Partnership, the foundation of european security

Speech by former Prime Minister of Poland, 
Jan Krzysztof Bielecki

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by recalling an event that took place over 20 years ago, in September 1981, in a sports hall in Gdansk, during the First Congress of Solidarity. It was the congress of a political and national opposition pretending to be a trades union movement. But it was also the first organised mass movement since 1956, the year of the Hungarian Revolution, which opposed communism and which, even more importantly, and unlike the Hungarian experience, consciously rejected the use of force. Its future didn’t look bright – the communist authorities were becoming more aggressive, the Soviet Union was more and more vociferous in its demands for a crack down on “counterrevolution”. This was the gathering which first heard – and loudly applauded – the “Message to the Workers of Eastern Europe”. While General Jaruzelski and his staff were busy putting the final touches to their martial law, in Gdansk workers and intellectuals declared solidarity, partnership and cooperation with their friends from Eastern Europe: “We support those of you who have decided to follow the difficult path of a struggle for a free union movement. We believe that very soon your representatives and ours will be able to meet.” You could hardly find a better example of total isolation from reality. Even Solidarity’s own historian was to write, over a year later, in a samizdat publication, that the message was “proof of a messianism completely divorced from realpolitik”.

But he was wrong, even if he was far from alone in his belief. Less than years eight later, an electrician from Gdansk Dockyard with the now famous moustache and who was to become president of free Poland, sat at a round table, negotiating the conditions for the hand-over of power by the communists. A modern Springtide of Nations had begun. In this largely peaceful revolution, the spirit of the 1981 message played an important role. The question I would like to ask, as I consider the role of partnership as the foundation of European security in the decade just ended, is this: has this spirit managed to survive the years that followed, years which have seen dramatic political, social and economic changes, local wars and conflicts, and a fundamental restructuring of the European security space?

It is no longer possible, especially today, to consider this issue simply in the spirit of childish delight and optimism. In those ten years, we experienced too much together, both good and bad, for cheap optimism to be an option. As long as the Balkan wars cast a dark shadow on European progress and the unification of the continent, as long as the blood shed in the Caucasus continues to trouble our conscience and as long as we see no end to the cold war in Nagorno Karabakh (fortunately no longer a shooting war), we cannot sit back with pleasure to contemplate the results of the peaceful defeat of totalitarianism. Now, the events of 11 September have left a permanent imprint on our lives. In today’s situation, all of us, NATO members and NATO partners, our entire community is in various degrees involved in the struggle against the evil which on 11 September manifested itself in such a horribly destructive and inhuman way.

Our achievements to date are clear, so our questions must be about today and tomorrow. When, several years ago, analysing the first difficult but promising phases of the transformation processes in Central and Eastern Europe, Timothy Garton Ash wrote of the paradox of transformation from the “normal abnormality” which was communism to the “abnormal normality” which is democracy, the paradox could be seen as witty shorthand for a process which by and large was unbelievably positive. After decades of internal constraint and oppression and the destruction of the rudiments of civil society and the market economy in Central and Eastern Europe, after decades of cold war and division, we were now facing “abnormal normality”. Our reality was “abnormal” in the sense that it challenged us to make sense of the “normality” which emerged after 1989. We, members of Central and Eastern European societies, enthusiastically accepted this challenge. But remembering the decade just past, and the events of 11 September, there is another question we cannot shirk, one which may also become another challenge: Could this “abnormal normality” possibly mean something less positive? Could it represent a threat which we must face as quickly and as effectively as possible? Could the transition from “normal abnormality” to “normality,” rather than “abnormal normality,” now be threatened? And if so, how can we oppose this threat?

The partnership we had in mind in the first months and years of free Poland was intended as a policy both for the good times and the bad. At that time, in 1989 and 1990, the bad times were thought of as the persistence of forces representing the bad past of divided Europe, however weakened those forces might have been. This meant that the partnership could not be a minimalist programme, calling simply for the coordination of interests. It had to challenge those interests, and redefine them on a new basis. It had to maximise values, and to embody courage and deliberation in practical action.

After we came to power – and although we were still constrained by the terms of our compromise with the communists – we had to look around actively in our own region, especially since the old order persisted in our immediate neighbourhood. We knew that difficult times would lie ahead if we were left on our own. In short, both heart and mind pointed in one direction: the closest possible partnership and cooperation with those forces in the region which were close to us politically. The history of this cooperation, in Prague, Kiev, Vilnius, and even Moscow, is still waiting to be written. Reason dictated gradualism, proceeding step-by-step in building international political support among the Western democracies for the newly begun transformation processes. It should therefore surprise no one that Prime Minister Mazowiecki’s first address contained no references to joining NATO, or to building a new kind of Euroatlantic community. That was to come later. However, this approach was not an expression of cunning or conspiracy, but part of the process of learning new conditions and forms of partnership from elites and politicians both in the East and the West. When as Prime Minister I spoke in 1991 of the need to extend the NATO umbrella, we were just taking our first steps along the new path. You could call it a special kind of on-the job training.

It seems to me that we found it easier to understand the dynamics of events in our immediate surroundings. We developed new forms of partnership, such as the successful Polish-Czechoslovak-Hungarian cooperation, which led first to a downgrading and then to the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, a few weeks before the Yanaev putsch in Moscow. In spite of its mixed fortunes, the tradition of this cooperation, now under the auspices of the quadripartite Visegrad Group, has survived to this day. I have no hesitation in saying that the crowning achievement of our political support for the independence of Ukraine was its immediate recognition, by my government, at the first possible moment.

There is no doubt that our greatest challenge was to build a partnership with our largest neighbours, Germany and Russia.

If I might invoke the power of the Almighty at this point, I should like to say that I consider the new opening in our policy towards Germany, both before and after its unification, to have been nothing short of a miracle. Our partnership with this great neighbour was burdened with an unhappy history to an extent difficult to imagine. Not much would have been achieved by an ordinary, “minimalist” partnership. There had to be an element of inspired madness, of an effort of will and mobilisation of effort around values, not only to break through the fears and distrust among our partners in the political negotiations, but also through the fears and anxieties in our own society. We were balancing dangerously on a line separating mistrustful approval from virtual accusations of national treason. We were fortunate in finding good partners, who were as quick to learn as we were ourselves. We also gained the support of others, not only the USA, France and Great Britain, but also Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. We won, and we won together with the Germans and together with Europe.

I feel I need persuade nobody that Russia represents a chapter of its own in Polish history. But even in the case of Russia – complicated and difficult, though in a way that was different from Germany – we were fortunate to find sensible, rational politicians:, first Gorbachev, and then, from the autumn of 1991, Yeltsin. The process of strengthening our partnership with Russia continues to this day, and President Putin’s practical actions engender hope and form a firm foundation on which to build a new partnership.

Every country in Central and Western Europe can write its own history of building new foundations and forms of partnership. Such histories would find their mirror image in the new histories of Western European and North American countries. It must be said that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new states are also a part of this process. The peaceful divorce of the Czechs and the Slovaks gave rise to the hope that, like most of the former Soviet Union, other places would also manage to live peacefully through at-times painful partings. The savage Balkan wars, associated with the collapse of Yugoslavia, put an end to these hopes. Nationalism coupled with religious intolerance and fanaticism showed us a new type of threat, which at the time was still on a regional scale. Many cherished the illusion that we were witnessing simply the death throes of a totalitarian system. But it was not so – you need only to look at Macedonia, or the Islamic fundamentalist movements rife through Central Asia, or indeed the populist right radicalism developing in many Western, Central and Eastern European countries, however subdued or unformed it may be today.

It seems that it is only now that we are beginning to see that what we had thought of as isolated phenomena and processes are in fact part of a unified whole. We had approached regional and subregional problems as “individual cases”, whose solution might require some political effort (and financial expenditure) but did not represent a challenge to Europe, frequently implicitly understood to mean Western Europe.

The time is fast approaching when we will need to start thinking of Europe as a single entity, and also as part of a wider world, an actor on the global stage. If I am right, it will mean that the scale of the disagreements and disputes we have engaged in up to now will come to be seen as highly regional. But there is no need to be excessively self-critical. It may be that Central and Eastern Europe’s pre-communist experience, and the experience of the last century, dominated up to 1945 by fascism and communism, and after 1945 by ideological, political and economic clashes between communism and democracy, has caused this part of the world to have a particularly acute sense of the concepts of partnership, cooperation, community, equal treatment and the rule of law. Partnership can be a concession, or the result of a compromise, or a way of implementing a contract. But it can also be something more ambitious – a way of life, a method of functioning in a world divided according to different criteria. In this second sense, partnership is a concept close to solidarity (with a small “s”) and community, and is a prescription and antidote to division.

There can be no doubt that the Polish perception of partnership and its association with European security must be understood in the second, deeper (or perhaps even organic) sense. If we look at our past discussions and disputes from this point of view – for instance those relating to our membership first of PfP and then of NATO – it will be easy to see that they related in equal measure to expanding the NATO umbrella and achieving political and military stabilisation of the region within the new Europe, and to cancelling out one of the main divisions created in the last half-century. It is important to remember that as far as differences between material well-being, prosperity and such matters are concerned, these divisions had their roots much further in the past.

The dispute over PfP and NATO was not exclusively, or even primarily, about whether or not we were afraid of Russia. Without wishing either to exaggerate or to avoid the subject, I think it can be said that it concerned not simply the well-being and security of the Poles, Czechs or Hungarians, but the unity of Europe. And more generally it concerned being able to step beyond the constraints of the existing framework, fashioned by the clash between democracy and totalitarianism. The fact that it was a friendly dispute with partners from the West did not make it any less hard-fought. It would take a long time to describe it, but if I were to summarise its essence in a few words, I would return to the phrase I used before – on-the-job training. We learned together, people from both parts of Europe and from beyond the Atlantic, that partnership must not be perceived as a technical move which many would interpret as shelving matters, or as a rejection. On the contrary, if partnership were to have any meaning, then it would have to become a process of formulation of aims, assessment and performance criteria, and decision-making. But to make this happen, we would need to operate within the same set of basic values, because uniting what was once divided by force amounts to more than maintaining correct or even very good relations between states. Critics of the expansion of NATO could not or did not want to understand this fundamental fact. But we must be fair: they did not display their reluctance too aggressively.

Partnership understood in this way did not need to exclude anyone a priori. Except, that is, for dictatorships, of which there were not too many in the Euroatlantic space in 1989. Naturally, it did not exclude Russia. On the contrary, it was one of the ways of achieving a new relationship with Russia, while for Russia it opened a way to a deserved place in Europe. When I consider our relationship with this great nation from the perspective of over two years of our membership of NATO, I see that our contacts have not deteriorated, but on the contrary have improved. What was impossible yesterday, or was a taboo subject, can today be discussed, or even resolved. Can this be the result of a miraculous visitation? Far from it. The logic of partnership, the logic of the European Community and of the actions of NATO and other European organisations clearly demonstrates that the last decade was not about a zero sum game. The expansion of NATO as one element in creating a broader European community should rather be perceived as a win-win strategy. Although, truth be told, its expansion and any future further stages are in reality only a fragment of a broader process in which the European Union will come to play an increasingly stronger and more prominent part which will include a political and military dimension. There is a place in this process for strategic cooperation between NATO, the European Union and Russia.

Various sorts of partnership specialists, including our ambassadors to NATO, the European Union, OECD and Strasbourg, tend to complain when they get tired that Europe is coming to resemble an assemblage of interlocking institutions. This is not entirely without justification, especially if we think of the efficiency of their operation and in particular of their cooperation. But at the same time, the dense network of interrelationships suggests that the institutionalisation of partnership is an accomplished fact, and that spending the taxpayer’s money on it is not regarded as profligacy. In the past decade things have become qualitatively different.

A decade ago, we in Poland saw partnership as the answer both to the good times and the bad times. In spite of the conflicts and local wars I spoke of, the past ten years have by and large been good years. It was only because of that that we were able to devote our time not only to matters of strategic importance but also to trifles (important in themselves, but nevertheless trifles). We were not alone in this. The famous banana dispute demonstrated that even the European Union-USA axis could devote time and effort to a dispute of which, paraphrasing Keynes, we could say that “though it costs something, it may be becoming a luxury which we can afford, if we happen to want it”.

This period was brought to an end by the first plane which struck the World Trade Centre. We don’t yet know how events will develop in the front line of the military conflict with the terrorists, or in the wider world, beyond the limits of the hunt for Bin Laden. But we can say that it is very probable that we are entering a difficult period, and that the time of partnership for the bad times has come.

A moment such as this makes us think again about fundamental principles and values, about the basics. Especially since we are required to react to phenomena and processes much more complicated, both conceptually and politically, than the simple dichotomy of the cold war, of democracy versus totalitarianism. To defeat the terrorists, destroy their logistics and financial infrastructure and cripple their associates is the operational part of the task. This struggle is now under way, and should involve no hesitation. The other part of the task is the struggle for our own souls, so that we don’t allow them to be overcome by the desire for retaliation and revenge. This is not a question of governments, or at least not principally of governments. It is a question of ourselves, of our world view and our view of other people. The traps are obvious. The protection and expansion of democratic space is the only answer. It is also the answer to chauvinist and populist sentiments in Europe itself. The third part of the task is also not new, and requires us finally to find a practical answer to the problem not so much of destitution as of the feeling of hopelessness among hundreds of millions of people.

Perhaps I could relate a brief story of an act of heroism from the World Trade Center last month to put the term “partnership” in a different perspective.

Maybe you heard about the six men who got on a lift in 1 World Trade Center the morning of September 11. Their express elevator was zooming high into the building when, a minute later, it suddenly stopped and then began to plunge. Someone punched an emergency stop button. A few minutes later smoke began to seep into the cabin. One of the men tried to open the ceiling hatch. Others pried apart the car doors, propping them open with the long wooden handle of a window washer’s squeegee that belonged to one of the six men.

Now, I hesitate to mention the name of this window washer, because then you might understand why I was so drawn to this story. It was Jan Demczur. Yes, a Polish man!

Mr Demczur and the other men quickly realised that the lift had stopped at the 50th floor – where this express lift did not ordinarily stop. There was no door. To escape, they would have to make one themselves. Mr Demczur, who had worked in construction in his early days as a Polish immigrant, saw that the wall was Sheetrock. He knew it could be cut with a sharp knife. Of course, no one had a knife. But they did have Mr Demczur’s squeegee, which had a metal edge. For the next 30 minutes, the men took turns moving the squeegee back and forth to cut a hole in the wall. Finally, they emerged, into a bathroom. Some fire-fighters were astonished to see them. They all raced down the stairs – and made it onto the street just five minutes before the building collapsed.

Partnership, in this instance, as it so often does, saved lives. Thinking back on how brave Mr Demczur’s actions might reflect on the challenges that confront Europe, it is also obvious that partnership requires of us today a clear, and sometimes grand vision – of being able to ask bold questions and give bold answers. It is to do not only with our country, or our region, but with the world. It is to do with values which Jesus, Mohammed, Moses and Buddha would never argue about: people’s right to a dignified life, to freedom and free choice. They are on our side. But we will have to prove it.