Global Public Square

Zakaria: Post-Communist lessons for the new Middle East

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

As Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya transition from dictatorship to democracy, you'd think they'd look to America as a model for their new governments. But they don't. America is still too controversial in the Arab world.

Instead, many of the countries transformed by the Arab Spring are looking in a surprising place for inspiration.

Where is this new city on a hill?

Take a look at the man landing at the airport in Tunis, Tunisia: It's Lech Walesa. He's the man whose actions 30 years ago in the Gdansk shipyard in Poland helped cause Communism to crumble across Eastern Europe. Walesa was in Tunisia to pass on the lessons he had learned.

In fact, Poland is a good model for these countries. It's a country that started out with many problems - political and economic - but gradually overcame them. Today's Arab revolutionaries want to see how they did it. They are studying the Eastern European experience, and particularly the Polish path. 

Poland is cooperating in various ways. It has started hosting conferences to share its knowledge. In fact, it uses a U.S.-made computer game to train Arab and East European civil servants. It's called "SENSE", or the Strategic Economic Needs and Security Exercise. SENSE simulates a virtual country emerging from authoritarian rule. It trains participants to make democratic decisions and allocate resources. Years after training on it, Warsaw is now passing on its own experience to the Arab world.

Poland's political and economic success have given it a sense of confidence and a new profile on the international stage. It's a member of NATO. In fact, it now holds the rotating presidency of the European Union. Beyond Europe, Poland has also been one of Washington's most loyal allies: Poland was among the largest contributors of troops to the War in Iraq, and it still has troops in Afghanistan.

But perhaps the biggest reason for poverty-stricken nations like Egypt to pay close attention to Poland is that it is a very rare breed in today's world, especially in Europe. Poland has a strong economy - the sixth biggest in the European Union now and the only European Union country to avoid a recession altogether. None of its banks needed to be rescued.

Its economy grew 4% last year, and is on track to grow 3% in 2012. Why, you'll ask. How did it survive the turmoil in the Euro Zone? One answer is that it has strong domestic demand and has been pouring money into infrastructure projects.

But the real - and fortuitous - reason is that Poland has yet to be allowed in to the Euro Zone - it continues to use zlotys instead of the euro. So unlike Greece or Italy, it was able to devalue its currency to stay competitive.

The irony is Warsaw continues to see its destiny as being tied to the common currency. More than half its exports go to the EU - a majority of it to Germany, its main trading partner. Poles reason that being part of the same currency would encourage foreign direct investment in Poland. And it's not just about economics. After yearning for decades to be part of Europe, its leaders now feel a resurgent Poland could be a full-fledged member of the European community.

But perhaps Poland should look at England, Sweden, and Switzerland - all European countries, all with strong economies - but with their own currencies. That might be the model to emulate. In any event, no Arab country is likely to give up its currency anytime soon - no matter what Poland will do.

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