Interview with Prof. Dr. habil. Dr. h.c. Piotr Wilczek (University of Warsaw)
Holt Meyer (H. M.): What is Poland’s position in the West in the second half of 2019?
Piotr Wilczek (P. W.): The answer depends on what we understand to be "the West". Poland is obviously an important part of the West because of its economic strength, religion, values, history and tradition. Poland serves as a Western partner of the Eastern Partnership, which is comprised of six Eastern European partners of the EU: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. But the situation is more complicated. For example, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, located further to the east, are also undoubtedly Western countries with stable economies steadfastly attached to western values. This notion of "the West" is obviously political and related more to values and history than to geography. For that reason, the concept of "Eastern Europe" used in America on an everyday basis, but also in relation to Poland (usually without any hidden agenda), causes some frustration amongst Poles.
As a major EU and NATO member, Poland in 2019 undoubtedly belongs to the West, and its position in the "western family" is strong. At the same time, however, one can see differences between Poland and other Western countries. Allow me to discuss just one aspect of Poland’s "westernness" – its deep connection to the Roman Catholic tradition and its values. This aspect often causes Poland’s position on various issues to differ from the positions of other Western countries. Knowledge of the role of Polish Catholicism helps to understand the characteristic features of Poland’s westernness.
As John Paul II mentioned in his encyclical, Slavorum Apostoli, "Western Christianity, after the migrations of the new peoples, had amalgamated the newly arrived ethnic groups with the Latin-speaking population already living there, and had extended to all, in order to unite them, the Latin language, liturgy and culture which had been transmitted by the Church of Rome. The uniformity thus achieved gave relatively young and rapidly expanding societies a sense of strength and compactness, which contributed to a closer unity among them and a more forceful affirmation in Europe" (JOHN PAUL II: 1985).
Modern-day Poland inherited the multireligious tradition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (14th–18th centuries) – including Eastern Orthodox Christianity – but at the same time is deeply rooted in the western, Roman Catholic Christianity. As the leading spiritual force of the country, the Catholic Church and the role of Catholicism in Polish history has always been of vital importance. Its significance was especially evident in the mid-1980s, when all key figures of world politics knew well that the metaphorical heart of Poland was in the Vatican, and that Pope John Paul II, since his election in 1978, had played an instrumental role in Poland’s transformation. His triumphant pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 encouraged my compatriots to unite, inspiring the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980 and giving strength to its development. The support of the Pope and of the local Catholic Church for the anti-Communist opposition, together with the activities of skillful Vatican diplomats, influenced the demolition of the Communist regime. Latin Christianity has always helped to maintain strong relations with the West, even during the darkest years of Communism; John Paul’s alliance with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was a clear symbol of that. The unusual, unofficial alliance between these two leaders and the Pope, much better known nowadays thanks to the recent publication of classified documents from that era, illustrates the unprecedented role of the Catholic Church in that particular period’s political developments (O’SULLIVAN: 2008).
Since the partitioning of Poland at the end of the 18th century, the growing influence of the Roman Catholic Church has been bolstered by a number of factors (cf. KŁOCZOWSKI: 2000):
- the patriotic leadership of Roman Catholic bishops and priests in the 19th century, especially under the Russian and Prussian partitions,
- the political role of the Roman Catholic Church in 1918–1939, imposed by the new republic; even the Polish constitution included an unusual article about the Roman Catholic Church’s "privileged position among equal religious denominations" (PEASE: 2009),
- the mass support of Roman Catholic clergy given to the Polish resistance movement against the German and Soviet occupations during the Second World War,
- the change of borders and mass migrations after 1945 which resulted in national and religious homogeneity,
- the Church’s support of the anti-Communist opposition between 1945 and 1989.
There have been many significant changes in the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland since 1989, during which Poland itself has been moving from the peripheries of Europe to a more central position. "Competition, science, the rule of law, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic" (FERGUSON: 2011) have become core tenets of Poland’s identity. Thanks to the transformation of the last 30 years, Poland has moved to the West on a symbolic map of Europe. Democratic ideas, secularization, and the influence of European Union standards have also influenced Polish religion. The current changes provide valuable material for sociologists who today engage in research on, for example, the clash of conservative and liberal tendencies in the Church (cf. WILCZEK: 2016).
There are many aspects of Poland’s current westernness that should be discussed, but I believe that the religious aspect is particularly worth discussing as it helps to understand many current differences between Poland and other Western European countries.
H. M.: In what way, if at all, have you as the Ambassador of Poland to the US fostered a particular vision of the West? How have you fostered this vision not only in terms of Western institutions such as NATO, but from the point of view of civilization and culture?
P. W.: During one of my first interviews here in the United States, published in September 2017, I stated,
We need still to preserve something that in cultural history is called "The West". There’s a book published recently by a famous British-American historian, Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest. He is trying to prove that Western Civilization beginning with the Renaissance and the Reformation in Europe has just finished and there will be a larger and larger role of Asia, especially China, and also Russia in future history. This alliance of the United States and Europe is very important to preserve what Trump called "Western Civilization." For many people this might sound controversial, but I think for the contemporary world with all kinds of values and priorities, this civilization based on Christianity, the French revolution, ideas of enlightenment, ideas of the founding fathers in this country, that’s something really important. I’m a little conservative in this respect… I really believe in ideas like the great books — that there is a set of great books that formed our civilization, which are still worth reading, all kinds of classics that we have in Europe and America. I think the values of the so-called "Western Civilization" should be preserved because history has shown us in the last 70 years that this Euro-Atlantic alliance was very effective at preserving peace. There were no major wars in the EU. I truly believe in American leadership. It may sound very anachronistic, but I think the world still needs American leadership supported by Europe and European values. The U.S. is the most powerful country and I hope it will be for many, many years. I think that in the world such a feeling exists that countries like Russia and China want to challenge this idea of American or Euro-Atlantic leadership, but for a kind of balance in the world, this is very important (WILCZEK: 2017).
One may be surprised that I was quoting President Trump in referring to Western Civilization. However, the speech he delivered in Warsaw in July of 2017 was for many Poles a very important manifesto of what most Poles and most Americans, irrespective of political views, are attached to: the values of the western world.
As I said earlier in that same interview, "Donald Trump’s visit was important because when you read his speech in Warsaw, it was about the Euro-Atlantic alliance, about security, unity, and what he called defending Western Civilization. I think it’s important that Europe remembers its heritage and that its unity is based on values."
I am well aware of how controversial the above quotations may sound, especially more than two years after the aforementioned speech. However, I still believe that the Euro-Atlantic alliance exists, that it is western and that it is based in western values. In his speech, which Poles understood simply as a message from their most important ally in the West, Trump used the word "West" twelve times, e.g. in the following passage:
Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory. And today as ever, Poland is in our heart, and its people are in that fight. Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph (TRUMP: 2017).
I remember how his address was criticized as one-sided, conservative, etc. But at the same time, it revived a serious discussion on what the West and western values are about and on the myriad different ways they are understood today.
H. M.: Which personal experience or encounter has made you think most intensively about the state of, the endangerment of, or the glory of the West? Perhaps one experience for each of the three conditions?
P. W.: As far as the state of the West and endangerments are concerned, a truly eye-opening encounter (and not only for me) was with the recent, widely discussed and rather controversial interview with President Emmanuel Macron of France in "The Economist". In the interview, he discussed Europe’s situation in relation to the United States on the one hand, and Russia, China, and Turkey as growing regional powers on the other. In a very alarming tone, he called for the revitalization of Europe which, in his estimation, is becoming increasingly vulnerable to confrontation with both the new approach of America to the transatlantic project and with the individual, opposing ambitions of Russia, Turkey, and China.
As he observed:
Europe was basically built to be the Americans’ junior partner. That was what lay behind the Marshall Plan from the beginning. And this went hand in hand with a benevolent United States, acting as the ultimate guarantor of a system and of a balance of values, based on the preservation of world peace and the domination of Western values." But everything has changed so far. „There is a deep current of thought that was structured in the period between 1990 and 2000 around the idea of the "end of history", of a limitless expansion of democracy, of the triumph of the West as a universal value system. That was the accepted truth at the time, until the 2000s, when a series of shocks demonstrated that it wasn’t actually so true." (MACRON: 2019)
In the light of all of the challenges the West is facing now, it is really difficult to think – in political and cultural terms – about the glory of the West.
H. M.: You come from an institute in Warsaw which fostered liberal arts. How would you view the transition from being a professor of liberal arts to your current position as Ambassador? Do you see any links or commonalities between the two, or has becoming Ambassador been a complete reset?
P. W.: On the one hand, becoming Ambassador was a complete reset. I faced new people and new challenges, especially because I arrived in Washington two days before the presidential election, when everyone here thought that Hillary Clinton would become President. The election of Donald Trump was a real shock for the political and diplomatic communities here in the Bubble, as Washington, DC is sometimes called. During my training and consultations back in Warsaw, I was being prepared to work with a Democratic administration; once on the ground in Washington, I found myself in a completely different political environment. But I was not in shock. It was extremely fascinating. My initial feeling was that I had just become part of this completely new political thriller – this was the first episode and there will be a next episode, but nothing will be like before. So, from this point of view, I was really excited that something new had just started, something very unpredictable with new people to meet and new connections to be made. Many did not accept the situation, but for me, I had no choice – I had to be involved. I had no sentiments, no connections or close friendships here in Washington, so I saw this as an opportunity to make these new connections and to meet these new people.
I knew America as an academic. I spent almost four years (in 1998–2001, 2008 and 2012) at five excellent universities, I worked for three years for a US foundation, and for seven years, in 2009–16, I was in charge of an American-style liberal arts program at the University of Warsaw. Being an ambassador is obviously a completely different job, but my previous professorial experience has proven useful – I was able to discuss translation studies (one of my academic fields of interest) at dinner with the Japanese ambassador’s wife who happened to be a translator; as Ambassador, I was a panelist at a university discussion on Polish cinema and, as a former professor who had offered Polish film courses at two US universities, I spoke about the topic with ease. The connection between academic and diplomatic experiences is much deeper. As a former professor and academic administrator, I feel that I have unique qualifications that are, at times, necessary in my current job. In the past, I negotiated contracts, gave lectures to big audiences and took part in numerous panel discussions. I ran institutions (the likes of which include a university school and college), and led teams and projects. My university seminars were not much different from the weekly meetings with my Embassy colleagues, where we discuss current events and challenges.