An Interview with Stephen Mull, U.S. Ambassador to Poland

poland stephen mullStephen Mull was confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Poland in September 2012. From 2010 to 2012, Mull served as Executive Secretary of the State Department, and from 2008 to 2010 as Senior Advisor to Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns. A career Senior Foreign Service officer, he has also served as Deputy Executive Secretary in the Office of the Secretary of State and as Director of the Office of Southern European Affairs and Deputy Director of the Operations Center. In 2007 and 2008, Mull was Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs. Earlier in his career, Mull held the posts of Ambassador to the Republic of Lithuania from 2003-2006 and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 2000-2003. He has received two Presidential Meritorious Service Awards, two Superior Honor Awards, two Distinguished Honor Awards, and more than ten Senior Foreign Service performance awards. A graduate of Georgetown University, Mull is married with one child.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

Well, I was interested in international affairs going as far back as high school. When I was in high school, I was in a Model United Nations program and really loved it. I learned a tremendous amount about foreign policy issues and the process of negotiation. When I went to college, I decided to go to a school with a strong program in International Affairs. I went to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and continued to be fascinated and excited by the prospect of a career in international affairs. I was lucky to have passed the Foreign Service exam and was able to join the Foreign Service about a year and a half after I finished my undergraduate degree.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Poland that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?

I’ve worked in Poland three times and the first time was when the country was still under communism. This was my second tour as a Foreign Service officer. I spent the first year working in the visa section and the second year I was in the political section. My job in the political section was basically to make contact with and analyze the views of Poland’s democratic opposition, most of whom were just beginning to come out of jail. They were thrown in jail during the martial law that was declared here at the end of 1981. Living here under communism, meeting people who had just been imprisoned for nothing more than trying to organize an independent trade union really underscored to me that Poles in general just don’t give up. They came out of prison unbowed and determined to continue working for democracy even though the Soviet Union and the government that was supportive of the Soviet Union had thrown up a lot of obstacles in their way. It was a very inspirational experience to see how people operating under some pretty horrible oppression were still able to stay true to democratic values and were unwilling to give up. I realized then that the people here are really great to have on your side if you’re looking to get something done.

I came back here in the 1990s with that experience still very much on my mind. By that time Poland had become a democracy, their principal foreign policy goal was to join NATO and the EU. We worked very hard here in the Embassy to prepare the way for that. At the beginning of the Clinton Administration it was unclear whether or not we would support it, but after a year or so the Clinton Administration decided that it would be a good thing to enlarge NATO and to bring Poland in. I have to say that the four years I spent in the 1990s working on NATO enlargement were really fueled by the memory of what it was like dealing with the brave opposition activists here in the 1980s. Poland has since been a terrific ally. They’ve kept all of their promises; they’ve gone to war with us and I’ve seen that it has been a great investment.

The Politic: Poland’s foreign minister recently asked the U.S. to commit more military resources to ensure Poland’s security. In return, he said that Poland would be able to help the U.S. with its missions in other geographic areas. How do you feel that America can ensure that Poland can feel secure without threatening Russia?

You’ve put your finger on the most delicate fault line in managing our security relationship with Poland. They are a good ally of the U.S. and because they’re in NATO, we have a sacred obligation to make sure that Poland is secure. But at the same time we don’t want to pursue security in a way that makes Poland’s neighbors feel threatened by that relationship. A couple of principles guide our approach to this question.

NATO’s plans for defending its members and any security program that the U.S. conducts with Poland is decided just within NATO or within Poland and the U.S. We don’t decide how we’re going to defend Poland or carry out our NATO obligations by first asking for Russia’s permission or involvement. For instance, most recently one of the more controversial elements of our relationship with Russia has been the idea of strengthening missile defense in Europe. The Obama administration has changed the approach somewhat since the Bush Administration, but has nevertheless continued the idea that we need to put in place in Europe a missile defense system to defend Europe and the United States from any missile attacks that come from the Middle East, from Iran for instance. The part of the system that President Obama approved back in 2009 was to put a base in Poland and that is going to be up and operational with 200 troops in 2018. It will be a U.S.-run missile defense base on Polish soil. We recently changed the configuration of the missiles that are going to be on the base.

The immediate concern was whether we were doing that to assuage Russian concerns. When Secretary of State Kerry met with the Polish Prime Minister, he said publicly that we made zero concessions to Russia — it was not part of our calculations. In fact, Russia found out about these changes in the press, whereas we were consulting Poland throughout the decision-making process. I think that this whole episode was a model of how we pursue our security cooperation. In addition to the missile defense base that will open in Northern Poland, we already have a small Air Force detachment stationed in Poland. It will be here indefinitely. There are plans to organize at least four times a year joint air force training exercises. We just had a group of F-16’s here with American pilots and their crews that did two weeks’ worth of joint exercises with the Poles. So having that military presence here on the ground gives Poland a sense of security and it’s a very physical representation of our commitment to Poland.

The Politic: In his speech, Poland’s foreign minister said that once Poland feels entirely secure domestically it will be able to commit more to missions abroad with the U.S. How do you understand Poland’s potential role in assisting U.S. missions in other geographic areas?

There’s nothing surprising about this statement. It reflects how Poland has been behaving since it joined the alliance. Of the approximately thirty countries that contributed forces to ISAF in Afghanistan, Poland was the sixth largest. For most of the time, they had at least 2,000 troops there. Thirty-nine Polish soldiers have died in Afghanistan. Clearly, they’ve made sacrifices in support of their alliance with the United States.

There’s no immediate plan to go to war anywhere else and we’ll be winding down the operation in Afghanistan in its current form by the end of next year. They’ve committed again this week. Foreign Minister [Radosław] Sikorski mentioned this to Secretary Kerry on Monday. They reaffirmed that Poland will be with us in Afghanistan until the very end. I suspect that there will be a NATO follow-on role. We haven’t decided what yet, but if there is, I can’t speak for the Polish government, but I think it is very likely that Poland will contribute in some way.

In other areas we work very closely on all sorts of foreign policy issues. We don’t agree on everything, but we certainly agree on most things. For example, we have an annual high-level dialogue with them on how to best promote democracy in places like Ukraine and Belarus. It really is a rather unique dialogue. We don’t really have any other bilateral dialogue on that subject with any other country in the world. I think it’s a sign of the special relationship that we have with them on democratization issues.

The Politic: Poland has emphasized the importance of the EU in spite of the economic problems with the Eurozone. What do you see as Poland’s role in broader European efforts at security integration? Common Security and Defense Policy for instance?

This is an issue that is definitely still evolving in Europe. They are still trying to find their way. Poland would like a European defense capability to take on security challenges that uniquely affect European security interests as opposed to trans-Atlantic ones. They also very much agree with U.S. and Canadian concerns that we don’t set up structures that become redundant or that end up taking away resources from NATO to develop capabilities in Europe that would be duplicative of what NATO can already do. The U.S. and Poland have very close views on this. The Polish foreign minister has recently said that the situation we have in NATO now where the U.S. bears 70 percent of the cost of the alliance is not sustainable. Europe has to increase its defense spending just like Poland has so that it is closer to a 50-50 split between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The Politic: Professor Jolyon Howorth at Yale argues that if NATO remains the primary structure that Europeans use to ensure their security, they will have no incentive to increase their defense budgets because they will always be able to use the U.S. as a security blanket of sorts. With this argument in mind, how do you think we will be able to get to the point where trans-Atlantic security spending is split 50-50 between the two sides of the pond? Do you believe that this objective is realistic?

To President Obama’s left is Bronisław Komorowski, the president of Poland, and to his right is former Polish prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki
To President Obama’s left is Bronisław Komorowski, the president of Poland, and to his right is former Polish prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki

I can’t really predict how this spending will work. That being said, I frankly don’t think it’s a realistic expectation, at least in the next couple of years. We can’t forget that the Europeans are a bit behind us in terms of recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. There’s not a lot of appetite as the eurozone continues to go through some wrenching difficulties as they restructure and re-budget and add on top of that a pretty exhausting war that most members of NATO have been contributing to in Afghanistan. So, my personal view is that I don’t think we’re going to see massive increases of spending in European capitals. I might not be the right person to ask because the Poles get this. The Poles’ Constitution requires that they spend 1.95 percent of their GDP on defense spending. Since they are the only economy to have grown every year in the past 20 years in Europe, they’re really the only country in Europe where we will see increases in defense spending.

They are also great advocates with the Europeans themselves. How we persuade other countries to keep up their contributions and try to change the ratio has to come through heavy-lifting diplomacy, bilateral relations, and working through NATO. I heard one European leader recently describe Europe as a lifestyle superpower rather than a military superpower. As a result, if they want to become more than a lifestyle superpower they’re going to have to increase their defense spending. I can’t predict if it will succeed but this is certainly an important goal for U.S. diplomacy in Europe.

The Politic: If Europe is able to increase its defense spending within a uniquely European structure – by actually implementing their battle groups for instance — how do you see American cooperation with such a European integrated security structure? Will such cooperation occur through NATO?

As a diplomat, I can’t really speculate on hypotheticals. The U.S. has followed certain principles in this debate for the past ten or fifteen years. I think at one point when this debate was particularly controversial about ten years ago, somebody coined the phrase that what we would like for European capabilities is for them to be separable but not separate. How the Europeans decide (if they do decide) to have a more assertive and cohesive presence within NATO is up to them. As we go forward, we’re going to be pressing for more European support for NATO’s operations and expenses. We will be doing so in a way that encourages them to pursue separable but not separate undertakings that don’t require duplicative expenditures.

The Politic: Poland has been emphasizing the importance of its shale gas reserves and pushing for U.S. companies to help them develop these reserves. Some U.S. companies, however, have been leaving due to what they perceive to be unfavorable tax structures. So first, what do you see as the role of Poland’s shale gas reserves and the role of the U.S. in developing them? And second, what role do you think U.S. gas exports to Poland play in the geopolitics of the region?

Poland is still working to determine what kind of regulatory environment it wants to have here and what kind of tax structure it would like to implement. Though a couple of firms have left, the reason they gave was that in their limited time here, they didn’t find enough reserves to warrant their presence in the country. That being said, other American companies, such as Chevron, have chosen to stay. The Polish government has sought their opinions as foreign investors on its policies. And we do all we can to facilitate these contacts. The U.S. geological survey came at Poland’s request a little over a year go. They revised significantly downward their estimates of the reserves here, but even they acknowledged that the only way you can truly determine what’s available is by engaging in pretty extensive exploration.

On a strategic level, we completely agree with Poland that it is in its interest to diversify its energy supplies as much as possible. We certainly believe that shale gas is one such alternative energy source that’s worth pursuing. We’ve run a technical assistance program here. We’ve sent several dozen Polish officials from their economy and environmental ministries to the United States so that they could see what kind of technology we use. We have American teams coming here as well. It is a very active field of exchange between us. As the U.S. exports more liquefied natural gas, there will be a depressive effect on the world price of gas. Next year Poland will finish building a terminal that will be able to accept deliveries of LNG [liquefied natural gas]. In general, we support everything Poland is trying to do to diversify its energy supply.

The Politic: What effect has the eurozone crisis had on Poland and on Poland’s role in the EU? How do you think it will affect Poland’s relationship with America?

There are two main effects. First, it’s important to understand that a devaluation of Poland’s currency along with the fact that Poland is outside of the eurozone has contributed to Poland’s standing as one of the only countries in Europe with economic growth. In the last five years, it’s only been Poland, Slovakia, and Malta that have seen their economies grow. This is clearly a positive effect, but on the other hand, this crisis has raised the political question of whether or not Poland should ultimately join the eurozone. This is an interesting conflict because I think that the Polish political leadership realizes that if Poland is to continue the trend of becoming a major player in intra-EU politics, it has to be in the eurozone. If Poland remains outside the eurozone, it will be very hard to move into the leadership position to which they aspire.

That being said, approximately 60 to 70 percent of the general population opposes this measure. The Poles would also have to amend their constitution, which they don’t currently have enough political support in their parliament to do. Finally, they don’t meet all of the EU’s technical criteria just yet. The current government has decided to publically commit to Poland eventually joining the eurozone but this is at least three to four years away at present. In terms of its impact on the Polish relationship with the U.S., I don’t think it will have much of an impact on the U.S. American businesses here, much like the Poles themselves, are worried about the effect this will have on their pocketbook since most countries that join the eurozone see some kind of transitory inflationary effect.

On a broader geostrategic level, I don’t think it will make that much of a difference on our bilateral relationship.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

I think that diplomacy by its nature is a pretty conservative profession. When you’re living in an era when it seems that power balances change more quickly than before, it can be a challenge to respond sufficiently quickly to those changes. Most embassies are organized along the lines of what worked in the Cold War and that’s not always a particularly relevant way to organize resources and efforts. At our embassy here for instance, we have a pilot program to change the way we do public diplomacy. We have appointed a social media coordinator; we have a very active Facebook page. We use Facebook for all sorts of things: not only to publicize American policy, but also to have fun. Every time I go to a town, we do a contest on Facebook where the person with the ten most interesting answers to some question will join me for a beer or two. I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I try to get all of my colleagues here to join me on Twitter. The goal is to give the younger generation here a different flavor of the United States.

There are definitely parts of American foreign policy that I disagree with. Being a diplomat, however, is sort of like being a lawyer. My client is the government of the United States. If we are pursuing a foreign policy that I believe is going to hurt our national interest, I certainly have a lot of opportunities to work within the system, without going publicly, to change it. In the end though, if my view loses, I am sworn to carry out the wishes of my democratically elected government. That is the ultimate solace. I don’t always agree with what our government does, but if it’s the democratic will of the people, as flawed as the process might be, it is my job to carry it out.


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