President Trump is visiting Poland on Thursday. Poland may not be going through its best moment right now with its fellow European Union countries but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a country that has gone through a remarkably successful transition. Poland’s economic growth, its stable democracy and its highly positive view of the United States make it a great place for President Trump to visit on his way to the G20. It also helps that the top ten states that Polish Americans are said to reside in include: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida- key states critical to President Trump’s election.
Poland is also a (little known) US foreign aid success story. Poland is an example of American foreign assistance that was given not only because we are a generous country but also because it was in our direct self-interest for Poland to become a free market democracy fully embedded into the European Union and NATO. America’s helpful role in Poland’s transition is not well known in the US but our role was important and the Poles fondly remember the help we gave them.
Poles remember that the US was there for them when they were a member of the “captive nations.”. People under the age of 40 may not remember that Communism was a great evil and hundreds of millions of people suffered and even died because of Communism and the actions of the Soviet Union. People in Poland have no such amnesia.
America helped Poland in many ways. Lane Kirkland, a legendary leader of the AFL-CIO labor union in the US, was a staunch supporter of “solidarity,” the trade union in Poland and its leader, Lech Walesa. The US was fortunate to have labor unions and labor union leaders, like Lane Kirkland, who considered communism evil. Kirkland worked on his own and with the U.S. government to help Poland and other countries long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
It also helped that Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope, worked to bring down the “evil empire.” But the work of ending the Cold War was a bipartisan project that spanned multiple administrations— the victory goes to Republicans and Democrats alike.
When the Berlin Wall fell, President George H.W. Bush pledged a large aid package to Poland. This became the Support for East European Democracy Act (SEED Act). Much of this assistance went to Poland from 1989 to 1999. Let’s be clear— credit for Poland’s unbelievable economic and political success rests with Poland, but the United States of America was there for them through the process. This took the form of diplomatic support, bilateral US foreign assistance, and multilateral assistance through the World Bank and a new organization set up to help countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union— the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD)— also set up under President Bush (41).
The US and others helped Poland in many ways: the US helped set up a whole slew of post-Communist institutions, thousands of Poles studied in the US and in Europe, a Polish-American Enterprise Fund (a US sponsored private equity fund for Poland) was very successful, and dozens of NGOs focused on Poland received US support. US efforts focused on: 1) developing a strong market economy and private sector; 2) developing the institutions necessary for democracy; 3) improving the basic quality of life.
In the mid-1990s, Poland was on its way to becoming a European Union member and a member of NATO. Poland was on its way to setting up its own foreign aid program. Given these developments, the US decided to end its foreign aid program in the late 1990s. The US “left behind” a regional foundation called PAUCI the Polish-Ukrainian Cooperation Foundation which focusses on trying using Poland’s experience to help Ukraine manage its own post-Soviet transition. One of the great tragedies of Eastern Europe is that Ukraine was perceived as “better off” than Poland in 1989. Unfortunately, because of decades of corruption, mismanagement, and lots of unhelpful interventions from Russia, Ukraine is close to a basket case. When the US “graduated” (a term the aid business strongly dislikes) Poland from a foreign aid program the US and Poland moved to a better relationship: a trade, investment, cooperation and defense relationship— in other words, a real partnership such as the one that the US has with Germany and South Korea-two other “graduates” for US foreign assistance.
Today, Poland houses a US missile defense battery to defend against a possible Iranian nuclear attack, has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is a great and reliable friend of the US. One of the reasons for this great relationship is the assistance America provided when Poland really needed it. President Trump has, like many Americans, exhibited some skepticism about the utility of American foreign assistance. I hope Poland’s President will spend a few minutes when they meet Thursday reviewing the critical role American foreign assistance played in Poland.
Article published in Forbes.com July 5, 2017.