I don't often find myself agreeing with Thomas L. Friedman, but I've now discovered for myself that a New York Times column he wrote ten years ago, and that I remember reading at the time, was right on the money.
“Poland,” he declared, “is the antidote to European anti-Americanism.” Noting that he had spent much of the previous two years being targeted by anti-Americanism in Western Europe and the Middle East, he'd spent three days in Poland “and got two years of anti-American bruises massaged out of me.” To his surprise, Poles “actually tell you they like America — without whispering.”
As someone who's spent most of the last fifteen years or so living and traveling in Western Europe, I've experienced more anti-Americanism than I care to remember. But last week, like Friedman back in 2003, I spent a few days in Poland and found that, yep, they actually do like America.
A 2007 Heritage Foundation report affirmed this fact: “Poland has supported America's global leadership role....Wherever America is doing good in the world, Poland is not far behind.” It's no coincidence that Poland, along with the U.S., Britain, and Australia, was one of the four leading members of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.
An American friend of mine, Paul, moved to Poland in 2001. “I was shocked at how pro-American people in Poland were,” he says. He's also lived in the Netherlands and Ireland, and there's no comparison. In 2002, he attended a commemoration at the U.S. consulate in Krakow of the first anniversary of 9/11. He didn't know what to expect. What he found was a street flooded with Poles waving American flags. He was moved to tears.
How to explain Poland's love of America? Well, look at its history. Poles – whose land, over the centuries, has been repeatedly invaded and carved up by powerful, tyrannical, and imperially ambitious neighbors – have learned never to take freedom for granted. (Remember the roles Kosciuszko and Pulaski played in our revolution.) While the children of Western Europe, living in their nanny states under the umbrella of U.S. protection, can afford to feel superior, in their sublime peaceableness, to the warlike Americans, the grown-ups of Poland have long understood how important it is that the most powerful country on earth is also a beacon – and a guarantor – of liberty.
But its pro-Americanism is just part of what makes Poland special. The way I'd sum up is as follows: It's one European country that's moving in the right direction – in a lot of ways.
To walk around Warsaw is like paying a visit to the European past – it's precisely the Europe that many vacationing Americans think they're going to encounter when they hop on the plane at JFK. On the one hand, the Old Town is beautiful, charming, picturesque, its cobbled streets lined with exquisitely maintained houses from the 16th and 17th centuries – just the sort of thing a tourist wants to see. Meanwhile, other parts of the city, which after all spent decades under the Soviet yoke, are predictably dreary – packed with ugly, gray, massive, and perfectly identical apartment buildings that are plainly relics of Communist times, and with broken-down tenements where, if you walk into the central courtyard, you discover it to be crisscrossed with networks of huge steel beams without with, apparently, the whole thing would tumble to the ground.
One thing you don't see, however, is women walking around in hijab. None. Anywhere. For anyone familiar with European cities today, it's a striking difference. It makes you realize just how accustomed you've become to the idea of an Islamized Europe. Yes, there are some Muslims in Poland – about thirty thousand out of a total population of thirty-eight million, or less than a tenth of one percent. Many of them are Tatars, who have been a part of Polish society for centuries. In any event, the percentage is infinitesimal compared to that in Western Europe.
Indeed, whereas almost every nation in Western Europe has been pursuing disastrous, self-destructive immigration policies for the last several decades, Poland, since winning its freedom, has been welcoming the right kind of immigrants – and for the right reasons. Paul remembers that when he first moved to Krakow, there were relatively few foreigners around. “Now there's a Brazilian community here – and Japanese, Chinese,” he says. Indeed, “some cities in Poland are now an international as any Western European capital.”
The fact is that after the Iron Curtain fell, Poland embraced capitalism and privatization unhesitantly. Its economy has been strong ever since. In the last ten years it's developed a middle class and supplemented its strong manufacturing base with a robustly growing service sector. Poland now has the EU's fastest-growing economy – since 2010, its economy has actually been larger than that of the Netherlands – and it's the only EU member that didn't fall into a recession as a result of the world financial crisis.
“There's lots of opportunity and they're making it easy to do business here, easy to start things,” Paul says. All over Warsaw, big construction projects are underway. Companies like Google, IBM, Fujitsu, and Motorola have established major centers in Krakow. There's even talk of Krakow becoming Europe's Silicon Valley, and it's not just a pipe dream: young Poles today tend to be well-educated, ambitious, and hard-working, with many being fluent not only in English but also in German, Russian, and Czech, and sometimes even in languages like Spanish and Italian.
Not all Poles, to be sure, have remained in Poland. Many, taking advantage of EU and EEA labor-immigration laws, have moved to Western Europe. In recent years, for example, Poles have been the largest single group immigrating to Norway, and have been a bright spot in that country's otherwise bleak immigrant profile – because just as Poland has itself been taking in the right kind of immigrants, Poles themselves have also proven to be the right kind of immigrants: people who relocate not to go on the dole but to work hard, obey the law, and contribute to the economy. Three cheers for Poland!
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