My latest column for CNN.com looks at America’s relationship with Poland and our shrinking importance in Central and Eastern Europe.
Twenty years later, Poland has become a stable democracy. It has joined NATO and the European Union. True, wages remain low by Western standards. And to the eye, Poland still shows the scars of its communist past: Half the population still lives in communist-era high-rise slabs.
But things get better every year, visibly better even than during my last visit two years ago: new homes, new stores, improved roads, new stations opened on the Warsaw subway. Poland scored the highest growth in the whole European Union in 2009, suffering not a single quarter of negative growth during the global recession.
So that’s all good news for the Poles. Now the thought-provoking news for Americans: America’s place on the Polish mental map seems to shrink every year.
When Poles dream of leaving the country, they think not of Chicago but of London. A Pole can work legally in any large EU country, and an estimated 1 million do, sending home more money than Poland earns from all its U.S. trade. Meanwhile, Poles need a visa even to visit the United States.
Polish business is oriented toward Germany, by far the country’s largest trading partner and investor. Poland buys and sells less with the United States than it does with the Czech Republic.
Theoretically, the United States remains very important to Poland’s security. Through NATO, the U.S. has guaranteed defending Poland against Russia, with nuclear weapons if necessary. But Russia is behaving itself well toward Poland these days.
When Russia did behave badly — for example, embargoing Polish meat exports in 2005 — it was the threat of European economic retaliation that changed Russian minds. The U.S. has opened new military bases in southeastern Europe — in Bulgaria and Romania, but none in Poland. There are practically no U.S. soldiers stationed here.
If anything, Poles might feel that they are doing much more for the United States than the United States does for Poland. Polish troops fought in Iraq, and fight now in Afghanistan.
Click here to read the rest.