Re-elect Dan Lipinski Congressman

Insider View: Congressman Daniel Lipinski on the Future of U.S.-Polish Relations

Central European Policy Analysis
June 1, 2011
By Central Europe Digest

Following President Obama’s trip to Poland last month, the Digest sits down with U.S. Congressman Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) for an exclusive interview. In a wide-ranging conversation, Congressman Lipinski discusses what lies ahead for U.S.-Polish relations and the lessons that the post-communist transitions in Central Europe hold for democracy-building in North Africa and the Middle East.

CED: President Obama made his first visit to Poland last month with the purpose of sending “a clear signal of the importance the United States attaches to the relationship with our close friend and ally.” How successful was his trip and what comes next in U.S.-Polish relations?

Cong. Lipinski: President Obama’s visit demonstrated the continuing importance of Poland to the United States and the broad empathy and understanding that unites the two nations. This close relationship began more than two centuries ago with Kazimierz Pu?aski’s critical contributions to America’s War of Independence. Today, as the sixth largest economy in the European Union (EU), Poland is key to stability in Central Europe and as a reliable ally, has committed both blood and treasure to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having helped Poland to rejoin Europe after the fall of communism, we now look to it as a key partner and leader in the region and a valuable ally with a demonstrated capacity and willingness to act for the common good beyond its own borders. The President’s visit brought welcome news regarding the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). I am pleased that he voiced strong support for the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2011, H.R. 959, which some of my colleagues and I recently introduced to enable Poland to join the VWP. What is most important, however, is that the President assists in getting this legislation passed in Congress. This is an urgent issue for my constituents, over 100,000 of whom are of Polish ancestry. Having met with President Bronis?aw Komorowski when he was in Washington last year, I know how important this matter is to the Polish people. With regard to defense issues, we saw President Obama confirm America’s longstanding commitment to Poland and establish a U.S. aviation detachment in the country to assist with training. On matters of energy security, terrorism and law enforcement, trade and democracy promotion, we also saw the United States and Poland launch initiatives that reinforce our shared interests and values. What comes next is continuing the dialogue and successful cooperation on these and other key issues that benefit both parties.

CED: Next month Poland will assume the Presidency of the European Union (EU) for the second half of 2011. How important is it for America’s Central European allies to take on a more prominent leadership role within the EU?

Cong. Lipinski: With Poland set to take over the EU Presidency from Hungary, this is a remarkable time in the history of Central Europe, offering yet another reminder of how far the region has come in little more than two decades. A successful term at the helm of the EU by both countries will further enhance the reputation, credibility and importance of a region that despite its name stood at the margins rather than the center of Europe not so long ago. Certainly no region is better equipped than Central Europe to advocate for the continued spread of democracy, free markets and the rule of law to those countries that remain outside the European Union looking in. In the case of the Western Balkans, much work remains to be done. Having played an instrumental role in establishing the Eastern Partnership, Poland will have a golden opportunity as it assumes the EU Presidency to reach out to those countries and encourage them to pursue reform. The United States can support these efforts, but given its proximity, historical experience and its own interests, Central Europe has a unique opportunity. Poland can also demonstrate leadership, both within Central Europe and the EU as a whole, in its relations with Russia. An improved relationship with Russia — which Poland has pursued, to its great credit — can provide stability that benefits all parties, helping to boost trade, economic cooperation and other ties. At a time when other nations continue to struggle economically, Poland is also well positioned to lead within Europe by virtue of its own economic success. Rather than recession, debt crises and bailouts, Poland has experienced continued growth, making it a model for its neighbors. By providing far-sighted leadership within the EU, Central Europe will not only further its own interests, but will help to reinforce international democracy-building efforts like those that enabled it to successfully manage the transition from communism.

CED: In March of this year, you co-sponsored the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act of 2011, which would effectively allow Poland to be included in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). What is the current status of the bill and what are the prospects for its success? How significant is passage of this legislation for the U.S.-Polish relationship?

Cong. Lipinski: H.R. 959 has been introduced with bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. With a strong partnership between Democrats and Republicans, I am optimistic that we can make real progress on this issue in the current session of Congress. As a longtime advocate of including Poland in the Visa Waiver Program, I was encouraged by President Obama’s pledge to work with Congress to ensure Poland’s admission. Active leadership by the President would undoubtedly help to finally move legislation such as the Secure Travel and Counterterrorism Partnership Program Act.
Numerous steps have already been taken to assure that the VWP enhances national security. Poland should not have to wait for the Department of Homeland Security to address a matter not directly connected to its qualifications in order to be allowed to join. H.R. 959 would address this issue and would also change the primary qualifying criterion to a low overstay rate, rather than the visa refusal rate, which is an overly subjective and much less relevant criterion. The bill also further enhances national security by encouraging information sharing between the United States and the VWP countries.
Including Poland in the Visa Waiver Program would be another vital step in cementing the long-lasting U.S.-Polish relationship. Poland has been a vital U.S. ally in the war on terror and is the only member of the 25-nation Schengen Area that is not part of the VWP. It is understandable that America’s failure to include Poland in the program is a sore point in an otherwise strong relationship. I believe that Poland not only deserves to be included in the VWP, but that it is in the interest of America’s national security that it be made a program member.

CED: The current debate in Congress over new fiscal austerity measures has substantial implications for American defense and foreign policy. Where do the states of Central Europe fit into the priorities of the new Congress? How concerned should Central Europeans be about the possibility of eventual U.S. strategic retrenchment in their region?

Cong. Lipinski: America’s debt problem does not lessen the importance of Central Europe for our security. The United States provided critical encouragement and support to the region throughout its transition from communism for good reason. Both parties share the same basic values, and America is home to millions of people who can trace their ancestry back to Central Europe. The region is not in danger of falling by the wayside in the eyes of the American people or its leaders, despite the focus in Washington on issues such as the rise of China, the transformation of the Middle East and combating terrorism. The deployment of missile defense in Poland and the U.S. backing of NATO contingency planning involving Central Europe are just two of many reasons to believe that good relations with Central European nations remain a high priority. Furthermore, America is deeply appreciative of the contribution that the region’s countries have made to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Poland alone has lost nearly 50 troops, a fact that speaks volumes about its commitment to freedom and one which I myself have highlighted on numerous occasions.

CED: The Arab Spring has produced early indicators of a potentially seismic shift in North Africa and the Middle East and has drawn comparisons with Central Europe’s “Year of Miracles” in 1989. What lessons can be drawn from Central Europe’s experience with political and economic transition and applied to building stable, lasting and democratic institutions in the Middle East? Where do opportunities exist for Central Europe to serve as a role model and activist in maintaining the focus on the global democracy agenda?

Cong. Lipinski: The Middle East in 2011 and Central Europe in 1989 are very different places. Moreover, we should not forget that the fall of communism produced different results in different countries. Though communism’s end was relatively bloodless, the same cannot be said for the years that followed its collapse in the former Yugoslavia. In Central Europe, the fall of communism cleared the way for a return to democracy and a reunion with democratic Europe. Contrast that with the situation in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya, where each step forward takes those countries down a road they have never traveled before.
Nevertheless, if the experience of Central Europe after 1989 proves one thing, it is that it is possible to successfully and peacefully transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Undoubtedly the process is not easy. Undoubtedly it is messy. But if civil society is strong; if people truly believe that fundamental human rights must be respected; and if they can make peace with the compromises, contradictions and limits on power that characterize free societies — then democracy may put down roots in North Africa and the Middle East.
Central Europe’s experience also suggests that the United States can play an important role in smoothing the transition to democracy. American assistance was critical to Central Europe’s transformation. Through its own efforts, as well as through the European Union and NATO, it helped establish powerful incentives for modernization and democratization. To the extent that America can establish incentives that promote the development of democracy and the rule of law in North Africa and the Middle East, it may exert a positive influence on the region’s direction and development.

Daniel Lipinski is a Democratic congressman who represents Illinois’ third congressional district. He is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Poland.


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