People tell me I'm crazy for having left California for Poland. I definitely didn't do it for the weather, but there's really no other place I'd rather be.
My grandfathers were officers in the Polish Army and fought in the September Campaign. After spending six long years in German captivity, they were liberated by American soldiers of the 101st Cavalry Regiment. Decades later, and half a world away, I was born in Redwood City, a short walk from San Francisco Bay. Though I spent most of my life in America, I was always drawn to Poland. My earliest visits reminded me where I came from. My later visits as an adult, inspired my return. I moved to Warsaw in 2014 to pursue a PhD in history, and the country has continued to grow on me.
Poland is beginning a new chapter in its history. Some people are anxious at what the future holds, I am excited. The differences between the Warsaw when I lived here in the early 90s, taking walks with my grandmother and now, is like night and day. While the outside changes are fantastic, from skyscrapers, to highways, metro lines, places to eat, shop and spend time with friends, the greatest thing is freedom. More than ever, people are enthusiastic about building businesses, learning about the world and embracing new opportunities. I came here to study and rediscover my heritage, but what's keeping me is the culture and the great potential I see for the future.
In my estimation however, Poles haven't fully embraced their freedom.
Poland has spent the past quarter century deferring to others, waiting for invitations to NATO and the EU, and to a large extent, abrogating their freedom for security. As a fledgling country finding its footing in the first generation after independence this was understandable. Now it's time for Poland to stand on its own two feet.
The international scene is shifting. Many of the largest countries in Europe aren't shouldering the weight of continental defense like their abundant economies would allow. Accepting huge numbers of migrants appears to be a greater priority for Germany than spending more than a miserly 1.2% of GDP on its military. The EU is in turmoil, and this week's possible Brexit vote could shock the system with unintended consequences. And an assertive Russia isn't going to be wished or negotiated away either.
Simply waiting to see what happens rarely leads to a favorable result.
Poland's greatest ally, America, is months away from an era-defnining election. It's understandable that Poles are worried about what it may mean for them, especially if the unpredictable Donald Trump is elected. What they could learn from America and even Trump himself, is that mindset is as important as military might and economic potential.
Poland is admirably leading Europe in defense spending relative to GDP, but it's not enough, and the simple paradigm of looking to the west for direction and aid and to the east in consternation isn't a strategy. What both sides respect is confidence and a sense of purpose. When the defense of your nation is at hand, leadership isn't a commodity that you outsource, and in Poland's case, nothing else is in greater need of domestic production.
To truly meet the challenges of the present, Poland has to cultivate its most precious resource, young leaders.
The process has already started and innovative programs are beginning to tap into the great potential of younger generations. One example is my experience participating in the Leadership School of the Institute of Freedom, it has been amazing to learn from so many accomplished leaders and teachers. I share the enthusiasm of dozens of young Poles that I've met to make our country a better place. It's this spirit that has to be cultivated. Just as importantly, the pessimistic and defeatist attitudes of the past have to be replaced. I know as well as anyone that Poland's past has been very difficult, but the mindset that once was a defense mechanism against insurmountable challenges is now a liability.
Changes in mentality are fundamental prerequisites to developing a nation that is both economically and militarily strong.
Why should Poland expect America to defend it when millions of Poles have chosen to leave the country because their prospects here were so limited? The challenge of a new generations of leaders is creating the conditions in Poland that will make it an increasingly attractive place to return to and stay in. I've left Silicon Valley and sunny California to make Warsaw my home. I can tell you from firsthand experience that Poland is in a stronger position in many ways than America, economically, demographically and culturally. It's up to Poles to seize these advantages.
As we build on the foundation of self-confidence in our own ability to succeed as a nation without an overreliance on outside partners, we'll see that the security that we so desperately seek can be found right at home.
It starts with the simple question, what am I doing today to make Poland the safe, prosperous and great country that I want it to be?