It's been almost two decades since I last visited Poland. In 1990, communist rule had only just barely ended. The police still wore their former uniforms--and still treated citizens and travelers with the former arrogance.
As my wife and I flew out of Poland to East Berlin, a border official quizzed us: "Were we taking anything of value out of Poland?"
"Out of Poland?" I asked incredulously. "Out of Poland?! There isn't anything of value in Poland." The police scowled--they were not used to back chat. But they had lost their power to punish back chat.
Many Poles feel that the United States disregards Polish security concerns--especially the threat that Poles continue to perceive from Russia.
Arriving in Poland today, the border police flip through passports speedily. Much of their job will soon vanish: Next year, Poland joins the Schengen group of European countries whose citizens can cross each other's borders without passports.
Polish water plants and roads are being rebuilt with European Union funds, and the zloty will likely be merged into the Euro within the next five years. The economy is accelerating, unemployment declining, incomes rising--and a roaring property boom is giving Warsaw the appearance of a modern city.
Poland remains a low-wage country. The average income (adjusting for purchasing power) has only just recently crossed north of US$15,000, approximately equal to Argentina's. Still, life is improving rapidly for almost everybody, including the more than one million Poles now legally employed in the other countries of the European Union.
Yet it is too simple to present Poland as a purely happy post-1989 success story.
In 2002, the U.S. defence secretary hailed Poland as a leader of a "new Europe" that would form part of a "coalition of the willing" with the United States. Poland acceded to NATO in 1999. Eager to be perceived as a reliable partner in the new alliance, the Polish government dispatched troops to Afghanistan and Iraq: Some 900 remain in Iraq today; about 1,100 serve in Afghanistan.
These missions have become deeply unpopular here: 80% of Poles oppose the Afghan and Iraq missions according to the latest surveys.
The "willing" are not so willing as they used to be.
Poles do not see the Middle East as central to their security. With only 5,000 Muslims living in Poland, Islamic terrorism feels a very remote threat.
At the same time, many here feel that the United States disregards Polish security concerns--especially the threat that Poles continue to perceive from Russia. Russia's behaviour toward its former satellites has grown steadily more aggressive since Vladimir Putin's arrival in power. This summer, Russia waged a weird cyber-war against Estonia, jamming its Web sites and damaging the commerce of one of the most wired nations in Europe. Russia is deploying missiles along its western border in ways that Poles perceive as threatening.
The United States and NATO have guaranteed Poland's security. But there are hardly any Western troops stationed in Poland, nor has NATO ever staged any exercise to war-game a defence of Poland--not exactly a far-fetched scenario.
The United States wants to build a missile defence base in Poland. Poles complain that the base will be aligned to defend western Europe against Iranian missiles, not Poland against Russian missiles. A recent survey shows 56% of Poles opposing the new base, and only 28% supporting it.
American policy-makers fear that taking precautions against Russia will only provoke Russia. They worry that treating Russia as a potential threat will hasten the transformation of Russia into an actual threat.
These U.S. fears and worries are reasonable. But they may already have become obsolete. Russia is already waging economic warfare against its neighbours. Russia last winter abruptly halted exports of gas to Ukraine. It bans imports of Polish meat. It is planning a pipeline to Germany that bypasses Eastern Europe, enabling a future Russian government to cut off its former satellites without confronting the more powerful Europeans of the West.
Alarmist? Maybe. But here in Poland alarmism naturally fills the air. I am staying at a country house overlooking a lovely pond. The air buzzes with the soft sound of crickets. Everything seems soft and gentle. Yet not five kilometres away, there still stands the walls of a Nazi concentration camp converted into a Soviet prison. Inside what is now the local furniture factory, Jews and Poles were once enslaved to build parts for German fighter planes.
The past lingers just around the corner everywhere in Poland. The Poles have not forgotten. Perhaps those who have undertaken to be their allies should make it clearer that we remember too.