THEODORE Sedgwick is a person who does not like the prospect of foreign news coverage diminishing from leading television news channels and from print periodicals because of dwindling advertising. Sedgwick, the Ambassador of the United States to Slovakia, believes that American citizens need foreign news as it is essential for creating a healthy and informed dialogue about the country’s foreign policy and believes the same is true for any other country. Without citizens being informed about global events, it is difficult – if not impossible – to have such a necessary dialogue.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Sedgwick about some key foreign policy issues pursued by the Obama administration, about the new ESTA fee that tourists to the US must pay, about his views on Slovakia’s current business environment, about the challenges of the publishing business from which he hails, and the future of education exchanges such as those sponsored by the Fulbright Program. Sedgwick, who says he is here to listen, observe and converse with Slovak society, also shared his priorities for his ambassadorial term.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): As of September, US-bound tourists are charged a fee for the administration of the Electronic System of Travel Authorisation (ESTA). Why has the US opted to charge this fee and how will these funds be used?
Theodore Sedgwick (TS): The Electronic System of Travel Authorisation (ESTA) fee is $14 and of this sum $4 will go specifically to support the electronic system and $10 will fund our new tourism agency. It is an interesting development that we in the United States are establishing a tourism agency.
Perhaps we had taken for granted that people wanted to come to visit the United States and it is perhaps a reflection of the new US administration’s thinking that we are now allies and friends on a more equal level and that we need to reach out and make ourselves more attractive and invite people to visit. I know that people are complaining about this fee. But every country except the United States has a certain kind of tourism bureau and they all have a certain way of paying for it either as some kind of airport tax or fees at hotels. No matter where you travel you will be paying to support the local tourism bureau in some fashion or the other; maybe even if it is a little hidden. We are being explicit about it – saying this is the fee and this is how we are going to use it. In the large scheme, this is a very small amount of money.
TSS: How do you assess the visa-free regime with Slovakia so far?
TS: My understanding is that there have been very few problems and it has been very warmly welcomed by Slovaks. I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor Vincent Obsitnik who was here for a short period but was strongly focused on this issue. Slovaks really wanted visa-free entry and I am very glad that my government was able to deliver this. I also do want to point out that for countries that are not in the visa-waiver program a visa costs $140. Being included is a big advantage for Slovaks.
TSS: You have just started your mission in Slovakia. What will your priorities be for your term?
TS: What I find striking is how my priorities are very similar to the priorities of the new government here in Slovakia: it wants to focus on business development, on better quality education, particularly higher education, and they want to bring more innovation. While we will not be able to create innovation in Slovakia we certainly can bring in experts and expertise to assist Slovakia in any way we can.
I have a business background and my ambition is to attract more businesses to Slovakia. I am very aware that the automotive sector has been widely successful in Slovakia but I think the government knows that they cannot put all their eggs in one basket. They will try to attract more investment to the information technology sector. We are working with the government to attract those kinds of companies to Slovakia. Slovakia has a good base for that because we already have strong IT companies here, for example Hewlett Packard and Dell.
My priority, of course, is also to advance the foreign policy agenda of President Obama and I do want to express gratitude to Slovakia for working with the United States on many security issues.
TSS: Foreign diplomats have become quite frequent visitors to court hearings in Slovakia and some of them have been rather outspoken about their concerns for the independence of Slovakia’s judiciary. Why is the judiciary under such a close watch by the diplomatic community and how could diplomatic concerns about the independence of courts affect the country?
TS: This is a problem which is not unique to Slovakia but shared by the region.
One of the reasons why I am particularly concerned is that some US businesses here that I have met expressed their concerns about going to court and receiving a fair trial. We do not attend these judicial proceedings in any way to try to influence internal proceedings; it is more of symbolic importance that we monitor whether these judicial proceedings are fair, open and public. Thankfully, the government has expressed its desire to achieve greater integrity in the judiciary.
The integrity of the judiciary is crucial for the functioning of society. The fact that the business community is concerned is serious since their presence here is a matter of jobs. If I am to go out and attract US businesses to Slovakia, the only way I can do so is if the businesses are assured that they will get a fair hearing when they have to go to court. This is a critical element in attracting business.
The federal judge in the US who swore me in has been to Slovakia before, working with officials here to highlight the importance of integrity in the judiciary. We are having a conference coming up quite soon [September 13] where representatives of our justice department are coming here to work with the Slovak Ministry of Justice.
TSS: Is the Slovak business environment still attractive for foreign investors? What aspects might be discouraging for investors and what are the perceived strengths of the business environment here?
TS: Overall the business environment has been viewed as positive. The concerns businesses have expressed to me have to do with infrastructure, railroads, and the high cargo fees on the railroads; and they all also expressed concerns about the integrity of the judiciary. The number one priority for both Slovakia and the United States is jobs. It is important that we can think together and find ways to promote jobs and remove obstacles to creating them.
There is a company, for example, that ships products to Hungary that is located very close to the Hungarian border. There are many holidays in Slovakia when they are not allowed to ship, as well as on weekends. I might try to raise this issue with the Slovak government.
TSS: Are the qualifications of the labour force of concern to the American business community?
TS: It is a very significant issue. I visited the Technical University in Košice and I was impressed by the breath of offerings it has and its cooperation with companies where there are ventures where the company provides funding for the technical education of a worker and then the graduate goes to work with that company, such as U.S. Steel and others. This is a great model.
The government has highlighted this as one of the issues that needs to be improved as it focuses on the quality of higher education here. In the US, we are concerned about the quality of our grammar and secondary schools but we are proud of the quality of our higher education programs which I think have been a key to our economic success.
TSS: The Fulbright Program and its international academic exchanges have always had very high prestige in Slovakia. Will the US continue supporting academic exchange programs and bringing foreign scholars to the US?
TS: Before I came here I met with the assistant secretary for education and more than half of our conversation involved the Fulbright Program so I have no doubt that we are heavily committed to it. It is striking to me how our visitor programs impact relationships with countries and I hope that our government and our congress recognise this. I do not think we will see any lessening of the emphasis. The last government also increased Slovakia’s contribution to the Fulbright Program.
TSS: In 1978, at the age of 29, you were editing an energy sector newsletter and later bought a 70 percent stake in the publication for $70,000. Since then you turned that purchase into Pasha Publications, a publisher of 15 newsletters. There has been a continuous discourse about the publishing business being in crisis and the internet slowly killing much of the print media. What do you think?
TS: It is an extremely challenging business. The bad news is that advertising for the very large, successful and authoritative publications has diminished while the good news is that new technology and the internet is enabling skilled journalists in many cases to have stronger voices in the dialogue with the consumers of information. I think the challenge is going to be in the consumption aspect – when a news consumer needs to determine which of the authoritative voices are reliable and which are not.
By and large, it will be a positive move because experienced journalists are gaining other media to reach out to the consumer. Frankly, the problem I am concerned about is how much foreign news coverage is being diminished among the leading television channels because of a lack of advertising. The New York Times and the Washington Post are suffering in the same way even though they have provided very rich coverage of foreign issues. I am now concerned about the quality of the dialogue in the United States and we need to have a healthy dialogue about foreign policy. It is difficult to do so unless you have an informed and knowledgeable public. On the other hand, journalists now have other channels through which to communicate and that is the positive side of it.
I think the issue here is very similar to the issue in the United States: the average consumer is interested in pocketbook issues: how they are going to put bread on their table and feed their family. Both countries have higher levels of unemployment than they would like so both are focused on these economic issues. I think people understand that by and large it is important to promote free trade and dialogue because this is how we are going to create jobs. But it is a hard message to sell sometimes.
TSS: Afghanistan is certainly an important international issue calling for a wider discourse. What are the main challenges in Afghanistan now and what is the role of countries such as Slovakia?
TS: What I find exciting is that Slovakia’s participation is not only military but also in the area of civil society and this is extremely important. We have an expression in boxing that a person punches above his weight and Slovakia in many respects – not only in its participation in Afghanistan but also in its role on the world stage – punches above its weight. While we are very grateful for the troop deployment, just as important are Slovak NGOs which help impoverished women and children who I’m sure really appreciate Slovakia’s efforts.
The Indiana National Guard, which has a very close relationship with the Slovak Army, sponsored very intensive training in the area of agriculture. The problem in Afghan rural society is that they have had war for two generations so they have young family members who do not even know what their predecessors knew 100-200 years ago. So these Indiana soldiers, who in many cases come from farms in that state, are teaching young people the very basics of farming. This is also an area where Slovak knowledge could assist. These specific training programmes in agriculture and assistance for women are critical to success in Afghanistan. The solution cannot only be military.
TSS: Slovakia is among the countries which agreed to accept former Guantanamo detainees and then help them to re-integrate into society. Why was the participation of countries like Slovakia in this process important for the United States?
TS: We are extremely grateful to Slovakia for accepting the three detainees. The Ministry of Interior is doing an excellent job in monitoring the detainees and putting them on a path of integrating into society. This is a very challenging issue in the United States. President Obama made a pledge to close down the prison and he is honouring that pledge. Frankly, it was an international human rights issue and the US was criticised and President Obama wanted to correct this. But there is a category of prisoners about whom we did not have enough information to prosecute but nor could we release them into society either for political or domestic reasons and we also could not return them to their home countries for human rights reasons. Our state department approached our friends in Europe and we are extremely grateful that this has been a successful programme. This is another example of how Slovakia is punching above its weight and it is very tangible, not only symbolic.
TSS: Another intensely discussed issue was the US decision to change its plans regarding a missile defence system in central and eastern European. How do you view it?
TS: There was originally an incorrect impression that the US was abandoning central Europe when we changed the missile defence architecture and that we would be pulling our bases out. What we did was to adapt our approach to a new security situation. The missile defence system is going to be deployed in the very near future. President Obama’s way of dealing with the world involves more consultation and listening to others in the world, so we consulted at great length with the Czech Republic, Poland and even Slovakia, even though your country does not plan to have bases located here, to change the architecture to position it to better respond to current threats. We are also maintaining a dialogue with the Russian government and involving them in our discussions about the missile defence system. It is not always easy, but it is important.
13. Sep 2010 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová