As the only country in the European Union that never went into recession, Poland has a unique vantage point on Europe's economic woes. And Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has taken up the mission of delivering hard truths to governments that need to hear it.
In a speech late last year, Sikorski shocked his Berlin audience by saying, "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity" -- a near-historic statement given the long past enmity between the two countries. In an op-ed, he described the prospect of a eurozone breakup as a "crisis of apocalyptic proportions" and demanded that Germany, as one of the prime beneficiaries of European integration, take greater action to help the rest of the continent escape the crisis. In September, Sikorski turned up the pressure on Britain, demanding that David Cameron's government take a greater interest in European leadership. "The EU is an English-speaking power. The single market was a British idea," he said. "You could, if only you wished, lead Europe's defense policy. But if you refuse, please don't expect us to help you wreck or paralyze the EU."
A onetime journalist married to Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, Sikorski is a staunch advocate of transatlantic cooperation to tackle security threats -- particularly an increasingly belligerent Russia. Although he has credited Poland's own 2007 "reset" with Russia with paving the way for the policy of Barack Obama's administration, Sikorski now warns of Russian President Vladimir Putin's ever-creeping authoritarianism. Nor is Sikorski, who has close ties to Washington hawks, always impressed with the current occupant of the Oval Office: In May, when Obama made an offhand reference to a "Polish death camp," rather than calling it a Nazi death camp located in Poland, Sikorski tweeted that the remark was evidence of "ignorance and incompetence."
Reading list: Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson; Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, by Anne Applebaum; Vanished Kingdoms, by Norman Davies. Best idea: Rewarding bankers in proportion to capital they create, rather than debt. Worst idea: The UK leaving the EU. American decline or American renewal? Renewal, in a form of reinventing itself. More Europe or less? More. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet, of course.
For Americans, world events inevitably come colored through a Western prism, whether it's believing that the American ideal of democracy inspired the Arab Spring or that China's economy will stall without opening more to the West. And that's not surprising: The West dominated the 20th century, and today nearly every society "seems at least partially Westernized, or aspiring towards a form of Western modernity," as Pankaj Mishra writes in his provocative 2012 book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. But Mishra reminds us, "there was a time when the West merely denoted a geographical region, and other peoples unselfconsciously assumed a universal order centered in their values."
Mishra, an Indian-born novelist and essayist, offers the rare ability to write both knowledgeably and critically about the continent of his birth -- and for a largely Western audience. At his day job, he pens columns for Bloomberg View on Asia's shifting role in today's geopolitical climate. In From the Ruins of Empire, he looks back at the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when much of Asia was still wrestling with the ideological influence of its colonizers. The book focuses on Liang Qichao, a Chinese reformer and early influence on Mao Zedong who wrote -- in a line that might have been plucked from the 2012 news cycle -- about the risks and temptations of viewing China as the world, as well as Persian ideologue Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who advocated pan-Islamic "zeal" as the way to revive the Muslim world. If these unheralded thinkers were better known, Mishra argues, the world might better understand Asia's rise today. In Afghanistan, for instance, money and lives could have been saved, Mishra says, "if the simple moral equations -- miniskirts versus Taliban beards" were replaced with deeper intellectual engagement with the past. Binary frameworks like this, he says, show just how unaware East and West are of their history -- both shared and, more importantly, not.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, which simultaneously swept Islamists to power and brought new democracies into being in much of the Middle East, Arab countries are grappling with how to reconcile Islamic tradition with freedom, gender equality, and human rights -- ideas that many perceive as alien imports from the West. These are precisely the questions with which Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University and the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, has spent his career wrestling. Islam, he argues, is not inherently anti-Western; the two can be reconciled. Ramadan's aim is to reform minds, he is fond of saying, not rewrite holy texts.
It's a message that resonates among émigré populations in the West, but has much to offer newly liberated Middle Eastern societies as well. In Islam and the Arab Awakening, his controversial new book that infuriated some because of its conspiracy-theorizing about the Western origins of the Arab Spring, Ramadan challenges Muslims to embrace democracy on their own terms, suggesting now is an excellent time for some "political creativity." He's no mere cheerleader for street politics, though, acknowledging that decades of oppressive dictatorship crippled "the life of ideas" in much of the Arab world and demanding change rather than blind adherence to the past. There can be, he says, "no faithfulness without evolution."
Reading list: The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean; Spiritual Gems: The Mystical Qur'an Commentary Ascribed by the Sufis to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, translated by Farhana Mayer; The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. Best and worst idea: To run for the Egyptian presidency! American decline or American renewal? American decline. More Europe or less? More Europe. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.