When President Obama went public with his support for expansion of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program (VWP) while in Poland last month, it was a long-overdue acknowledgement of not just Poland’s but Europe’s critical importance as an ally of the United States.
(It may of course also have been an acknowledgement of the importance of Polish-Americans for the presidential race, but that is another matter.)
Poland clearly deserves to be party to the VWP, which allows travelers from certain countries to enter the United States for 90-day visits for vacation or business without the hassle and expense of obtaining a visa. That Poland and European allies like Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia still remain outside the program is a public diplomacy issue that Congress needs to address. (Other countries merit consideration in the program—Chile, for instance.)
The omission is a matter of considerable bitterness for some staunch allies of the United States. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Poland more than pulled its weight as an American ally, while other Europeans chose the sidelines—France and the Germany come to mind. Yet when traveling to the United States, Poles have felt like second-class citizens. They have to endure the $100 visa application fee and the long lines outside the U.S. consulate, while French and German citizens pay only a $14 online registration fee.
The unfairness of it all has rankled to the point where every Polish president has brought it up in meetings with both President Bush and President Obama, with the Polish media following every move breathlessly. Thus, it is no coincidence that among Europeans, Poles have registered considerably lower approval of President Obama’s leadership than have other Europeans (most of whom admittedly exhibit irrational exuberance on this subject).
As Obama concluded his European trip in Warsaw, however, he finally announced his support of the most recent attempt at revising the VWP, the Secure Traveler and Counterterrorism Partnership Act of 2011. This is a welcome (if somewhat belated) step forward on the part of the Obama White House and State Department.
The President expressed support both in conversations with Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and in a letter to Congress in favor of the legislation, which is sponsored by Senators Mark Kirk (R–IL) and Barbara Mikulski (D–MD) in the Senate and has 14 co-sponsors in the House. The bill aims to decouple biometric exit control of foreign visitors from the eligibility of candidate countries to join the program. The two are entirely separate issues that got lumped together in the last VWP legislation of 2007.
The changes in the VWP were soon reflected in the number of travelers to the United States from the new member countries. Out of eight new participants in the program, six experienced a surge in travelers across the Atlantic. The most dramatic increase was in the Czech Republic, which registered a 17 percent increase in temporary visitors over 2007.
Furthermore, visitors to the United States tend to come away with a much improved view of the country, a bonanza from a public diplomacy perspective. Foreigners who visit the U.S. are over 74 percent more likely to view it favorably and 61 percent more likely to support the U.S. and its policies than those who have never had first-hand experience of America and Americans. In addition, tourism is a plus for the struggling U.S. economy, which can use all the help it can get.
It is now up to Congress to move the ball forward.