During the past 200+ years, Poland endured occupation in more than 170 of them. Despite beating back Bolshevik forces early in the 20th century, it spent approximately half a century under the thumb of the brutal (yet supposedly scientific) totalitarianism of the Soviet Union after the western allies bargained away its freedom. Because of Poland’s unique history as perhaps the single modern nation most oppressed by outsiders, the naming of Karol Wojtyla as the Pope of the worldwide Catholic Church during the time of his country’s occupation took on mythic importance. When Lech Walesa and Solidarity began to break free of Soviet domination, all eyes were already on the Polish nation. The victims had become leaders. Although victory in the Cold War is often thought of as an American story, it can be, with justice, thought of as a great vindication of Polish perseverance.
Since that time, Poland has done all of the big things right. The Poles calculated that joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was essential to maintaining their freedom. And they did so despite the opposition of the Russians. A few years later they joined the European Union. Poland has very clearly chosen to make common cause with free Europe rather than trying to forge a future with its former master and its satellites. Many of Poland’s neighbors have made the same choice.
In addition, Poland has distinguished itself as an ally of the United States. When Donald Rumsfeld discounted German and French opposition to the Bush administration’s policy choices regarding Iraq as the opinion of “Old Europe,” he was thinking of the support the U.S. was getting from nations of “New Europe” such as Poland. The United States has both pleased and disappointed Poland in the decisions it has made (or failed to make). Perhaps most important, the Obama administration very quickly scaled back plans to implement a missile shield in Eastern Europe which would have significantly damaged the Russians’ ability to wield a nuclear trump card. And while the Bush administration was strong in its commitment to European missile defense, neither it nor the Obama White House has yet acted to allow Polish citizens to travel to the United States without a visa. On the other hand, President Obama has moved to establish a permanent (though modest) troop presence in Poland. While the real threat such a force poses to aggressors is minimal, the precedent it establishes is potentially invaluable to a Polish nation eager to maintain its independence from a potentially expansionistic old foe. The theoretical NATO guarantee is that an attack on one is an attack on all, but now Poland has the additional confidence that comes from knowing that an enemy risks advancing upon American troops in reality as well as in principle.
Poland has just completed a turn at the presidency of the European Union and its economy is forecast to grow at the highest rate of any EU nation this year. The nation that once provided the grist for generations of insulting jokes is now a leader in central and eastern Europe. Like many of its neighbors, however, Poland has a distressing vulnerability to the Russians in the area of energy. The problem has been exacerbated by their need to move from coal to cleaner forms of energy in line with EU policy. Just as North America has been experiencing an energy revolution in the form of newly reachable and gigantic reserves of natural gas, Poland has been believed to have substantial resources of its own. Regrettably, ExxonMobil failed to discover significant amounts of gas with two wells it recently drilled. There are plans, however, for six more wells on ExxonMobil’s agenda. Many other players are involved and will implement projects of their own. Both the government and the Polish public recognize what a boon it would be for their nation both commercially and strategically if they are able to move from heavy importation of natural gas to exporting energy.
If a solution to the energy problem can be added to Poland’s substantial political, economic, military, and strategic accomplishments, the country’s travails will appear to be much further off in the rearview mirror. Poland is New Europe.
Hunter Baker serves as associate professor of political science at Union University and is the author of The End of Secularism and the forthcoming Political Thought: A Student’s Guide.
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