Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, speaking at the Atlantic Council today, declared that Russia’s justification for invading Georgia, that it was defending its friends abroad, is one that has been used by Russian autocrats for centuries to justify a doctrine of imperialism.

Saying that we need “a doctrine for a doctrine,” Sikorski declared that, “Any further attempt to redraw borders in Europe by force or by subversion will be regarded by Poland as an existential threat to our security and should entail a proportional response by the whole Atlantic community.” Beyond that, “We need to make NATO’s traditional security guarantees credible again.”

Asked by UPI’s Martin Walker to define “subversion,” noting Russia’s behind the scenes efforts to influence the elections in Ukraine, Sikorski glibly responded, “You’ve answered your own question.”

Pressed by Susan Cornell of Reuters as to whether Poland supported extending NATO Article 5 guarantees to non-members like Ukraine and Georgia, the minister observed that we had declared at Bucharest that they would one day be members. Cornwell followed up, asking whether “proportional response” meant military force, Sikorski demurred, “I have to be diplomatic.”

He declared that Russian territorial ambitions have been, over the last several centuries, rather like a glacier, sometimes expanding, sometimes receding, but always there. Now, he declared, in an age of global warming, it’s time for the glacier to melt. Rather than being feared for its tanks, Russia should instead be admired for its great culture and scientific prowess.

Sikorski outlined several tools at Western disposal should we muster the political will to wield them. He observed that the EU has 400 million people and, with a 12 trillion Euro GDP, the world’s largest economy. It would be a relatively simple matter to demand Russia comply with international norms in order to have access to that market. He noted that “The EU is a master of regulation” and declared, “If the EU can regulate Microsoft, why not Gazprom?”

On the security front, there is NATO. He believes that we have acted since the Cold War ended as if there were no Article 5 threats. “That era is at an end,” he announced. While NATO has transformed itself over the last fifteen years into an expeditionary force — with full cooperation from Poland — it is at its cornerstone a military alliance.

Sikorski’s speech, delivered with passion and mischievious charm, was stirring.   His rhetoric, delivered with the skill of an Oxford debater in Oxford accented English, was persuasive.   He was, after all, merely calling on the West to live up to its own declared ideals.  Indeed, he quoted from Barack Obama’s victory speech: “Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.”

In reality, though, while people have ideals, countries have interests. 

The West demonstrated time and again during the Cold War that its ideals had limits when faced with threats to its interests.  When the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia was weak, we pushed hard to expand Western institutions, including bringing former Warsaw Pact countries into the EU and NATO.  But, as we’ve seen in recent months, there are still limits to our will to act.  When Russia invaded Georgia mere weeks after NATO had declared that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO,”  the action was met mostly by words.  There’s simply no appetite in America, much less “Old Europe,” to go to war over the Near Abroad.   And even EU trade sanctions have been stymied by the complex interrelationship between Member nations, most notably Germany, with Russia and its natural gas resources.

It’s not at all clear why any of these fundamental calculations will change when Barack Obama takes office two months from tomorrow.  To be sure, he ran on a plaform of “Hope” and “Change,” two things desperately needed for Sikorski’s doctrine to come to fruition.   He may need more than that, though.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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