Still winning in Poland, at least for now

Posted in Europe | 29-Dec-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

Perceptions from Warsaw
WARSAW - I found the cure to anti-Americanism: Come to Poland. After two years of traveling almost exclusively to Western Europe and the Middle East, Poland feels like a geopolitical spa. I visited for just three days and got two years of anti-American bruises massaged out of me.

Get this: People here actually tell you they like America - without whispering. What has gotten into these people? Have all their subscriptions to Le Monde Diplomatique expired? Haven't they gotten the word from Berlin and Paris? No, they haven't. In fact, Poland is the antidote to European anti-Americanism. Poland is to France what Advil is to a pain in the neck. Or as Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign affairs specialist, remarked after visiting: "Poland is the most pro-American country in the world - including the United States."

What's this all about? It starts with history and geography. There's nothing like living between Germany and Russia, which at different times have trampled Poland off the map, to make Poles the biggest advocates of a permanent U.S. military presence in Europe. Ewa Swiderska, 25, a Warsaw University student, said, "We are the small kid in school who is really happy to have the big guy be his friend - it's a nice feeling."

Indeed, all the history and geography that Western European youth have forgotten, having grown up in a postmodern European Union, are still central to Polish consciousness, well after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "We still remember many things," said Jan Miroslaw, 22, also a Warsaw University student. "We are more eager to cooperate with America rather than just say 'no.'" The West Europeans, he added, "just don't remember many things, like the wars - they live too-comfortable lives."

No wonder then, when young Poles think of America, they think of the word "freedom." They think of generations of U.S. presidents railing against their Communist oppressors.

There is a huge message in this. In the Arab world, because of a long history of U.S. support for autocrats who kept their people down but their oil flowing, America was a synonym for hypocrisy. In Poland, where the United States has consistently trumpeted freedom, America means freedom. We Americans need to remember that: we are what we stand for.

Poland's becoming a member of the EU will give the United States an important friend there, a counterweight to forces that would like to use anti-Americanism as the glue to bind the expanding alliance and that would like to see the EU forge its identity as the great Uncola to America's Coca-Cola. But as powerful as Poland's bond to America is these days, the United States dare not take it for granted. Poland has some 2,400 troops in Iraq. That's the good news. The bad news is that roughly 75 percent of Poles oppose their deployment. Polish officials will tell you Poland sent troops to Iraq to help keep the Americans in Europe. But the public doesn't make such connections, and most people don't understand what their boys are doing there or what Poland is getting out of it. (How about a few extra visas for Poles?) If the U.S. ends up in a mess in Iraq, so will Poland. Many "old" Europeans will then laugh at Warsaw, and that would be highly corrosive for Polish-U.S. relations.

At the same time, once Poland is fully ensconced in the EU, its young people will grow up in that postmodern EU nirvana, where anti-Americanism is in the drinking water. Sadly, many U.S. education and public diplomacy programs directed at Eastern Europe after the fall of communism have been cut or redirected to the Muslim world. Bad timing.

There is now a competition between the United States of America and the United States of Europe for the next generation of Poles, who don't all have their parents' emotional ties to the U.S. - "and the U.S. is losing this competition," says a Polish foreign policy expert, Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas. "The new generation in Poland likes American pop culture, but it has less contact with American high culture, like education. It is so much easier for young Poles to go to university in Germany or France."

Given Poland's geography and history, there's a limit to how far it will drift from America. Poland will never be France. But Americans shouldn't assume it will remain the Poland of 1989 forever, either, and if it doesn't, that could have real consequences for America's standing in Europe.