The US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen, is set to leave Prague later this month, after three and a half years in office. In our special programme, Ambassador Eisen discusses the state of the Czech-US relations, his involvement in Czech anti-corruption battle and human rights efforts, as well as his personal reflections of his time in Prague. I sat down with Norman Eisen at the US ambassador’s residence, and first asked him what he thought his biggest accomplishments were.
“The biggest achievement is, as I said I would try to do, to take the relationship between the Czech Republic and the United States from good to great. It was a good relationship, and together, we took it back to great for [incoming] Ambassador Andrew Schapiro to make it even greater.
“The two countries’ partnership in NATO has been strengthened. The very first new NATO Smart Defence Program that the United States signed, in all of NATO, was with the Czech Republic, for a multilateral aviation centre here.
“We’ve had a very strong partnership in regards to pushing back Russian aggression in Crimea and the Russian role in the continued unrest in eastern Ukraine, including, of course, the tragic downing of the airplane and now in the new round of sanctions which the EU and the US are imposing.
“In commercial and economic relations, our biggest success has been the increase of bilateral trade by over 100 percent in the past four years, which is almost four times the average for a U.S. embassy in Europe.
“We have also created a lot of sustainable new enterprises - for example our U.S.-Czech Civil Nuclear Cooperation Centre at the Czech Technical University, the very first civil nuclear cooperation centre of its kind which the U.S. has created in Europe.
“Finally, the third area of accomplishments is in the shared values sphere - the things which are important to us like fighting corruption and fighting for human rights. For example being supportive of the Czech led effort during Prague Pride, or helping with Roma issues. Those are the accomplishments I am proudest of.”
But it can be argued the Czech-US relationship has not really gone from good to great. Before President Obama took office, eastern Europe was high on the list of priorities of US foreign policy. Also, the US firm Westinghouse was bidding for a multi-billion nuclear deal in the Czech Republic. These things are now gone. And recently, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka rejected President Obama’s proposal to station NATO troops in the Czech Republic. So what makes you think the relations have significantly improved?
“I think that, first with respect to the importance of the Czech Republic to the United States, whatever the issues may be, Europe in general has never been more important to the United States.
“If you look at the closeness in which, just during my tenure, we have relied on you in issue after issue, whether it is the Ukraine, where there is a crisis that has brought us together, and I think that this government has been very strong on Ukraine, foreign minister [Lubomír] Zaorálek has been one of the most outspoken European foreign ministers on that topic.
“And look at the actions of the government, whether it is continuing the air policing in Iceland and in the Baltics or joining every round of the sanctions, including the latest ones.”
“But it is not just Ukraine, it’s across the board. You’ve had three different governments during my time here, all of which have been very close to the United States and have spoken very publicly.
“When, for example, Secretary [John] Kerry wanted to have the first investment conference for his Middle East peace plan, out of every country and every capital in the world, where did he go for the investment conference on the Kerry plan? Prague, the Czech Republic.”
“There are only three niches for busts or statues of foreign leaders in our U.S. Capitol. One is Winston Churchill, one is [Hungary’s Lajos] Kossuth, and the third will be President [Václav] Havel and will be unveiled in November.
“So I think when we look at the overall relationship, it has gone decidedly up. It was fine when I got here, it is even stronger now and we need Europe and the Czech Republic more than ever. And in Europe we have no closer ally than the Czech Republic.”
“As for the Temelín transaction, the U.S. company was in first place when the tender was postponed and now we know that the tender, or process, is going to be turned back on. So I am optimistic that we will have a fair and transparent process and I’m optimistic about the U.S. industry’s chances in that process.
“I am not saying there haven’t been challenges, but I think the relationship has become even better and that was my goal over the past four years.”
Speaking of Václav Havel, he was one of eastern European leaders who in 2009 warned President Obama of “storm clouds gathering on the horizon”, in a reference to Russia. Do you think the US attempts to reset relations with Russia have failed, given what’s happening in Ukraine?
“Well, obviously all of us in NATO, President Obama no less than anyone else, are disappointed by the Russian aggression in Crimea, and now the failure to address the situation in Ukraine. But the overall policy, particularly the engagement with Mr Medvedev, has also made possible a number of important initiatives: there has been cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran.
“So you need to not only look at the current situation but at the big picture. Look, alliances like the Czech-US alliance, the NATO alliance, need to be flexible. At times, when Russia was being a partner, we were able to have a good partnership. That has changed for the moment.
“Europe and the US have been marching together with sanctions and we have sent a very clear message. But for now, because Russia has chosen to behave in a way that’s irresponsible in Ukraine, we’ve had to take a tough stance. I’m very pleased to see that, just as Europe and the US were very united before, we’re doing the same thing now with the latest sanctions.
“And I would also point out that as President Obama’s representative here, I have truly appreciated the strong statements of support for President Obama and his policies which we have heard from the prime minister, the foreign minister and others in his government. They are good partners for the United States.
Looking at some of your other roles as the US ambassador, you have been very vocal in supporting efforts to curb corruption in the Czech Republic, and you have come out in defence of human rights and the rights of minorities. But some observers have questioned your involvement and wondered if it was appropriate for an envoy of a foreign country. What do you say to that?
“What I would say to those who assert that it is undiplomatic to speak candidly is that the US and the Czech Republic have always enjoyed and continue to enjoy a special relationship. It’s not a transactional relationship or a temporary alliance, it’s really a permanent friendship. And friends speak candidly to each other.
“So I think it is not only appropriate but necessary that we share views. But that’s a two way street. Take corruption: I’ve spent as much time talking about the challenges that we face in the US, for instance the excessive role of money in politics, as I have talking about the challenges of the Czech fight against corruption.
“I’m very proud of the Czech-led successes, not led by the US embassy, but Czech-led successes. Without commenting on any specific case, you have seen some of the first prosecutions of very senior officials including while still in office.
“You have also seen the anti-corruption community come together; for example, [the association of NGOs] Rekonstrukce státu – there is nothing like this in the world. Even the US can learn from that coalition of groups fighting against corruption.
“The US is pleased to lend our voice in support of efforts against corruption without ever getting into the specifics of any cases. That would too much for an ambassador to do. So I think it is the essence of diplomacy between allies, and not the opposite.”
On a personal level, what has the three and half years you’ve spent in the Czech Republic given you?
“It’s changed me immeasurably in too many ways to count. If I had to pick a few: of course, maminka byla československá žena a bylo pro mě velmi zajímavé vidět život tady [my mother was from Czechoslovakia and it was very interesting to see what life here is like].
“It’s really so interesting to go back to explore your roots. My mother was born in what is now Slovakia but also lived in western Bohemia. So that’s been enriching.
“I’ve made wonderful friendships here. For example, we have been adopted by the great writer Ivan Klíma and his family. We’ve made many friends with ordinary Czech people because my family and I get out and do stuff; for instance, we go to synagogue every week, and so we’ve met people and really become friends with people you don’t ordinarily encounter in diplomatic circles.
“But one of the hidden treasures of the Czech Republic is the sense of humour. I had the privilege of getting to know Václav Havel, and he commented to me on the importance of keeping a sense of humour in government and politics.
“And of course, Kafka. I’ve re-read most of Kafka while I’m here and now I understand Kafka je legrační [Kafka is funny]. I really did not understand when I read Kafka the first time that much of his writing is quite funny as well as being sad and surreal and tragic. Like Havel’s plays.
“That’s a remarkable achievement. So my sense of humour has also been changed by my time here.”