After two days of discussions in Warsaw, a Polish perspective on Germany, the US, and Europe emerges with a mix of confidence, caution and candor: confidence about itself, caution about Germany and the US, and candor about the world in which Poland’s future is to be forged.

A Bright Future
Poland exudes confidence about itself. It just managed to pull off the re-election of its Prime Minister, Donald Tusk − the first time that such a re-election has occurred in Poland since 1989 and a milestone of political stability two decades after the end of the Cold war. It has also sailed through the last three years of economic turbulence relatively well, averaging over 4% growth in the last four years. While it remains afflicted with some high unemployment levels throughout the country, it remains relatively strong in terms of export strength, the stability of its banking system, and its ability to attract foreign investment. While Europe absorbs two thirds of Poland’s exports, Germany is Poland’s most important economic partner. Poland has also benefited from enormous financial support from the EU since it became a member in 2004 – a major factor in its ability to maintain its balance in the past three years.

Poland is also holding the rotating European Union Presidency during the second half of 2011. In a widely noticed speech last summer, Prime Minister Tusk emphasized Poland’s commitment to a stronger Europe, its continued intention of joining the euro zone as soon as possible, and his clear message that the European Union is supposed to be made up of equal partners, not a two- or three-tier system. That message was aimed squarely at both Berlin and Paris in the wake of the frantic efforts to deal with the Greek and Italian crises. Prime Minister Tusk’s reminder was evidence of some caution in Warsaw with the way Germany and France are acting as a bilateral directorate in determining policies for its European partners − those in and outside the euro zone.

Tusk reminded Europeans that: “It is our experience that also tells us that more Europe, in terms of individual experience, simply means more freedom, more wealth, more practical solidarity, and, in the end, greater security. Isn’t united Europe the answer to our experience of World War I and II? Isn’t united Europe the best European invention that protects us against ourselves? (Prime Minister Tusk’s speech)”

Deep Seeded Concerns
Polish caution about the future of Europe does not end with the current financial crisis. The tensions between Warsaw and Berlin over the construction of a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, bypassing Poland, generated a great deal of Polish concern about German policies toward a Russia which is still perceived as a threat. Like many of its neighbors, Poland remains heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supplies. Since Moscow has demonstrated that it is willing to use those supplies as leverage to serve its own interests, Poland was initially upset by the German-Russian pipeline agreement, with some hyperbolic criticism even referring to the Nazi-Soviet agreements prior to the outbreak of World War II.

But as that pipeline went into service amidst much fanfare in Berlin this past week, Polish reaction was more muted, and there remains a wait-and-see attitude toward Russia in light of the expected re-election of Vladimir Putin next spring. Yet the incident again underlined how deep historical experiences and memories still run throughout Europe. During the recent election campaign, Tusk’s rival, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, injected some anti-German sentiment into his rhetoric but without success.

Yet, Polish caution is also directed at the United States. The traditionally strong ties between Warsaw and Washington were strained two years ago over a change of the US course on the deployment of a missile defense system in Poland. Polish criticism of Washington was aimed at what was seen as a far too compromising posture toward Russian resistance to the deployment in Poland, as well as the decision of the US to alter its course. That decision was a clumsy one, catching the Poles by surprise just as they were about to mark the seventieth anniversary of the invasion of Poland by German and Russian troops that ignited the Second World War.

While the Poles in general feel a close link to the US, questions about US leadership circulate around commitments to Europe and concerns about increasing American preoccupation with Asia. The presence of Polish engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq were earlier understood to be signs of loyalty to the US. Yet, questions about the basis of the Iraq war and the long-term projection of Afghanistan have taken a toll on US-Polish relations. The fact that Poland, together with Germany, decided not to engage in the actions in Libya received far less attention than was Berlin’s decision – in part because Germany’s vote was highlighted in the UN Security Council. But it did underscore the fact that Poland is quite capable of determining what it sees as in its own interests and perspectives.

Setting a New Course
Given the very rough road of Polish history, there is a candor about the world, about the possibilities and limits of reliance on allies, and the reality of threats and challenges. That also includes a candid look at themselves. They can see themselves as victims of centuries of wars, occupation, partition, and even over a century of being forced out of existence as a country. They can also see themselves today as a product of courage shown in the face of dictatorships.

They are aware that the blood-drenched legacies of both world wars ran straight through Poland, including the unique horrors of the death camps set up on Polish soil by the Nazis, the millions of those uprooted, and the scars which divided Europe for decades afterwards. And they see their future in a Europe that they were unable to be part of for so long, but now can participate in shaping.

The Rumsfeldian reference to an old vs. a new Europe was never persuasive to describe the Europe of twenty seven countries seeking common ground. It would serve the US better to understand that process, which will inevitably be forged in no small measure by the relations between Berlin and Warsaw.

Poland as a Model
Just as the bonds built between Germany and France in the past half century have created a deep foundation for the European project, so do the Berlin-Warsaw linkages draw from a deep, often troubled pool of history. If there is any example of a productive mixture of remembrance and renewal between two neighbors in Europe, Poland and Germany represent it. Yet it is also a constant reminder not to take it for granted.

Poland, a country of 38 million with growing political and economic weight in Europe, is continuing to shape its role in the European Union, while also being shaped by it. Furthermore, as its role in Europe increases, Poland will be increasingly characterized by NATO and the many other alliances and institutions in which it is participating. Poland is illustrative for the other twenty-six EU members, and for those wishing to become a part of this club. The evolution of each state will be reflective of its own history of reaching for the goal of a more united Europe. As a famous Polish Pope John Paul II once said: “The future starts today, not tomorrow.” That future will involve a sense of shared confidence, caution and candor about what lies ahead.