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05.19.2003

Poland: Global Power

Today's Wall Street Journal editorial page announces that Poland is now in the big leagues, and Instapundit broadcasts the happy news to the Internet:

Hard to believe, but Poland is now arguably a more consequential global power than either France or Germany. And the angry reactions in Berlin, Brussels and Paris to this news speaks eloquently to the tectonic shift under way in Europe after Iraq

My school days coincided exactly with the Golden Age of the Polish joke, so I can't say this kind of thing doesn't warm the old potato-loving heart. Now instead of a nation of dumb oafs, we're the vanguard of the New Europe. How many Polacks does it take to go from being a laughingstock to being a 'global power'? Apparently two hundred (that's how many commandos we sent to Iraq).

That's right! Elite Polish commandos got sent to Iraq, and by all accounts acquitted themselves well. The only real trouble came when a squad of Poland's finest posed for a picture with an American special ops unit under a big American flag. No one remembered to include the Polish equivalent, which didn't go over well in Warsaw.

If the phrase 'elite Polish commando' brings a smile to your face (it sends the better half into hysterics), chances are good that you have a better grasp of geopolitical reality than the Wall Street Journal editorial page. To them, 'consequential' seems to mean 'favored by the United States'. Poland behaved itself in the Iraq war, the thinking goes, so we will now overlook geography, economics, demographics, and five hundred years of European history, and declare it a greater power than France or Germany.

It make sense, the Journal says, that Poland should prefer to cozy up with America rather than (decrepit, syphylitic, malodorous) old France.

The suave Frenchmen snicker at Poland's love for America. But the Poles learned in the early 19th century, and again in 1939, how seriously to take French promises, and paid for their mistake with decades of oppression both times.

The Poles also learned an interesting lesson at Yalta, although the Journal omits that. And it's interesting that they point all the way back to Napoleonic times for their second example, as if there were something immutable in the wily French character, a certain weaseliness that transcends the vagaries of history. I'm sure they'd like to flat-out call it impure blood, if it weren't for those inconvenient connotations.

The Polish press, meanwhile, is busy writing about the real tectonic shift taking place in Europe: the impending entry of Poland and nine other countries into the European Union. The whole tussle over Iraq is perceived as just a blip in the larger, and much more significant, process of expanding the EU to make it truly European. A process full of growing pains.

Today's Gazeta Wyborcza prints the first installment in a series that could easily be called"will they like us?", a survey of all the countries of 'Old Europe' in turn, and their attitudes to Poland. This installment happens to be about France, and it makes for an enlightening counterpoint:

Over time, there developed a persistent and hardy stereotype that almost to our day was the first thing to come into the mind of the average Frenchman when our country was mentioned: "Heroic and unhappy Poland". After 1831, French society gave effective help to thousands of refugees from the November Uprising (and the French government spent a rather significant sum of francs on the emigrants). The French would behave the same way a hundred and fifty years later, in December, 1981 [Date of the military coup that squelched the Solidarity movement and left your humble blogger stranded in the US, where he learned to write for you in English]. Shipment after shipment of donated food and clothing left from the Place de la Concorde, donated to the Poles by people of good will. And from less prominent places there were sent shipments of mimeograph and radio equipment for the democratic opposition. [...]

Those governing France probably did not differ much from their countrymen in terms of their attitude to Poland, but they adjusted their intentions as a function of their power, and the results were mixed: in 1939, the results were bad; in 1920, De Gaulle liked us and defended us, tried not to betray us in 1944, wanted to shake up the European order in 1960, but didn't achieve much. Mitterrand reacted sharply to Jaruzelski's coup, froze relations with his regime, criticized Soviet pressure on the Polish People's Republic, said that "all is good which allows Europe to move away from Yalta." He worked to bring Poland to the conference on German reunification (the 4+2 formula), worked to reduce Polish debt through international financial bodies, pressed for a speedy review of the question of admitting Poland to the Council of Europe. But while not openly opposing the membership of Central and Eastern European countries in the European Union, Mitterrand considered it to be in the very distant future; as a socialist, he was unenthusiastic about the free-market character of the economic reforms undertaken in the region.

On balance, the author sees our political history as.... complex. The same holds true for cultural perceptions, where French attitudes combine a kind of persistent goodwill with an image of Poland as a backward, exotic Eastern land:

The stigma of "Easternness" irritates us, since we see ourselves as a country of Latinate culture, but it probably won't be lifted for a long time, even after we enter the EU. [...] Too frequently the average Frenchman's image of Poland resembles the photograph that appeared last year in a Parisian daily (which, by the way, was the illustration to a quite decent article): an unshaven hick, dressed in some old rags, guiding a plow pulled by an emaciated horse.

Again, a mixed result. On the one hand, the French love for Polish high culture - theater, cinema, poetry. On the other hand, this mental picture of the sorry hick. A long road ahead to building a common culture with France, but at least there is something to build on.

This kind of analysis is a marvel of complexity compared to what we find on our side of the pond. France bad, Poland good. France no like Iraq freedom! Hulk angry! Hulk smash! Poland is the new Germany! Estonia is the new France! Never mind that the biggest story of a generation is slowly taking place over in Europe, as the continent achieves a level of unity that no conqueror ever managed to impose. All the American ruling class cares about is who should get a gold star, and who gets a dunce cap.

Luckily the Poles, who know full well that their future lies in Europe, aren't letting the new attention go to their heads. President Kwasniewski - former Communist minister, pro-American hero of the Wall Street Journal - says it best. "We're seeing a true world power develop and grow before our very eyes: Europe! Let's not be afraid to call it that. Let's be proud of it. A world power!"

Not a moment too soon.

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