'Obama and Radičová have a shared interest'

SMART and successful Slovak entrepreneurs would serve much better as positive role models for Slovaks than someone like Bill Gates: so believes Theodore Sedgwick, the ambassador of the United States of America to Slovakia, adding that young people need inspiration to be innovative and perhaps start small businesses, which are often in a better position to provide jobs than large corporations. Ambassador Sedgwick also thinks it might be a good idea for government institutions to have an office for ethics, and appreciates efforts to open up the government to greater public control.

US Ambassador Theodore Sedgwick US Ambassador Theodore Sedgwick (Source: Courtesy of US Embassy)

SMART and successful Slovak entrepreneurs would serve much better as positive role models for Slovaks than someone like Bill Gates: so believes Theodore Sedgwick, the ambassador of the United States of America to Slovakia, adding that young people need inspiration to be innovative and perhaps start small businesses, which are often in a better position to provide jobs than large corporations. Ambassador Sedgwick also thinks it might be a good idea for government institutions to have an office for ethics, and appreciates efforts to open up the government to greater public control.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Sedgwick about the recent meeting between Prime Minister Iveta Radičová and US President Barack Obama; how 9/11 has changed the lives of Americans; the situation in the eurozone; and also young Slovaks’ interest in his country.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): US President Barack Obama invited Slovak Prime Minister Iveta Radičová to attend the forum of the Open Government Partnership. What is the significance of such an invitation for Slovakia?

Theodore Sedgwick (TS): The prime minister visited New York first for the United Nations General Assembly, but she was very interested in participating and having Slovakia as a member of the Open Government Partnership. The United States, under President Obama’s leadership, and Brazil are reaching out to the entire world to encourage membership in this organisation for open government and transparency. Iveta Radičová, since she has had many initiatives in this area, was interested in participating. She has made the commitment to include civil society in government decisions through the plenipotentiary for civil society here. President Obama and Prime Minister Radičová have a shared interest in opening up government processes to civil society and using the advantages of modern technology to bring more transparency to this process. So definitely, it’s never just a picture that leaders get during such meetings. President Obama was already familiar with Prime Minister Radičová’s commitment to open government before actually meeting her. There weren’t many countries involved; maybe 40 to 46. At the same time as this official meeting was happening there was a separate meeting at Google’s New York headquarters where civil society organisations and members of various ministries from all the participating countries got together and shared best practices in open government. It wasn’t just a meeting where people said: open government is great, let’s celebrate it. It was a meeting of people who made a commitment and they, including Slovakia, need to submit an action plan by March for how their governments are going to implement the agreements. So it’s very significant and very good for all those who participate.

TSS: During the meeting, President Obama said he appreciated the steps taken by Radičová’s cabinet in bringing greater transparency to government. Which of these steps was most appreciated and where do you see room for improvement in the area of transparency?

TS: The government has made very positive steps in this direction, first of all in making contracts and tenders public online so that the whole process of government procurement becomes more transparent. At the same time, there have been many concerns about the judiciary and the fact that it has had a very odd process of decisions, for example. It’s a big step forward that now,
pursuant to some legislation, verdicts for example are to be made public.

In the judicial process in particular, the more transparency there is, the more confidence society has in the system. Yet it is one thing to enact these pieces of legislation and another important thing to make sure that the implementation of legislation is carried out properly; to see how judges are chosen, while making sure that all these verdicts are available online. Even technically, it’s a very difficult process.

I was struck recently when we had an interesting visit by the head of the [US] Government Office of Ethics: we have such an office in the White House and we have a similar office at each of our ministries in the US. I am not arguing that our system is the best in the world, but we make an effort in that area. When the representative came there was no counterpart in the Slovak government. And when people ask what else could be done, maybe there might be a Slovak office for ethics at government institutions that would make sure that these kinds of measures are carried out.

TSS: Ten years have passed since 9/11, the worst attack on the US since the end of WWII. How has the US changed over the past decade in terms of awareness of the terrorist threat?

TS: It was a tremendous psychological blow to the country. We had not been attacked as a country since Pearl Harbor in 1941. We Americans are so used to our freedom and we don’t like any restrictions on that. Now we have to balance our desire for freedom against our desire for security. Our way of life has really changed, probably permanently, so that now we have to incorporate into our daily lives precautions about security. Of course, sometimes people become more concerned about security, and sometimes they simply say ‘We’re now paying a bigger price for our security by restricting our civil rights’. Then it shifts back in the other direction. So there is a debate in our country about going back and forth. Some people want more restrictions and some think there are too many restrictions. But I think that most of our citizens now, after this attack, agree with most of the changes that have happened and I think the US and Slovakia will both together address many of these challenges.

This has been quite a positive week for US-Slovak relations, and yesterday [September 26] we had four US government agencies meeting with ten Slovak government agencies to address the issue of nuclear smuggling, which is a terrorist activity. The American officials said they have worked around the region with 22 different countries, and that their work with the Slovaks was among the most successful relationships in terms of the level of expertise and cooperation. All this will hopefully result in an agreement between our governments to address this issue. Another example of the connection in this area is Major-General Martin Umbarger from the Indiana National Guard, who has been made an honorary citizen of Bratislava, while I would also like to list the very successful mission by Slovaks in Afghanistan, which is also directed against terrorism.

TSS: Human trafficking remains a serious issue, since over 10 million people fall victim to this phenomenon annually worldwide. According to reports, Slovakia has achieved progress in combating human trafficking, advancing from the second grade to the top grade in the USA’s three-grade scale. What factors have helped Slovakia to progress and what areas remain problematic?

TS: Slovakia should be very proud of its progress made in combating people trafficking. Our government’s State Department issues a report every year. There are only three countries in the world that rose from tier two to tier one and Slovakia was one of them. Of the factors, I think training of judges and prosecutors, as well as cooperation between police, judges, prosecutors and all law-enforcement agencies have improved. In addition to that, Slovakia does an extremely good job in taking care of the victims of trafficking.

TSS: A survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund suggests that the popularity of President Obama in Slovakia is fading. While last year about 76 percent of Slovaks supported him as the leader of the US, this year he would be supported by 58 percent of respondents here. What, in your opinion, are the reasons behind this drop?

TS: I was surprised to see a drop like this because in my conversations with people around Slovakia President Obama is very popular. Although there was a drop, the figure, 58 percent, is still very positive. Not so long ago, the figure was 18-19 percent and to go from 18 to 58 percent is still very positive. It’s higher than what we have in the US itself. I think generally in Europe, President Obama remains very popular. We’ll have to wait till next year to see if this was just a blip or it is a trend. It’s possible, since this poll was taken in June, that maybe the Libyan campaign was unpopular. Also, maybe the expectations of President Obama were very high and they thought that Obama would solve all problems immediately. Obviously, that’s not possible for anybody. Certainly, his popularity has diminished here as in the US, maybe because people looked to the US for economic leadership and the economic results have been disappointing.

But Slovaks generally like President Obama and the reason for his popularity is that he believes in a multilateral approach and he believes it is important to consult with allies, while he is a very good listener. In the US, he has tackled some very sensitive issues, for example the health-care bill, and so it’s not surprising that his popularity in respect of domestic policy would be lower than his popularity overseas, where people see that he is really trying to listen to them and work with them.

TSS: US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been urging eurozone leaders to find a lasting solution to their debt troubles and the bailout mechanisms. What is your view of the current situation? What are the US’s concerns in this area?

TS: The United States on the one hand firmly believes that this is a European matter and that Slovaks and Europeans need to figure out the solution to it. We do feel that this problem needs to be addressed and to be addressed very quickly because the biggest economic partnership in the world is obviously the trade between the United States and Europe. If Europe suffers then the United States suffers as well. We do not want to see a deterioration of the economic situation. Secretary Geithner has said that the crisis in Europe is the most serious risk confronting the world economy. He wants to make sure that the contagion is limited. How this is done is obviously up to the Europeans to decide, but he is very concerned about bank solvency and other issues that could drag down the European economy and therefore adversely affect the United States.

TSS: Slovakia has dropped on the global competitiveness chart, according to the latest Global Competitiveness Index. How do US investors view the country’s business environment and which areas, in your opinion, are in need of the most urgent improvement?

TS: Slovakia continues to be very attractive for US and foreign investment. We have seen a small pickup since the global crisis and we have seen more American companies taking an interest in Slovakia. Now we have Honeywell, which has provided many jobs in eastern Slovakia. They have two operations in Slovakia. Last year we had the arrival of Amazon and Google in Bratislava. It is amazing to me to see all the big names in IT in the United States here in Slovakia: IBM, HP, Dell, Cisco, Microsoft and Amazon.

Then, if you look at the actual indicators, it did not appear that the drop [in the ranking] was a result of a worse economic environment here but it is more the result of other countries surpassing Slovakia in some categories. Corruption continues to be a problematic factor and I think this goes back to the judiciary; when I talk to businesses it is a major concern. No business wants to come into a country where they do not feel they are guaranteed to get a fair trial. Slovakia has been improving in government bureaucracy, but obviously more progress could have been made. Interestingly, Slovakia rated quite well in institutions, infrastructure and basic requirements such as health, the macro-economic environment including the flat tax and flexible Labour Code, and for its ample labour pool.

I was surprised that in the area of innovation Slovakia has a very low score and I think this is more of a cultural phenomenon. Slovakia could benefit more from programmes encouraging entrepreneurial spirit and more risk taking. I think successful economies around the world are the ones which are more risk taking and often the jobs are created by smaller businesses which start from nothing and grow. Since my arrival in Slovakia I have met quite a few very successful entrepreneurs and Slovak businesses. The government often says let’s go and have a trip to Silicon Valley and that is very worthwhile, since the place has a lot of business models that can be applied. But I think it is also important to recognise these successful entrepreneurs in Slovakia and hold them up, showing them as role models to Slovak citizens.

It is very important to look up to successful Slovaks and not to Bill Gates. Showing that this can be done in this country, that it has been done in this country and that there have been quite a few very smart, very successful entrepreneurs who built very successful companies: this would be beneficial. These people need to be given more visibility and encouraged to put themselves in front of young people, to inspire them. Young people are often averse to risk. Anybody would be in their twenties: it’s much easier to get a safe job than to risk everything. That’s understandable. It needs to change over time. In successful economies around the world risk is a big factor, and risk is a cultural phenomenon. We’ve lost on that edge in the US too, and we need to recapture the entrepreneurial spirit that we had. We need to invest more into science, technology, and entrepreneurship.

TSS: Which areas of Slovakia’s economy are interesting for US investors? Where do you see the greatest, yet least explored potential?

TS: We are very active in the steel industry in this country. Then comes the automotive industry, since much of the GDP here is created by the automotive sector. There are opportunities for people who would service that industry. Insurance is an opportunity along with the health-care sector, as privatisation is taking place. Telecoms, renewable energy and franchising are possibilities too. Tourism has much more potential here as well.

TSS: Every year, young Slovaks take part in the Work and Travel programme. After the Velvet Revolution there was immense interest among young people in travelling to the United States. Are young people still interested in going there?

TS: Our job here at the embassy is to promote the relationship between Slovakia and the US and the image of the US. What I have observed is that there is nothing more valuable than sending Slovaks to the US. It doesn’t matter what they do, whether they wash dishes in a resort. If they get to go to the US and experience it, there is no substitute for that. I can talk to people here as much as I want about what it’s like in Montana or how wonderful the US is, but if we can get people to go there and experience it, that’s the best benefit. Then they come back and help to promote the relationship. I think there is still a big interest among Slovaks. When I talk to Slovaks who have been to the US, they had a very good experience. We’re also very lucky to have Fulbright here, which indeed is a great exchange programme.

TSS: All the US ambassadors to Slovakia have been very enthusiastic travellers. What is your perception of the difference between Bratislava and the rest of Slovakia?

TS: Because of the nature of my work I need to spend substantial time here in Bratislava. But I think it’s important to remember that I am the ambassador to Slovakia, not Bratislava. I really enjoy the opportunity to get out. I keep struggling for more of that, because I don’t want to go to some town and come back in two hours. I want to get the feeling of what it’s like.

It’s a small country but I am sure that even after all the travels I will have done during my term here, I will have just scratched the surface. Because every time I go to some region I discover something new and interesting that I’ve never seen before.

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