooperation with all of the states in Central and Eastern Europe should be one of the pillars of Poland’s sovereignty and strong position. I have never hidden that I follow in the footsteps of Lech Kaczyński, who believed that good, friendly relations with the other states in the region help Poland advance its interests. I personally would like us to focus (within the framework of regional cooperation) not strictly on the political arena, but also on economic matters. This is the purpose of the idea of cooperation among the “Three Seas Initiative” states (Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea) and hence the emphasis on the development of infrastructure along the North-South axis. The enhancement of regional cooperation requires major projects that bring benefits for everyone. For this reason, I would like it to result in, among other things, a high-speed railway connecting Tallinn and Dubrovnik, branching out to Vienna, Kyiv, Bucharest, Sofia and Belgrade. This part of Europe lacks this type of railway. It was the idea of strengthening the Three Seas area’s economic potential that motivated me to take part in the 16+1 summit in Suzhou, China.

We occasionally speak of present-day aspirations using past notions. Is it right for the tradition of Polish political thought to be applied so directly?

We must remember that foreign policy is a dynamic process and Poland did not come into being yesterday. No task begins from nothing; there is always an element of continuation, all the more so in the case of political thought. Obviously, the idea is to draw from proven traditions rather than simply copy old concepts. We would do well to be inspired by the approach to international affairs represented by Duke Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, Roman Dmowski, or Juliusz Mieroszewski; outstanding teachers of realism in the thinking of Polish foreign policy. They lived in different times, they belonged to diverse ideological traditions, but they shared a love of their country and the desire that it should not waste its potential on untenable or irrelevant causes. All three argued that Poles had to win allies, think strategically and argue their cases soberly. Also, they shared the ability to look at everyday political tussles from a bird’s-eye view. This is a very valuable skill even today. Let us learn from it, while drawing on the best traditions of Polish political thought.

In this issue of Polski Przegląd Dyplomatyczny, we ask prominent practitioners in the field of Poland’s European policy the following question: “What kind of Europe does Poland need today?” How would you respond to this question?

We need a Europe that is strong and secure, and one that works well with the United States. Most leaders with whom I meet are concerned that fear has been sown among Europeans. The Germans, the French, the Spaniards and the Greeks are apprehensive about their own and their children's career prospects. They fear terror on city streets. They fear immigrants. This is the best fodder for populists, left- and right-wing alike. The fear must be overcome. This requires leadership with a democratic mandate and public support. I believe that reform of the European Union and revision of the treaties are unavoidable, and that the responsibility for rebuilding the Union will fall on the leaders of the Member States. Those who are questioning the necessity of reforming the treaties are basing their thinking on the typical approach of “it will work out somehow". In the end, in France the European common sense will prevail, and in Germany the anti-European radicals will be defeated. Anti-establishment sentiments in Europe will peter out of their own momentum just as they arose of their own momentum. Myself, I feel the illnesses of European integration will not just pass by themselves. Perhaps it will take an institutional shock for everyone to realise this. This shock could be caused, for instance, by the next European Parliament elections. If radical opponents of integration win a majority—and they have more of a chance of being elected to European Parliament than to their own national parliaments due to specific election rules—there is potential that the decision-making process in the EU could become paralysed by an anti-integration European Parliament. Then, the adoption of a new treaty could be the only way of dragging the EU from the shallows. In my opinion, this had better be done sooner than later in order to prevent such a scenario.

The question about the future of Europe brings us to the German issue. In the not-too-distant past, a Polish Foreign Affairs Minister declared in Berlin that it was not a strong Germany he feared, but Germany’s inaction.

I am also not afraid of Germany. Besides, I am the husband of a German language teacher [laughs]. I believe in a simple principle: we should assess the foreign policy of this or that state through the prism of Polish interests. Let me tell you what kind of Germany is in our interests: a Germany strong economically, because our economy to a considerable extent depends on the condition of the German economy; a Germany strong militarily, because we need strong allies in NATO; and, last but not least, a Germany showing much more solidarity with other EU members, in particular on energy policy. But discussing whether Germany should or should not lead the EU is pointless in my opinion. Germany is the richest, most powerful and most influential state in Europe. This will likely not change for the next several decades.

Therefore, is it in our interest that a strong Germany be part of a strong European Union?

European integration is a mechanism serving the self-containment of states, in particular those with vast potential. We may dislike pro-Russia statements by some German politicians; we may deplore some German corporations’ willingness to sacrifice Ukraine in exchange for a few lucrative contracts in Russia; we may worry about certain polls that have shown a majority of German society has no intention of defending Poland or the Baltic states against a potential external aggressor. This does not change the fact that today Angela Merkel is the only European politician with any influence, even if only minimal, on Vladimir Putin. She is also one of Europe’s few politicians who realise the threat that present-day Russia poses to Europe.

Speaking of the Russian threat to Europe, does this then mean that Russia is not part of Europe?

This is a question to be asked of the Russians. In the end, it is they who will decide the shape of their relations with Europe. Do they want to be Europeans or not? It is up to them to decide which values they regard as paramount in their policy. There is no room in Europe, however, for authoritarianism and aggression against neighbours, and there will not be. The truth is that Putin faces a choice and so does the entire Russian nation. They must decide whether to resume normal relations with the European Union and the United States, be the West’s partner, and to solve together the most important problems of the present-day world, or to expose themselves to the hatred of Ukrainians and to ostracism for aggression and the violation of international law. Since the beginning of my presidency, I have reiterated that compliance with international law by Russia—which includes refraining from violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity—is a prerequisite towards the normalisation of relations. Is President Putin capable of abandoning the Cold War rhetoric? Is he capable of giving up neo-imperial ambitions? At this point in time, nothing seems to indicate he is. However, everything is possible in diplomacy. Russia is and will remain our neighbour. We, in particular, should be hopeful that Russia will be the West’s predictable, trustworthy partner rather than a geopolitical rival.

Mr President, you have mentioned the necessity of ending the Russia-Ukraine conflict initiated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Poland supports Ukraine, as the latter defends principles fundamental to European security, and yet there are many bilateral problems in our relations. In what way should we call for the truth and counter the falsification of our common history without damaging Polish-Ukrainian relations?

First of all, by not attempting to conceal it. Current political interests should not overshadow the need to pay homage to the victims of the Volyn massacre and to condemn murder as an instrument of policy. It is impossible to discuss Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation unless the truth about those events is said out loud. We have called evil by its name and now is the time to progress to the next stage and call good by its name. Hence, my initiative, supported by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko to honour the people who in times of war, hell and horror protected their neighbours despite the consequences, often imperilling their own lives—Poles who protected Ukrainians and Ukrainians who protected Poles. These heroes should become patrons to our reconciliation and given appropriate recognition in history. However, the reconciliation will be a very long process, neither immediate nor unconditional.

Thank you very much, Mr President, for the insightful discussion.

Interviewed by Sławomir Dębski

This interview was published by Polski Przegląd DyplomatycznyPISM