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View All Transcripts: Ask the Ambassador | Ask the State Department

Welcome to "Ask the Ambassador" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to U.S. Ambassadors around the world.

U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe discussed how Poland emerged as a democracy with a vibrant free market economy.

Event Date: 03/02/2007

AMBASSADOR ASHE: Hello, my name is Victor Ashe and I'm the American Ambassador to the Republic of Poland. I want to thank you for clicking on and watching this video that gives me a chance to respond to over a hundred questions that have come in on our webchat program. Now, I can't answer each of the one hundred in this video, but I'm going to try to answer them by groups because many of them could be divided into various subject matters.

And one of the first that came in was from Hannah from Virginia, who asked how strong are the democratic roots in Poland and can you say that Poland is a perfectly stable democracy?

The short answer is the roots are strong and, yes, Poland is a very stable democracy. Having said that, that might require a little bit of explanation because the first Polish constitution was written in 1791 a little bit after the American Constitution was written, but as we know, Poland was tragically occupied by Prussia, Russia, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire for most of the 19th century. In fact, Poland in the last century was only free between the two world wars, 1919 to 1939, and then again since 1989 with the successful conclusion of the roundtable talks. But for the 20 years between 1919 and 1939, Poland was free and democratic. And even during the communist occupation Poland was not what you would call a "good communist country"; that is, there were many differences between Poland and perhaps East Germany or other countries that were under communist domination as well.

The two standout differences in my opinion were: one, there was private property ownership to some degree, not totally, but many of the smaller farms were owned by individuals who were never put into a collectivized agricultural system; secondly, and I think more significant, was the fact that the church, and in Poland that primarily means the Catholic Church because 98 percent of Poles belong to the Catholic Church, was never successfully or even really remotely contained by the communist regime. That is, the church flourished. In fact, I could say that people who weren't particularly religious would attend church on Sunday as a means of showing opposition to the government. And of course, we know that this is the country in which Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, came from, who had a powerful role in helping bring down the forces of communism in Eastern Europe.

Poland today is a flourishing democratic country. Democracies, by their very definition, are not necessarily smooth or efficient. In fact, I think it was Churchill who said he thought democracy was the worst form of government he had ever heard of, then he paused, then he said, except for all others. And I think he's right. Poland today though has free democratic elections and I think the roots are solid. Steps may be taken that appear to be backward from time to time, but overall the fundamental commitment to democracy is alive and well in the Republicof Poland, and I don't think there would ever be a voluntary reversion to a totalitarian regime.

Now, the next question I got asked about Poland's role in the missile defense system and, of course, what are my thoughts. My thoughts are my own personal thoughts, but obviously as the American Ambassador I'm reflecting the views of the American Government as well here in Poland.

The United States and Poland, since 1989 and the conclusion of communism, have been strong military allies. Poland and the United States have been strong friends for over 230 years, since General Kosciuszko and General Pulaski came to those 13 American colonies seeking their independence and fought on the side of George Washington for independence. And General Pulaski actually died in the United States right outside the city of Savannah fighting for American independence.

The missile defense system, of course, as proposed by the American Government, would be located in part of the Czech Republicand in part in Poland. We are now in the process of entering negotiations with Poland -- the American Government and the Polish Government. The proposal is that there would be ten missile launchers placed in Poland; the radars would be in the Czech Republic. Obviously, there are many technical details to be worked out, there are many policy details to be worked out.

The allegation has been made by some that this is somehow aimed at Russia, which obviously is a close neighbor of Poland. That's simply not true. First of all, ten missiles couldn't possibly counter all the Russian military arsenal that currently exists. It is aimed at rogue states and terrorism, those who unfortunately have weapons that are aimed at the destruction of the civilized world.

Another question I got in comes from Julie in the U.S. and she wants to ask why I don't consider a change in U.S. policy to start allowing Polish citizens to visit the United States without a visa.

Well, under federal law, that's not my decision, nor is it President Bush's decision. It is a decision that has to be made in the United States Congress because our visa policy is clearly outlined and directed, mandated by federal law.

Poland obviously is a great friend. I should point out that about 75 - 76 percent of all applicants for visas do receive a visa in Poland, in either Krakow or here at Warsaw. But that does mean that roughly 25 percent are turned down, but they're turned down because that's what the federal law requires if the person doing the interview has reason to believe that the applicant may come to the United States and not return back to Poland or is going to the United States purely for the purpose of seeking employment. That's what the federal law spells out.

The U.S. Congress, last week as well as this week and maybe several more weeks to come, is considering changes. Now, whether they'll make changes, I don't know. President Bush did announce last year in Tallinn in Estonia that he would recommend to the Congress changes in the Visa Waiver Program which would ease the process, expedite the process by which Poles and other citizens of former Eastern European communist bloc nations could come to the United States and their country could become part of the Visa Waiver Program.

That legislation is being considered in the Congress in the forms of amendments to pending bills as we speak. It's always a risky matter to predict what the Congress of the United States is ultimately going to do, and I'm not going to run that risk because I'd probably be wrong. But certainly I'm hopeful that the President's proposals will be seriously considered and debated within the Congress and it will be easier for Poles to visit the United States. Polish citizens are good tourists. They're good -- they have many relatives. Ten million Polish Americans live in the United States, and with a country of a population of 39 million Poles, if you do the math that's approximately one out of every four Poles has an American cousin or relative of some type somewhere in the United States. So hopefully some changes can be made, but ultimately it's a matter of the Congress of the United States deciding in its wisdom what those changes should be.

Another question I got that came in that's really a very important one to Poland's future, and that is what the major economic issues that face Poland today.

At the end of the communist system in 1989, Poland was almost an economic basket case in terms of its situation. In fact, that's really one of the reasons that led to the fall of communism. There were other reasons as well, but certainly the terrible economic situation and the dreadful condition in which many Polish citizens lived was one of the contributing factors to the communist system falling because people realized just from an economic standpoint, not including the moral or spiritual standpoint, that communism is a system that is failed, flawed and does not work.

Inflation was high then. Unemployment, of course, was dramatic. But since, the good news is Poland today in 2007 has a growth rate of better than 5 percent, unemployment is down to 15 percent. That's far too high, certainly by American standards, that would be considered quite high, but when you consider that just a few years ago Polish unemployment was higher than 20 percent, that shows remarkable improvement. Foreign investment is clearly booming. American investment in particular is booming. We've had over $15 billion of American investment over the past several years.

Now, what is it about Poland that helps its economic situation and forecasts bright skies for the future? I think there are a couple of things that can fall under that. One, Polish citizens are extremely well educated. A higher percentage of Poles have a university or college degree than do American citizens. That doesn't speak as well of America as I would like, but it speaks very highly of Poles.

Secondly, Poles are great employees. They're hardworking, diligent, dedicated, aren't watching the clock all the time, are there to do the job, get it done and do it in a quick fashion and stay for the remainder of the day. That's a very good attribute.

The third one, which is a God-given attribute as well, is its geographic location. Poland's location used to be its curse; that is, between the East and the West, Germany on one side, Russia on the other, and it was invaded numerous times by both. Today it is no longer a curse, but it's a blessing being strategically located between two large nations and the Eastern side of Europe, the Eastern boundary of the united -- of the European Union, Poland is uniquely well qualified to be a great location for businesses, whatever they may be.

And then finally from a security standpoint, Poland is a fairly safe place in which to live. Not to say there's not minor crime from time to time. Every country unfortunately has it. But in terms of serious terrorist threats, that has not been the case to the present. The Polish people are very law-abiding and this is a country in which certainly my wife and I have found it a great place in which to live and for our two children -- one 16, one 14 -- to grow up and get around Warsaw without worries by their parents as to whether or not they'll return home.

So I think those factors go into making Poland a great economic place in which to be located and in which you might, if you're in the business world, consider investment.

Another question I got, number five, came in as part of a larger category and I'm glad to see this question came up because it shows that apparently some people are looking to Foreign Service as a potential career. And it was more how do you learn about becoming a diplomat and do you have any suggestions on what you should do to prepare yourself.

It's interesting; we have people who apply, take the Foreign Service exam at a very young age, 20, 25. We have people who you might consider in the middle part of their life, in their 40s, who apply. It's a rigorous exam but it's a fair one, and if you want to find out more about it you can go online at www.state.gov and that will have information on how you take -- go about doing it.

But in general terms, I would say that if you want to enter the Foreign Service, certainly it's important that our State Department have the best and the brightest of American citizens possible, is that, one, you -- and I think they're fairly obvious -- keep up with current international news, not only watching television but reading magazines, books; follow international affairs, particularly those countries in which the U.S. has a special relationship. The relationship can be a good one, it can be a not so good one; it can be one in which it is very difficult. But that is part of learning about foreign policy.

Also make yourself well-rounded. I've found being the Ambassador here in Poland that I have the great opportunity to meet with citizens from different backgrounds -- business, government, law, science, academia, sports -- and it's important at least to know a little bit about each of those subjects or as much as possible, because while you're here in a host country, public diplomacy is an important part of the American embassy's role, not just the ambassador but the Americans who work there, in reaching out and putting America's best foot forward. And Foreign Service officers not only have their day job to do, but I would suggest it's after-hours work too in working with people in the country and reaching out beyond the governmental people and the opposition people to the government, but to people in spheres of influence that perhaps are not normally touched by the embassy.

So I would encourage you to consider a career in the Foreign Service and I think you'll find it very rewarding. It doesn't have to be the first thing you do out of college, although it's no harm in starting then. But there are many people who enter at a later point after service in the military, after service in business, law practice, whatever it may be, who decide that a Foreign Service career is what's best for them. So again, if you go online or feel free to follow with further emails, I'm always glad to hear from you.

If you ever want to e-mail me directly, my State Department e-mail address is ashevh@state.gov, so don't hesitate just to e-mail me directly and I can assure you I will respond. It may take me a couple of days, but I will answer. I think it's a great way of communicating and obviously in the last 10 to 15, 20 years being able to do webchats such as this, video webchats, communicating online is a dramatic change from what one did in the 1970s or '80s in terms of communication.

And I hope you found this helpful today in dealing with those questions. This covers pretty much all of the subject matter that came in. It doesn't answer each individual question, but I'm pretty sure that most of those hundred-plus questions that came in have been answered at least by category. But on the other hand, if you just happen to tune in and happen to send a question in and my answers have generated some thought on your part where you would like a further answer, again, if you'll just e-mail me direct I'll respond to you and look forward to hearing from you.

Let me say if you haven't ever visited the Republicof Poland, you ought to come. There's a great history, a great culture, a great opportunity to see and meet and work with a fabulous group of people. And whether you're visiting Krakow or Białystok or Warsaw or Szczecin or Poznań or Wrocław or any of the great cities of Poland, there's a unique and special opportunity. Also I might add, the price isn't bad. It's a reasonably priced country in which to travel and to get around. It's not expensive like some other countries and you'll find that it's a good bargains. But the best part of it is getting to meet the Polish people.

Thank you.

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