President Barack Obama’s visit to Poland tomorrow is expected to demonstrate U.S. support for this strategically important and historical ally, in the wake of Russia’s aggressive actions against neighboring Ukraine. While Poles will certainly welcome the president’s visit, they will do so with some trepidation.
Obama has upset many Poles by, among other things, unilaterally canceling a negotiated missile defense deal — an action that pleased Russia but jeopardized Poland’s security; publicly referring to Nazi death camps in Poland as “Polish death camps” (for which he later apologized) during a White House ceremony intended to honor a Polish World War II resistance hero; and shunning Poland’s heroic Nobel Laureate and former president Lech Walesa for what his White House describes as him, “being too political.”
It won’t stop Russian regional aggression, but one thing President Obama can do to win the hearts of skeptical Poles is to fully commit the U.S. to getting Poland into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The program began in 1986 as a way to foster better relations with friendly countries by allowing their citizens to travel visa-free to the U.S. as tourists or on business for up to 90 days. 29 of 38 countries in this program are European, and there is a strong case for adding Poland.
National wealth, a high Human Development Index, and a low security risk are three important ingredients for gaining VWP status, and Poland scores well on each count. Since shedding communism 25 years ago, Poland has seen its economy dramatically grow to 22nd in the world at $814 billion. The 2013 United Nations Development Report classified Poland as a “very high” HDI country with its 76 years average life expectancy, 99 percent literacy rate for males and females, and $21,000 plus average annual income. And with its strong American ties, NATO membership, and participation in the Afghanistan and Iraq military coalitions, Poland clearly isn’t a security threat. Moreover, it has implemented and adopted all VWP-related security measures and information-sharing protocols asked of them by the U.S. government.
One would be hard-pressed to find a better U.S. ally and friend than Poland and its people. As America fought for its independence, it did so with major contributions from Polish generals Thaddeus Kosciusko and Casimir Pulaski. As the world faced the Cold War’s darkest days, it was two Poles, Pope John Paul II and Solidarity’s Lech Walesa, along with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who served as the principal catalysts for leading tens of millions out of their communist enslavement and into the sunshine of freedom. Poles continued their tradition of standing beside their American friends in the 21st century by fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It should also not go unnoticed that three major waves of Polish immigration to the U.S. (1800s to World War I, World War II, and during the 1980 martial-law period) have filled the U.S. with a healthy and productive population of 10 million Americans of Polish descent which has contributed significantly to building and making this country great.