Americans on Poland… Respect!

America is receiving progressively worse press in Poland, but in the U.S., Poland is getting quite the opposite. The unfortunate slip of the tongue by Barack Obama has not overshadowed the fact that public perception of Poland in the United States is high. Americans are learning more and more about us and are respecting us more, especially when compared to the rest of Europe.

When I first arrived in the United States 31 years ago, the main Polish export to the U.S. was spam in a can and I took a tour of Silicon Valley with the representative of Cepelia (a store selling Polish-specific souvenirs), who was the trade ambassador to California at the time. Today, Manhattan is home to an Inglot store, which sells Polish beauty products to millions of American women. Poland has become a supplier of avionics equipment.

In the New York Times, the American reader can find out that Fiat, the majority stakeholder of Chrysler, had organized a pilgrimage of sorts and took American engineers from Detroit to Tychy (the capital of Polish auto production) to teach them how to make quality cars. Polish computer programmers have become stars in Silicon Valley, where they regularly win the highest awards in prestigious contests. Poland has begun to use its ample supply of sympathy, and has begun transforming it into respect.

Given these developments, the recent Polish-American economic summit in Warsaw has begun to take on a whole new meaning. These are no longer purely political talks, but a meeting between two business partners. Hundreds of American firms are scheduled to make an appearance in Warsaw.

The volume of trade between Poland and the U.S. reached $7.5 billion in 2011, compared to a paltry $1.8 billion in 2001. While this increase is substantial, it is important to put it into perspective. The amount of trade between the Czech Republic and Poland, for example, is double than that with the U.S. Poland accounts for only .2 percent of all American exports and we supply only 2 percent of all American imports. Last year, Poland had a trade surplus of $1.25 billion with the U.S.

New prospects for bilateral cooperation are just around the corner. The energy sector looks promising, both nuclear and green, as well as shale gas. The shale gas can have a significant impact on geopolitics. Whether the amount of gas trapped in Poland’s shale is closer to the American estimates or closer to the more conservative Polish estimates, there is enough gas to put Moscow and Gazprom on edge.

The recently released report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the extraction process of Polish shale gas can set a precedent for the rest of Europe. For now, Poland has to play catch-up and modernize its infrastructure as well as gain more experience with shale, as well as grapple with the potential environmental factors. Without America’s support, shale gas extraction in Poland will be impossible.

The source of the significant technological gap between the United States and Europe is not only linked to American willingness to assume risk and easier access to capital, but also the lack of cooperation between business and universities. If Poland wants to establish an energy export economy and keep the talent from leaving, then they should look towards the United States, rather than Europe, for guidance.

The economic relations between the United States and Poland will be the marker of progress between our two countries for years to come. Though the term “lobby” is a dirty word in Polish lexicon, the reality is that we need the American business lobby to advance our interests in Washington. This is beginning to happen. The U.S.-Poland Business Council, representing the 30 largest American firms investing in Poland, has been particularly active lately. We have been able to develop a new voice in American government, i.e. the Polish Caucus, which brings together many Congressional members. In the past four years, the caucus has grown threefold.

The visa regime still being imposed on Polish citizens travelling to Poland has served as an embarrassment to the American image in Poland rather than a barrier to Polish business development in the United States. President Obama has promised to take care of this nagging problem by the end of his first term. However, that declaration was made when he still had a majority in both houses of Congress. Today, it is improbable that the Republicans will help the president advance anything; the visa issue might have to drag on for a bit longer.

Though the economic summit will predictably focus on the economy, it is important to remember that there is no defense alternative to the United States. When communism fell, Poland began to be affected by the anti-Americanism prevalent in the societies of Western Europe. This sentiment is rarely accompanied with any thought on the scenario of a complete withdrawal of American forces from the Old Continent. After all, it is the American taxpayer who covers 75 percent of all of NATO’s bills. Therefore, the last NATO summit in Chicago was very important to keeping the alliance strong.

In the second half of 2012, the first permanent American base in Poland will be established. It consists of an Air Force detachment of F-16s and C-130s. This base will improve Polish military capabilities, as well as set the foundations for a long-lasting and stable partnership.

Aside from military security, Poland can be a potentially important ally in terms of soft security as well, helping the spread of democracy in Ukraine, Belarus, Tunisia and Burma. The Americans can learn a lot from the Polish democratization process of the ‘90s.

Though the Americans are battered by war and weakened through internal struggles, the United States is still second to none in the world. Many economists thought that the U.S. would have a much more difficult time securing loans after its credit downgrade. The opposite became true. Today, Washington can borrow for a period of 10 years with 1.6 percent annual interest. Say what you will about America’s energy wastefulness, its dependence on imports has fallen in the past years. One cannot say the same about Europe.

The United States is still the center for education, technology and innovation. Neither Asia nor Europe have their own versions of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel or Cisco.

The world is becoming more unpredictable and Poland needs to find a stable partner. Polish-American relations should be less emotional. Pragmatism should be the guide between the United States and Poland. It is important that the mutual feelings of goodwill be nurtured.

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