During a recent New Jersey campaign stop to support his wife’s presidential bid, former U.S. President Bill Clinton suggested the people of Poland had decided democracy is too much trouble and that Poles want a Putin-type authoritarian leadership.
Bill Clinton’s comments generated an immediate reaction from Poland’s government and the U.S.-based organization which represents about 10 million Polish-Americans.
Poland’s Prime Minister Beata Szydlo called Clinton’s words, “unjustified and simply unfair.” The Polish-American Congress added his words are “patently ludicrous and insulting to freedom-loving Poles.”
Mr. Clinton apparently made his remarks over Poland’s government recently rejecting a European Union plan, out of security concerns, to distribute among EU countries more than one million Muslim refugees who fled from war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries into Europe. Clinton also seemed to be trying to score political points for his wife’s campaign by suggesting that the Polish government’s action on Muslim refugees paralleled those of her U.S. presidential rival Donald Trump.
Here are some important facts Americans should know about Poland and its U.S. relationship:
Poland is a strategically important Central European nation of 38.6 million people. It has a landmass about double the size of the state of Georgia and it borders Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia, and the Baltic Sea. It is an EU and NATO member. Moreover, Poland is one of only five of NATO’s 28 members meeting that organization’s financial obligations.
Freedom House — an independent watchdog organization that advocates democracy and human rights and monitors the status of freedom around the world — ranked Poland in 2015 as a free country, which grants its citizens a full panoply political rights and civil liberties, allowing them to freely elect their governmental leaders. Conversely, for 2015, Freedom House ranked Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a not free state.
The United Nation’s 2015 Human Development Report’s Human Development Index (Table 1), which measures countries’ economic and social development, has Poland placed ahead of Russia (36 versus 50 respectively), a remarkable development since shedding its communist chains and Soviet domination in 1989. For 2015, Poland’s estimated goods and services produced was $1 trillion, average annual income was $26,400, average life expectancy was 77 years, and it had an average literacy rate of 99.8 percent. In 1990, Poland’s gross domestic product was only $64.7 billion.
The U.S. State Department — the agency where Mr. Clinton’s wife served as secretary of state — reported in 2015 that Poland is a stalwart ally in Central Europe and one of the United States’s strongest partners on the continent in fostering transatlantic security and prosperity and in promoting democracy in Eastern Europe and around the world. They partner closely on issues such as NATO capabilities, democratization, counterterrorism, nonproliferation, missile defense, human rights, economic growth and innovation, energy security, and regional cooperation. Poland jointly hosts the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast in its territory, is a framework nation under the very high readiness joint task force, and is scheduled to host the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw. Poland hosts a U.S. aviation detachment and facilitates numerous military exercises with over 5,000 U.S. military personnel participating in exercises there under various NATO exercises.
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. Afterward, Poles continued their tradition of standing beside their American friends by fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq and supporting the U.S.-led military effort to protect Kosovo’s Muslim population during the Clinton presidency.
It is understandable why Poland’s people and millions of Polish-Americans are upset at Mr. Clinton’s words (including the people of Hungary also on the receiving end of his disparaging remarks). Poland is a free and prosperous nation and a proven reliable and responsible partner of the United States. And like the United States, Hungary, and other nations, Poland’s government has the legal right to protect its borders and determine who can migrate into it, especially when trying to prevent further Islamic-driven urban terror attacks on innocents like the world witnessed in Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino during the past several months.
As the U.S. and its allies struggle with finding a way to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, curtail Middle East and North Africa violence, and contain Cold War-era threats emanating from Putin’s Russia it would seem much better for Mr. Clinton to offer constructive solutions on how to address these grave international security problems as a way to help his wife’s campaign — rather than cavalierly suggesting the freedom-loving people of Poland want a government like Putin’s Russia.
Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst. He served in the U.S. departments of State and Defense.