Warsaw — High unemployment, corruption scandals and a clumsy, unpopular government dominate the news in Poland. Yet in most homes, attention is elsewhere. Poland’s surprising and high-profile role in Iraq has made the Middle East, Europe’s future relations with America and our own foreign policy heated topics of debate.
After sending troops to fight in Iraq, Poland last week agreed to run one of the three peacekeeping zones there, alongside the British and Americans. An unusual chain of events — some coincidental — brought us in. But here we are, arm-in-arm with Americans, our distant cousins, and in conflict with French and Germans, our closest family.

Just over the border, the response is irritation and even smear. A German newspaper called us an American “Trojan donkey.” The French president earlier suggested that we and other new entrants into the EU would have been wiser staying “quiet”. A number of European politicians and newspapers expressed skepticism about our ability to administer a part of Iraq. The Poles simply retort the French weren’t any better prepared when they got tapped to run an occupation zone in post-war Germany.
Poland now has a great opportunity to shape Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance. That’s an exciting prospect for a large and ambitious nation deprived for centuries of its independence. But the opportunity raises a host of doubts: do we know what we’re doing, can we play with the “big boys,” do we have good ideas and necessary resources? In short, can we deliver?

Yes, we can deliver. We can be a successful new guy on the block. We can help to built a better Europe and a better world, as long as we don’t forget about our national interest and two simple truths: that a friend is a friend, and that Poland is in Europe.
The rationale behind Poland’s support for the U.S. in Iraq was simple. Our ally and friend asked us for help. The United States, a solid and trusted democracy with a sophisticated foreign policy decision-making process, decided that Saddam Hussein constituted a threat to its national security and was going to send its military to depose his regime. It’s a argument that could be countered only with the most serious of objections. We didn’t have such objections so we said, sure, we’re coming. It was no time to play games.

In our part of Europe, security is a serious issue. We live in an unstable environment. Russia struggles to define its national interests and its future course. The fate of Belarus, run by Europe’s last tyrant, is anybody’s guess. Ukraine meanders between democracy and corruption, bringing even the most dedicated Polish friends to the verge of despair. In this neighborhood, you don’t joke with security. That’s why NATO is dead serious business for us. We care about NATO’s cohesion and efficiency. We don’t want to see the alliance watered-down. We object to its commitments becoming optional, a la carte.

There is no conflict between our attachment to NATO and the European Union. Europe has no need to separate from the U.S. to reassure itself of its existence. We have enough history and success, including the introduction of the euro and the upcoming eastward enlargement of the EU.

Yet security was and continues to be the single most important basis for European reconciliation. As Zbigniew Brzezinski often reminds us, without NATO (and the U.S.) in Europe, France wouldn’t have felt secure enough to reconcile with Germany and build up the EU. And without NATO, both France and Britain would’ve more actively opposed reunification of Germany. If not for our own membership in NATO, we would have waited even longer for an invitation to the EU. Thus NATO should continue to lead the effort to define Europe.

Next May, Poland will join the EU. Our objective isn’t merely to join the West, or move the border further eastward. It is to unite Europe in a community based on shared values, such as human rights, democracy, market economy. And to overcome history and its rivalries, imperial divisions and stereotypes.

We will emulate the Franco-German experience and complete our reconciliation with the Germans. We want to keep Europe open to new members, in particular to offer credible options to Ukrainians and Belarusians, many of whom today believe their only real choice for the future lies in tighter cooperation with Russia. We will help to define a useful and satisfactory place for Russia in Europe. To meet these objectives, the EU does need a common defense and foreign policy. The key question concerns the substance of this policy.

So what is the raison d’Europe: Do we build Europe into a superpower and a counterweight to America, as some in France think, or do we concentrate on our security and act on global issues as a partner of America through our longstanding joint-venture — “the West”?

The disagreement over Iraq is the beginning of a serious debate within Europe. We’ve had a promising start since two views clashed with full force. Poland’s decision to join the United Kingdom and send European soldiers to Iraq, which was condemned by several European leaders with surprisingly short memories, saved prospects for the unity of NATO and partnership with the U.S., and we have to follow this track. One clear lesson of the past weeks is that without British and Polish consent, no policy will be truly European.

Tourists in Australia are shocked to see a map of the world with Australia in its center. In Europe almost every nation has its own map of the world. And almost each of these nations at some stage was a superpower and ruled a part of world, including Poland a few centuries ago. Only very few suffered as much humiliation and hardship as Poland did. The challenge of making Europe of the 21st century a safer place depends on our ability to reconcile these maps, reconcile our national interests, merge them into one Western interest. With its particular history, Poland can help make this possible.

Mr. Olechowski was foreign minister of Poland from 1993-95.