American willingness to engage

KEITH Eddins is one of the many who share the opinion of Thomas Jefferson when he said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The Slovak Spectator spoke to the Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Bratislava not only about press freedom but also about the recently announced change in the US missile defence plans, foreign aid and its outcomes, visa-free travel, and the widely discussed fee for US-bound travellers that the US is considering.

Chargé d'Affaires Keith A. EddinsChargé d'Affaires Keith A. Eddins (Source: Courtesy of US Embassy)

KEITH Eddins is one of the many who share the opinion of Thomas Jefferson when he said: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” The Slovak Spectator spoke to the Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Bratislava not only about press freedom but also about the recently announced change in the US missile defence plans, foreign aid and its outcomes, visa-free travel, and the widely discussed fee for US-bound travellers that the US is considering.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Over the past two decades, Slovakia has evolved from being a receiver of foreign aid into a provider of such assistance. In your opinion, which are the areas and the regions where Slovakia, as a provider of aid and know-how, can play a role?

Keith Eddins (KE): We have found over the years that when applied well and properly foreign aid can be effective in building democracy. Sometimes the assistance can be money sometimes it may be expertise; sometimes a combination of the two. But it shouldn’t be only throwing money at a problem. It is most effective when it provides experts who understand the situation and target the assistance. Slovakia has expertise in several areas and we have seen its experts using this knowledge very effectively. You have geographical and cultural understanding of the Balkans and there are both official and unofficial efforts to build democracy, to help economic and cultural development and to support free press in that region. Slovakia has experts from both the government and NGOs who have been through that development themselves and can provide assistance in a way that it is going to be much more appreciated by the people than from some 25 year-old American graduate student who understands the process in theory but hasn’t lived through it himself or herself. Also, Slovaks bring a cultural and linguistic ability to the Balkans that they might not bring to sub-Saharan Africa, thus the Balkans are a perfect example.

Belarus is another example: Slovak NGOs are working there on building democracy, sometimes with the support of the government. Some of the Slovak NGOs work in Cuba with human rights activists and the Slovak government is helping them. Its decision to provide internet access to Cubans through the Slovak embassy in Havana is a very good example. It does not cost a lot of money, but it is a good example of providing something to the locals that they need and want.

Yet, no public anywhere in the world has sufficient understanding of foreign aid. The American public is notorious in having an impression that we spend 25 or even 30 percent of our government budget on foreign aid, when we spend a fraction of that. Governments need to explain through public diplomacy that foreign aid is an important tool to support stability in regions in need. Afghanistan is a good example. Slovakia, I think, is doing a good job there and it is important for the public to know how crucial the Afghan-Pakistani area is to world stability. And a recent Transatlantic Trends survey has shown that the numbers are going up in terms of appreciation of the effort, so I would give the Slovak government credit for its outreach efforts.

TSS: Has the economic downturn modified the drive of major donor countries to provide assistance?

KE: All governments have to think about it; we all have been affected by the global financial crisis, seen our tax revenues going down and we all have needed to make expenditures for stimulus packages. Assistance providers understand that not every year is going to be a flush year but we must maintain consistency over the years. So even if you have to cut the budget elsewhere, you can give the service providers some certainty that they at least will get what they need to keep going. I think both Slovakia and the United States have done pretty well in fencing off some of that assistance from cuts.

TSS: The Transatlantic Trends, a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund, shows that three-in-four respondents (77 percent) in the European Union and Turkey support President Barack Obama's foreign policy approach, which is a considerable jump from 2008 when only 18 percent approved of President Bush's foreign policy. How do you view these developments?

KE: It is a good signal that in Europe, over the first six months of the Obama administration, there is an appreciation of what he is trying to do and accomplish. I am realistic enough to recognize that the survey data is a snapshot taken in the last week of June or the first week of July in 12 to15 European countries; a snapshot that can be compared to the one taken a year ago or to one that will be taken next year. I never want to read too much into a single data point. But having said that, I think it is terrific that throughout Europe the popularity of the US president, appreciation for the US and recognition of the need for trans-Atlantic ties showed a strong upward movement. That’s good news not just for the United States but also for the European trans-Atlantic community.

You naturally are able to do more things with your allies when you are more popular. And whether we talk about Afghanistan, climate change, the financial crisis or the radar system, we obviously understand that part of our policy efforts are dependent on how we are perceived.

TSS: Have Slovak-US relations changed in any way since the new US administration took office?

KE: If you ask Foreign Minister Lajcák or Prime Minister Fico, I think they would tell you ‘yes’ because as part of the EU and NATO they have seen the same developments that allies throughout Europe are seeing: a willingness on part of the US to engage and take into account the views of our allies in a way that highlights the importance that President Obama puts on consensus – bringing people together to form common solutions.

TSS: The United States has announced that it is changing its missile defence plans in central Europe. That decision has inspired fiery discussions in media about the motivations behind the move by the US.

KE: We’re not scrapping missile defence. What we have done is we’ve taken a look at two key elements of the equation: one of the elements is the threat and the other is the most effective response to the threat. In the first instance we have concluded that regarding the threat of Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles, those capabilities are developing much slower than had been previously estimated. But on the other hand, the threat from short and medium-range missiles is developing more rapidly than previously projected. The radar that was going to be put in the Czech Republic and the interceptors that were going to be put into Poland were key responses to an intercontinental threat, the one which is not developing as rapidly. That’s point one. Point number two is that technologies to address short and medium-range threats already exist and are based on a missile called the SM3 that is used on our cruisers and has been adapted for missile defence. It also is adaptable for land-base use. The technology is relatively cost-effective. So you’ve got a threat from intercontinental missiles that is going down and you’ve got the ability to address the threat that is going up, which is the short and medium-range missiles. That’s what we’re going to focus on; we’re not scrapping missile defence but rather modifying, changing and adapting it to the new realities.

Yes, it means we don’t need radar in the Czech Republic and we don’t need the interceptors in Poland. On the other hand, we’ll need different capabilities, interceptors primarily, in other places, possibly southern Europe, possibly northern Europe. The experts are still looking into the options and NATO will then consider it.

The decision isn’t a cave-in to the Russians. Just because the Russians were against it, doesn’t mean we have to pursue something that isn’t as necessary now as we thought it would be five years ago. Why build something for a threat that’s declining? Better to spend that money on the threat that is increasing.

I’ve been working in the arms-control world for a long time and whether we’re talking about missiles, whether we’re talking about tanks, whether we’re talking about airplanes, certain parts of the equation don’t change – you’ve got a look at the threat and you’ve got to look at the capability to respond to that threat. You’ve got to match those pieces together. That’s what we did in the CFE [Conventional Forces in Europe] treaty, that’s what we did in the Start [Strategic Arms Reduction] treaty, that’s what we did in the Stockholm Document [on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures and Disarmament in Europe] in 1986 and that’s what we did in the Vienna Document 1990. And this is no more and no less than being realistic.

TSS: Almost one year has passed since the US lifted the visa duty from Slovakia. Between November 2008 and May 2009 the number of Slovak tourists to the US has increased by 10 percent. Have any trends emerged that would cause concerns to the United States regarding visa-free travel?

KE: Our evaluation is very positive. The data are a little bit hard to compare because when we issue a visa, we know we have issued a visa. When someone goes on ESTA [the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation], the computer programme, to get their authorization to travel we don’t necessarily know that they have actually travelled. But if you assume that most of the people go on ESTA with the intent to travel and that most people who had got a did so with the intent of crossing the border then we think what we see is a 10 percent increase, even in the midst of a global recession. And that’s terrific. I hope many of them will continue to travel. In terms of the problems that we had been potentially concerned about, they don’t seem to have developed. Very few Slovaks have difficulty getting the ESTA approval. Slovakia is doing as well, if not better, than the other visa-waiver countries.

TSS: The US is planning to introduce an entry fee for US-bound tourists and it has been received quite negatively in Europe. What are the main arguments for such fee and how would that support tourism?

KE: Virtually every country in the world – with the exception of the US – has a national tourism agency. The goal is to create a US national tourism agency that can sell travel to the US to people who might not have otherwise considered it. We’ve got a lot of visitors, but we could always use more, particularly in the time of recession. Florida and Nevada and other places that rely on tourism have said that their tourism dollars have gone down. So the idea is to charge people who are coming to the US on the visa waiver programme – not just the new countries, but all the visa-waiver states.

Other countries also must support their national tourism boards in some way as well; maybe there’s a fee on hotels, maybe an airport fee, a little tax here and a little tax there. So we are all paying for it one way or the other; this is just going to be very much upfront. Part of the money will go to actually running the ESTA computer system and the rest of it will go to the national tourism agency.

TSS: After the collapse of the totalitarian regime, the US became the most popular destination for Slovak students; also a quite accessible destination since the US government and universities offered various scholarships for students from the former East bloc. Has the situation changed considerably since then?

KE: The US still is seen as an attractive destination for students all over the world. There was a little blip downward after September 2001, especially for some countries where the visa process became too complicated. I don’t think that was a problem in Slovakia or anywhere in Europe. US universities are seen both on the undergraduate and graduate levels as some of the finest in the world. We approach education in a way that is attractive for students, we have a lot of different university training programmes, ranging from the very highest level – private universities – to smaller local universities, all of which offer certain things to students – whether they are from Slovakia or anywhere else. We also have university programmes that central Europeans appreciated which are built like work-study programmes where there is opportunity to make some money and those numbers are quite strong.

For example the Fulbright Program worldwide has been a tremendous programme both for the US in bringing qualified professors and others to the US and also for the country from which they come, because when they return, they take home a view that is more realistic than what you get from television, movies, and those kinds of things. That’s not always perfect; we don’t claim to be perfect

TSS: Is Slovakia still an attractive destination for US businesses? What are the concerns that investors might have regarding the Slovak business environment?

KE: I had dinner recently in Kosice with representatives of three major US investors there and they all continue to believe that the environment is good. What’s hard to separate is the financial crisis in what it means for investment from changes in the business climate in a single country, be it Slovakia or some other country in the region. Quite frankly, we continue to have some concerns about transparency. Business leaders come to ask us: are there problems in Slovakia with corruption, free and fair decision-making? We have to tell them that at times there are. We talk about it in our human rights report and in our so-called “business climate statement” that the Commerce Department puts out every year.

We are heartened by some steps that we’ve seen in past few weeks: decisions made by acting environment minister Dušan Čaplovič to do some house-cleaning in the Environment Ministry, which is a positive step with positive implications for American business. We are encouraged by some of the efforts that we’ve seen to enforce anti-corruption laws, active prosecution of people involved in corrupt activities. That’s the kind of positive statement that will encourage American businesses to continue to invest here.

We also hear from businesses and individuals that they worry about the independence of the judicial system in the sense of enforcing laws. Will they get a fair trial? Will they get a fair decision in the courts? And it’s something that we remain aware of; those are concerns and complaints and it’s something that we talk to the Slovak government about.

TSS: In Slovakia there is obvious tension between some state officials and the press and international organizations, including the International Press Institute, have already warned about the tendency of Slovak state officials to demand hefty damages in civil court trials. How do you view these developments?

KE: The US believes that a free and independent press is one of the foundation stones of an effective, active democracy. When we contribute to the development of international standards, whether they are those of the United Nations, the OSCE, or anywhere else where we are a part of a group, we push for very open, very free, very unconstrained press and media. It’s the first Amendment to our Constitution. In Europe, we understand that the press law is more restrictive than in the US, but European countries still encourage a free independent media, and that’s what most important. Within the OSCE context, be it Slovakia or another country, we will continue to urge the most open and free and independent media that can exist within these laws: local laws, OSCE norms, European norms. In the case of Slovakia, when the press code was adopted in 2008, we spoke to the Slovak government and it was discussed within an OSCE forum in Vienna; we made our views very clear and encouraged as much openness as possible.

There are times when the press gets things wrong and times when the press can be annoying, but on a whole, we are willing to put up with some of those annoyances, because we recognise the broader value.

TSS: Corporate social responsibility is still not a broadly-known concept in Slovakia, though initiatives are getting stronger. What are the US experiences that Slovakia might use in this area?

KE: It partly reflects American values. We’re all part of a community, whether we are an individual, family, neighbourhood or whether we are company and the government is never going to be able to do everything for that community. Individuals and companies must help out as well. Corporate social responsibility is being pushed by organizations like the Pontis Foundation; volunteerism is being pushed by NGOs and these initiatives are something that we embassies kind of unofficially encourage. I was very happy that we had 20 to 25 embassy employees at Naša Bratislava and we’ve got embassy employees working in their own time with Roma students. This is a way to give back to the community in which we live, whether we’re here just for three years or whether we’re here for an entire life. I am very proud that American corporations are a big part of this, so when they started something like Naše Kosice a year ago, U.S. Steel was a big participant.

I also think there is a progression; that as the years pass, people recognise more and more how important it is to give back to their community.

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