From Warsaw to Washington — A Fresh Perspective on Diplomacy
Q&A with Piotr Wilczek, Ambassador of Poland
Name: Piotr Wilczek | Age: 55 | Hometown: Chorzów, Poland
Ambassador to the U.S. since: January 18, 2017
First, tell us a little bit about your personal background.
I grew up in Southern Poland in a region called Silesia, a region which was in the past a part of both Poland and Bohemia and Germany and is quite mixed culturally. This part of Silesia was under the Prussian partition. We should remember that Poland for 123 years was under partitions and this is still important for many people in Poland. Southeastern Poland, where my maternal grandmother was from, was under Austrian rule, and Warsaw, where my maternal grandfather’s family was from, was under Russian rule. So my family is from all three parts of Poland which were under Russian, Austrian, and Prussian rule. In 1918, after 123 years of partitions, the country became independent. But there are customs and traditions that are different in various parts of the country because for so many years there was no Polish state. Polish everyday life, customs, and political traditions were influenced by three different countries or systems.
I was born in an industrial city, Chorzow, close to Katowice, the capital of Silesia. I lived in Katowice for more than 40 years and I graduated from high school and University there. Katowice and the region is sort of like Buffalo or Pittsburgh, an industrial part of Poland. My family was a very typical middle class family. My mother was a physician and my father was a graphic designer. He was an independent artist all of his life, and most of his life was under communism. He worked as a freelance independent artist for the Catholic Church designing church interiors, stained glass windows, book covers for Catholic publishing houses. The Church was practically the only independent institution not dependent on the Communist State.
This experience of my father very much influenced my life. Although during my professional life I’ve always been employed by a university or now the foreign ministry, I think I inherited this desire to be independent in my career and decisions.
You’re a literary scholar, intellectual historian, writer, and translator — tell us a little bit about your career path and how you made the transition from professor and historian to ambassador.
It was a long and difficult transition. After my tenure as a dean in Katowice, I moved to Warsaw and got a job at the University of Warsaw, a major Polish research university, as a founding director of the college of liberal arts. It was a challenge for me to establish an American-style liberal arts college in the Polish higher education system, something completely new. During my last two years in Warsaw I ran the office of the Kosciuszko Foundation, a prominent New York City-based foundation responsible for academic and cultural contacts between Poland and the U.S. I devoted a lot of my time and effort working closely with various universities here and in Poland to establish closer academic relations between the two countries. I was also involved in the activities of the American Study Group at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, a think tank which is an affiliate of the Polish Foreign Ministry.
Gradually, I became more and more involved in developing Polish-American relations, which led me to being appointed Ambassador.
You moved to Washington D.C. to start your post as ambassador just two days before the U.S. elections. What was that like?
When I arrived here in Washington almost everybody was sure that the winner would be Hillary Clinton, but the result was different. Most of my colleagues here were in shock.
I soon realized that I was in a very similar position as my experienced diplomat colleagues because this was a major change for them in terms of friendships and political connections. A new world had begun with many question marks.
My first feeling was that now I’ve just become part of this completely new political thriller… this was the first episode and there’ll be the 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, new faces, 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 new connections, to meet these new people.
What has been the most challenging aspect of being ambassador?
There are many, many challenges. You have to learn how to deal and maneuver in all these complicated political settings in Washington. Another challenge that I like very much is that you have to learn so many new things. On top of that, you have to run the embassy and your own team. There is quite a large group of people in the embassy and you are involved in their everyday work and even life. You’re the leader of this diaspora community and you feel responsible for them.
And the most rewarding?
First, constantly meeting new and interesting people. It’s your obligation to meet as many people as possible, almost every day, from various cultures and backgrounds, usually from the diplomatic and political circles. Second, this feeling that you are in the middle of the most important things happening in the world and you may have a very little, but yet some influence, on what is happening.
For example, when I was testifying at the senate appropriations committee, I had this feeling that what I was saying on behalf of my government really mattered and that it might have influence on U.S. policy towards Russia.
Having no prior diplomatic experience and being an “outsider” can have both advantages and disadvantages — what has been your experience?
When you’re not a career diplomat you have this chance to look at problems from a different perspective, both in the embassy and in the outside world dealing with politicians.
However, it’s good to be surrounded by professional diplomats, as it is in my case. I hope that my perspective or views may be fresh, less routine, challenging, or make people think. On the other hand, experience is very important — not only international experience or experience in dealing with people from various cultures — but experience in negotiations, for example. That’s of course something that I’ve had to learn on the job.
What do you think is the most important characteristic or trait that a diplomat needs to be successful?
A diplomat should like people, be involved in social life and be very friendly but at the same time must remember his or her duties and responsibilities and be very discreet. This is a kind of paradox because when you have friendly relations with people and like people, at the same time it’s very difficult to constantly remember that you have a very special role and that you have to be loyal to your country and government.
If you were not a historian or ambassador, what would you be?
One of my dreams when I was a teenager was to run a travel agency. If I wasn’t a traveling academic or a diplomat, I would love to have my own travel agency and help people explore the world.
Looking back on your career, what advice would you give to your younger self?
My only advice to my younger self would be to be more relaxed. Don’t care about what people think about you and just follow your own path, your own dreams, your own thinking.
This is the most essential thing. When you’re young, you have this tendency to follow other people’s advice and be very dependent on your family or the community around you. The most important thing is to follow your heart and intuition, and follow your dreams to achieve what you want to achieve.
President Trump’s recent visit to Poland was an important moment in Polish history. Why was this also significant for Europe?
I think it was very important for the region because of the historical experience of the region. Central/Eastern Europe is still perceived, especially in the West, as a separate entity, even though it isn’t. All these countries’ leaders with whom Donald Trump met with in Warsaw were EU members. 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. This emphasis of the role of Europe, European values, the Euro-Atlantic alliance, Trump’s speech was reassuring and very important.
You mentioned shared values, what are some values that Americans and Europeans share?
Freedom — freedom of speech, of movement, freedom of thought, and the rule of law.
Speaking of the Euro-Atlantic alliance, what do you feel is the most important reason we need a strong EU-U.S. relationship today?
We need still to preserve something that in cultural history is called “The West.” There’s a book published recently published 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 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 sounds 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.
What do you feel is the greatest benefit the EU offers the citizens of Europe? The world?
The EU offers social and economic stability in Europe. The EU is a single market which is important as a partner for the world. Although many politicians in the world question its importance, the EU still offers many advantages as far as economic development is concerned.
It’s very important that in Europe, that European countries work together and be a big partner for other big powers in the world.
An integrated EU means more power in relations with the outside world but at the same time we should be very careful about this balance between more European integration and sovereignty. In many European countries, not only in Poland, there is a strong feeling of national identity and sovereignty. For that reason, the EU should preserve this balance and as an organization, not interfere too deeply in issues which some countries think should belong to them. One of the biggest challenges for the EU is to preserve unity based on mutual understanding and avoid this feeling that bigger countries impose on smaller countries.
What would you like to see the EU accomplish in the next 5 years?
My dream is that there will be more discussion within the EU about the internal functioning of the EU and the role of the European Commission, which for many Member States and politicians is not very clear. I hope that in the next few years there will be more discussions about how to manage this very complicated structure and how to make the EU and the European bureaucracy more understandable and friendly for citizens in various European countries.
I would expect more debate about the future shape of the EU and what I’m afraid of, is that in the next 5 years there will a tendency of bigger and stronger and larger countries to impose their ideas of European integration on smaller countries. That’s what I’m afraid of, that there will be the so-called Europe of different speeds, or the Europe of the Eurozone or no Eurozone. I’m just afraid that some bigger countries will have this temptation to impose their ideas or regulations on smaller countries. What I hope is that there is a chance in the next few years to establish a compromise which will mean more understanding in Brussels for different attitudes to different aspects of policymaking in Member States.
You’ve traveled quite extensively in the U.S. — and you’ve lived here before too as a visiting professor — do you have any favorite cities or places?
My two favorite cities are Philadelphia and Boston, because of the history. As a cultural historian I love walking through the historical districts of these cities and thinking about the past. For that reason, in Washington my favorite neighborhood is Georgetown.
What would you say is at the top of your bucket list for places you’d like to visit in the U.S.?
The city I really would like to visit is Savannah, GA, which will probably join this list of my favorite cities. Many years ago I translated from English to Polish a nonfiction book by John Berendt — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A reporter from NY comes to explore a mysterious history of a murder in one of these magnificent villas in Savannah. The atmosphere in the South is depicted in a great way in this novel. Savannah is at the top of my list and I’m planning to visit possibly as soon as October.
What is something that most people don’t know about you? Could be a guilty pleasure, a special talent, hobbies, passions, bad habit, pet peeve, or something quirky.
Speaking of guilty pleasures, it’s eating chocolate — chocolate cakes. Chocolate fudge cakes with vanilla ice cream — I could eat that every day. That’s my most infamous guilty pleasure.
What do you like to do for fun, aside from history and work?
Hiking, walking, exploring new places. My favorite thing is to randomly walk in a new city. I can walk 12 hours in a day visiting all kinds of neighborhoods. My rule when I’m in new places is that I don’t follow maps or guidebooks. That’s what I really like doing for fun — exploring new places in new cities.
If you could only pick one thing to share with Americans about Poland, what would it be?
What I like about Poland is that you have this combination of tradition and modernity.
When any of my friends from the Netherlands or Germany or the U.S. come to Poland for the first time, all of them are in shock because they think it’s very old fashioned, but what they see is something so modern and new.
And it’s contrary to all stereotypes which still exist, even in Germany, which is a neighbor of Poland. Great progress has been made in the development in the last 20 years thanks to EU membership. Many historic monuments were also renovated. So that’s what I really like most, inviting people to Poland and seeing how unexpected this all is for them.
What are you most proud of?
What I’m very proud of is that in the last ten years, I managed to overcome my shyness. I was a very shy kid. I would have never expected to be a dean or an ambassador or speaking to large crowds because for many years I was very, very shy. I actually don’t know if I still am or not, but I think that I have overcome this because I had to. Maybe for that reason I made these attempts to get some important jobs or positions just to test myself, so that’s something I’m actually quite proud of.
So who is Kosciuszko and how can we find him? Specifically, why is he such an important figure in both Polish and American history?
Kosciuszko was a Polish nobleman who commanded the Kosciuszko Uprising, a Polish war for independence against Russia, which ultimately was unsuccessful. However, he played a crucial role in the American war of independence as a military officer and engineer in the Continental Army. He was responsible for overseeing the construction of West Point and his leadership was instrumental in the crucial victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
Kosciuszko’s impact on US history can be seen in how he is commemorated across the United States. It is believed that there are more Kosciuszko namesakes than any other Revolutionary War figure other than George Washington. This October, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of Kosciuszko’s passing, and to celebrate his legacy we are encouraging people to “Find Your Kosciuszko” and uncover monuments, bridges, and streets with his name. From the Kosciuszko Bridge in New York City, to the monument in Washington, D.C. near the White House — you can find him in many states in America. There’s a Kosciusko county in Indiana, there’s Kosciusko Mississippi where Oprah was born. There are statues in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee and elsewhere. We have his portrait here in the residence and in our embassy. So on the weekend of October 14–15 we encourage everyone to Find Your Kosciuszko!