June 8, 2006

June 8, 2006 | Commentary on Europe

Wayward thinking

It would seem a simple yet fundamental cornerstone of a successful foreign policy that you punish your enemies and reward your friends. Another would be that you should divide your enemies and unite your friends. In the strange ways of Washington, however, we have been turning these axioms upside down. The result is extraordinary bitterness among some nations that have been good friends and allies of the United States.

The case in point here is the nemesis of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and in Asia as well - the U.S. visa regime and a visa waiver program that favors certain nations above others.
In summary, 27 nations currently qualify for visa waivers, meaning that their citizens can enter the United States without visas and stay for 60 days. They are granted this status if certain criteria are met, for instance not breaching a 2 percent limit on overstaying visitors to the United States. For reasons mainly of high living standards, most of the visa waiver countries are in Western Europe.

As currently configured, the visa waiver program has helped foster anti-American sentiment in countries that do not qualify and presents problems for governments that want to remain allies of the United States in the global war on terror. To qualify for the visa waiver program, applicant countries have to fall below a 3 percent refusal rate for visas by U.S. consular officials as well as meet the above mentioned limit on overstays.

Now, an amendment introduced in May by Sens. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and Barbara Mikulski, Marlyland Democrat, to the immigration bill would include Poland in the visa waiver program, but not other Central or East European countries. The bill is written narrowly so that only countries who have sent no less than a battalion of 300-1000 troops to Afghanistan and Iraq can qualify for an exemption to the visa waiver program. As it happens this criterion fits only Poland, which has indeed been a great ally for the United States.

Unfortunately, this nod to the Poles has further stirred tempers among others who are knocking on the door of the United States - the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Baltic countries as well as the South Koreans, who already felt like they were being treated like second class citizens, and of course now feel it doubly. In addition, the amendment has created high expectations in Poland, where people may be in for crushing disappointment if the amendment does not make it through the House-Senate conference on the immigration bill - or if the conferees fail to reach agreement on an immigration reform bill altogether.

And just to complicate matters further, the European Parliament has waded into the already muddied waters. In a report on improving Transatlantic Relations published by the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in March, the committee deplored "unjustified discrimination" against the new EU members and urged "the US to extend the Visa Waiver Program to cover all EU citizens so that they all receive equal, open and fair treatment without delay." While one might well applaud the sentiment, it is fact that messages from the EU parliament usually do not have a huge impact on members of the U.S. Senate.

Many nations have contributed to the U.S. war on terrorism since September 11, 2001, and become important partners in our efforts to make the U.S. homeland more secure. They deserve to have their efforts recognized. Some of them like to point out that countries already in the visa waiver program have presented more of a threat to the United States than they have - Germany, for instance, where some of the September 11 plot was hatched in terrorist cells, or Great Britain, home of shoe bomber Richard Reid.

A more reasonable approach would be for the White House and the State Department to take the lead on visa waivers, and propose a set of relevant, improved criteria that had been adapted to the situation in the world today and could be broadly applied to a range of U.S. allies. These criteria should take into account security cooperation with the United States, as well as a range of contributions made to the war on terror.
It is assuredly not the Central or East Europeans who are swelling the ranks of illegal immigrants in the United States, nor the folks from South Korea. The visa waiver program should be a question of serving national security interests, fairness and recognition of deserving international partners.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times