OVER the past several weeks, the Slovak media have been absorbed in guessing who and what kind of union will sit in the country's next government, or whether Russia will blow enough gas through the pipelines to its energy-dependent former little brother. The possibility that Slovakia's largest airports might end up in the lap of Vienna airport has also attracted considerable media attention.
Naturally, events that are closer to the Slovak skin arouse more sincere interest among the public than happenings that torture remote regions.
However, news that Iran is renewing its work on nuclear fuel is information that will now concern Slovakia for more reasons than merely its having made it to the front pages of international newspapers.
As of January 1, 2006, this central European nation of five million has had a seat on the United Nation's Security Council as a non-permanent repre-sentative of Eastern European nations, and as such finds the Iran mess very much on its plate.
Nor is this the last time that Slovakia will have to raise its gaze from purely domestic concerns, as the country will occupy the seat it took over from Romania until December 31, 2007.
Although analysts had earlier warned that Slovakia would have to take more interest in international affairs and quickly increase its ability to monitor and evaluate them, few expected that the country would start its UN tenure with such an explosive matter as Iran and its nuclear agenda.
While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that "full nuclear energy for peaceful purposes will be at the disposal of Iran," Ahmadinejad's definition of "peaceful purposes" may not help world leaders sleep any better. It may even give them nightmares, for this is the man who recently called for Israel to be "wiped off the map".
That's why the international community is calling for a fresh look at Iran's nuclear programme in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council.
Clearly, Slovakia will have to do far more on the subject of Iran than make statements of protest or assure democratic partners of its verbal support.
The country will actually have to take a stand whose weight is equal to those of larger and older nations.
Iran is not often in the news in Slovakia.
This is not to say that the Slovak media offer weaker coverage of the Middle East than media in neighbouring countries. It's more that the country has few politicians with anything trenchant or even intelligible to say about important international topics such as Iran's nuclear programme. International politics is not a big vote-winner come election day.
With Slovakia now closer to the international limelight, its politicians may be tempted by the prospect of television exposure to comment on any event anywhere in the world, but we must pray they don't succumb. The presence of TV crews is not likely to redress the deficit in knowledge of and interest in international events among Slovak politicians - it will only expose it more fully.
This deficit is due not only to individual shortcomings, but also to an institutional reluctance to get involved. Foreign policy analysts often say that Slovakia tends automatically to assume a defensive position when challenged to take a stand on a global crisis.
"We keep making the excuse, often with good reason, that Slovakia is still a young country that does not have a tradition of high-level diplomacy like our neighbours Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic," said Ivo Samson of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association.
"But this is nevertheless a deficit."
Still, it's hard to imagine the international community accepting a national insecurity complex as Slovakia's excuse for avoiding difficult decisions on whether the UN should take military action, or whether military intervention is possible without the UN's blessing.
Slovakia is lucky in that it can still resort to saying "me too" and agreeing with the line taken by the stronger players on the Council. But this safe harbour will be lost if Germany and France begin disagreeing with Great Britain. Britain, for example, is already talking about the need to take swift action against Iran. Will Slovakia support this stand, or will it cling to the opinion that more patient diplomacy is needed?
Foreign policy is full of landmines, and navigating them is a risky job for amateurs. Some see comfort in the fact that Slovakia's foreign minister is an experienced diplomat who served as the UN Secretary General's special envoy for Kosovo from 1999 until 2001.
Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan has promised that Slovakia will engage heavily this year on the future status of Kosovo and developments in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. However, recent events in Iran show that Slovakia will also have to pay more attention to the Middle East, Africa, Iran and North Korea than it has previously, and than it may wish to at the moment. The Security Council on which Slovakia sits will continue to face serious questions regarding these countries and regions.
On January 12, Slovak authorities said they were monitoring the situation in Iran. Samson said that Slovakia had neither the resources nor the expertise in this region to take an early stand.
But it's highly probable that, sooner or later, a stand will have to be taken regardless of Slovakia's size, qualifications or interests. Sharing the burden of responsibility for international affairs is, after all, why Slovakia ran for the seat.
As we wait with baited breath to see how Slovakia will respond to its first major challenge in its new international role, we might remember President Kennedy's "ask not what your country can do for you" speech.
Yes, membership on the UN Security Council is indeed a unique chance for Slovakia to increase its visibility on the world political stage.
Yes, greater international engagement may also make the Slovak public more aware of global issues and conflicts and in this way enrich public discourse.
But in the end it's about how Slovakia can serve the world, not the other way around, and what kind of game the country can bring to the premier league of global foreign policy.
16. Jan 2006 at 0:00