Mark F. Brzezinski, confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Dec. 18 as the ambassador to Poland, was in a whirlwind of activity.
Though this will be his second such post – he served as U.S. ambassador to Sweden under President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2015 – the 1991 University of Virginia School of Law alumnus still had much to prepare for. He received extensive background briefings and attended ambassadorial school for three weeks in January. His classmates included former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Japan); former Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (Turkey); Cindy McCain, widow of U.S. Sen. John McCain (U.N. food agencies); and dozens of other confirmed officials.
“We were all together in a room at the Foreign Service Institute,” Brzezinski said. “A humongous room, I should say.”
He also brushed up on his Polish. As a Fulbright scholar in Warsaw after graduating from the Law School, he swapped language lessons with fellow students because “my Polish was very weak.” Still, he noted, “In the State Department rankings of difficult languages, Polish is near the top of the list, even though it uses a Roman alphabet.”
And then he was packing up his household, preparing to ship belongings by sea and air, and readying his daughter, Aurora, 12, for the adventure of a lifetime. Accompanying them is their 112-pound German shepherd, Teddy, who will have his own diplomatic mission as the official “@AmbassadogTeddy.”
Speaking by phone from his home in Alexandria, before departing for Warsaw on Jan. 20, Brzezinski sounded exhilarated, despite all the duties and tasks ahead.
“I am so excited about this mission,” he said. “It links to something I started at UVA in 1990, and that was writing about Poland’s long-term constitutional heritage. When the Poles created their constitution in 1791, it was only the second country in world history to adopt a written constitution.” The first, of course, was the United States.
The son of Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, and brother of Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Mark Brzezinski came to UVA Law after majoring in government at Dartmouth College. What attracted him to UVA?
“Where UVA is situated is very beautiful, but it was really the commitment to public service,” he said. “So much of what UVA stands for is public service and giving back to a larger set of goals. I wanted to be part of that community.”
What he remembers most about the Law School was how rigorous the curriculum was, but also how willing classmates were to “jump in and help each other.”
“That’s the amazing, beautiful, wonderful thing about the UVA Law School, and it was a huge teachable moment for me,” he said.
And that, he said, is also the ethos of diplomacy. “Challenges like pandemics and economic uncertainties are not just American challenges, they’re international challenges. The essence of diplomacy is to bring collective impact to a challenge.”
Brzezinski’s new post is a homecoming of sorts. From 1991 to 1995, he was a Fulbright scholar at the Polish Constitutional Court, an Oxford-Soros Lecturer at the University of Warsaw and a National Forum Foundation Fellow at the Warsaw-based Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights.
His 1997 book, “The Struggle for Constitutionalism in Poland,” was the outcome of his Oxford University doctoral thesis. “It has 400 footnotes!” he said. “The research and the interest I have is personal.”
The book had its roots at UVA. “It evolved from a note I wrote in the Virginia Law Review, ‘Law v. Power: The Case of Poland,’” Brzezinski recalled. “I dove into research into the steps taken by Poles over the centuries to wrestle with constitutionalism.”
He said he remains grateful to David A. Martin, Warner-Booker Distinguished Professor of International Law Emeritus, and A.E. Dick Howard (UVA Law Class of 1961), who currently holds that chair, for their insights and guidance.
More than two decades later, Poland still faces significant challenges. Its government, under the Law and Justice Party, has consistently moved the country to the right, clamping down on immigration, protest, media freedom, freedom of speech and LGBTQ+ protections.
“There’s a difference,” Brzezinski said, “between a constitution and constitutionalism. The former is a document, the latter a state of mind. Power can only act within a constitution. One of my missions is to convey that America embraces equality, America embraces democracy and America embraces the rule of law.”
He is undaunted by the political situation in Poland.
“Two things can be true at once,” he said. “First, the United States stands foursquare with Poles over their sovereignty and security, NATO Article 5” – which ensures mutual defense – “and their freedom and independence.
“A second thing is also true: The United States is committed to democracy, the rule of law and the practice of equality. I am hopeful that we’re going to make constructive progress that lifts up both American and Polish priorities.”
Even before he could take up residence in Warsaw, Brzezinski had a diplomatic mission: to engage with the Polish government over “Lex TVN,” a bill passed by the parliament that would have banned foreign ownership of media. It would have taken away the license for one of the country’s leading broadcast networks, TVN, because its parent company is U.S.-based Discovery Inc.
Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed the law on Dec. 27. “President Duda himself was enforcing the rule of law,” Brzezinski said. “It was an important signal by the Polish president about the protection of private property.”
In a sense, Brzezinski’s appointment closes a circle that began with his paternal grandfather, Tadeusz Brzezinski, a Polish diplomat and consular official. “He was consul general in Lyon, Leipzig and Lviv, Ukraine, and in 1938 he was deployed to Canada,” he said. “That probably saved his life, because the Nazis went out of their way to kill diplomats.”
After serving as consul general in Montreal until the Communist takeover of Poland after World War II, Tadeusz sold insurance door to door.
“He would have loved to have been ambassador,” said his grandson, who bears a striking resemblance. “Because of his memory, I will not take this role for granted. I am profoundly grateful to President Biden for giving me this opportunity to put into practice his policies in terms of security, advancing shared values, and bringing our countries closer together.”
Brzezinski also plans to bring his ambassadorship closer to UVA. He said he’s been in touch with law Dean Risa L. Goluboff and others at the University about how to build bridges between UVA and Poland – much as he did during his ambassadorial years in Sweden.
“Poland is innovative and filled with potential,” he said. “UVA gave me gifts I can never repay, but I can share knowledge and competencies with its students.”