The best diplomacy: travel, education exchange

THEODORE Sedgwick believes that for diplomats it is important to talk to the average person in order to better understand the country. “I really enjoyed my contact with so many Slovaks all over the country,” said Sedgwick, the US ambassador to Slovakia, who is serving his fourth year here as a diplomat. A passionate traveller himself, Sedgwick says Slovakia has much to offer as a tourist destination, and also as an important player in regional security.

US Ambassador Theodore SedgwickUS Ambassador Theodore Sedgwick (Source: Jana Liptáková)

THEODORE Sedgwick believes that for diplomats it is important to talk to the average person in order to better understand the country. “I really enjoyed my contact with so many Slovaks all over the country,” said Sedgwick, the US ambassador to Slovakia, who is serving his fourth year here as a diplomat. A passionate traveller himself, Sedgwick says Slovakia has much to offer as a tourist destination, and also as an important player in regional security.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You accompanied Slovak President Andrej Kiska during his first official trip to the United States. What are, in your opinion, the most significant outcomes of this trip?
Theodore Sedgwick (TS):
It is not one of the trips when people go on a mission and then you never get anything from it. There will be a number of consequential follow-ups for Slovakia in start-up companies. I am very excited that the culture for start-ups in Slovakia seems to be dynamic. One observation I had, which leads me to believe that this will be a successful trip, is that this is an all-government project, not only President Kiska as a successful entrepreneur himself, but also Prime Minister Robert Fico is committed to developing the legislative framework.For example [Slovak] Education Minister Peter Pellegrini is very interested in online education, and that’s a booming area in the United States, as we saw when we visited MIT and Stanford.

On the plane there were twelve already very successful Slovak entrepreneurs. I think Slovakia has a good base because the country has many role models now. There was a specific opening of the Slovak-American Innovation Centre (ISA) in San Diego which is very exciting because Anton Zajac, who was one of the founders of ISA, has already got the list of companies signed up for this innovation centre. This is an example where things are actually happening.

TSS: Environmentalists have criticised the United States for what they called a rather lukewarm approach to global warming, when it comes to emissions policies. Earlier this year President Barack Obama’s administration proposed a 30 percent cut in carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants by 2030, one of the most significant actions to curb the key gas linked to global warming. What is the response of business to the proposal?
There is a big debate in the US about global warming, and I think at least President Barack Obama and Secretary John Kerry are very committed to address the issue, as they think the global warming is a serious threat. The Congress is more divided on the issue. Much of the industry is opposed to it, although many companies, including some of the big energy companies, surprisingly, are in favour of taking steps. As we didn’t sign Kyoto, maybe some countries think we are not serious about addressing climate change. Our position is not that we would not want to reduce our emissions; in fact, we have brought down our emissions significantly. I think that was more of a process and commitment on the part of developing countries and wealthy countries. Hopefully we can work all this out. President Obama has taken orders not only on power-plant emission reduction, but also on auto fuel standards, which are very significant.

TSS: The EU and US are negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which brought along some intense debates. What do you see as the most sensitive points of the talks?
This will be the largest trade agreement in the history of the world, and while both Europe and the US want to get it right, they are not trying to rush and get something that’s not the right agreement for both parties. There are many thorny issues, but for example the European Commission made it clear that we are not going to compromise any of the food safety standards. We would not ask Europeans to eat anything they don’t want to eat. The good thing is that the consumers have the widest possible choice. We are advocating for consumer choice and, but Europe is not going to accept anything that Europeans don’t want. I know it is a sensitive area, but when people step back, they will see the broad benefits that this agreement brings, particularly to a country like Slovakia which is an open, export-oriented economy. The sector that will benefit the most in Europe is the auto sector. There are projections that European exports to United States could increase by up to 149 percent. Even if you say that’s way too optimistic and it’s likely to be half of that, there’ll definitely be a huge increase in exports of cars from Europe to the US. This will, naturally, benefit Slovakia, where the auto sector is such an important part of the economy.

TSS: Slovakia, along with other countries in Europe, faces problems with supplies of Russian natural gas via Ukraine as a consequence of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This has re-opened a discussion on the export of oil and gas from the US to the EU and that such an obligation should become part of TTIP. How do you view this discussion and this possibility?
It’s very important that we all want Ukraine to succeed and so the role that Slovakia is playing in this reverse flow is extremely important and laudable. I think with the US exports, the shale revolution will make it possible to export a lot of energy out of the US and there have been a lot of export terminals approved, but it will take a long time to build these terminals. The infrastructure also needs to be developed here, in Europe. European countries also need to build more interconnections, and it will take a long time. But I think in the long term, it will be an interesting option.

TSS: When responding to the Ukrainian crisis, some Slovak state officials suggested that “it is a conflict between Russia and the United States for influence over Ukraine”. How do you view such claims? How would you describe the position of the US in this conflict?
We don’t see this somehow as a renewal of the Cold War, because the world has advanced far beyond the Cold War. This is not about a conflict between two super-powers; it is really all about the right of the Ukrainian people to turn their own destiny and to control their own sovereignty. This is a very serious issue because once a country uses force to change the border and once you start accepting and going down that track, then you further encourage such aggression and changing borders elsewhere. We are very concerned about military activity in the eastern Ukraine. For us it’s not a matter of for or against a particular country: it’s a matter of allowing the Ukrainians themselves to determine their own destiny and not be subject to military occupation or pressure. We had hoped that military force would no longer be used as a way of changing borders in Europe, we thought that was a thing of past.

TSS: The Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange celebrates 20 years of operation in Slovakia. How do you assess the programme and its contributions? Has its importance changed over the past two decades?
It’s a phenomenal programme. The more I’ve had experience as ambassador, the more I realise that the best performance of all is when you can get Americans to Slovakia and Slovaks to the US and have these kinds of amazing experiences. The government here is committed and very supportive of this program. Like with everything, there is a lot of pressure on our budgets in the US, but fortunately, in the case of the Fulbright program, the funding has been stable. In Slovakia, there have been more than 600 American-Slovak grantees in the 20 years of the programme, which is phenomenal. There is a wonderful quote from Senator Fulbright saying that his goal setting up the programme was “to provide a little more knowledge, a little more reason and a little more compassion for world affairs”. Fulbright alumni have been recipients of 44 Noble prizes, 86 Pulitzer prizes, 28 McArthur Foundation awards, and 16 US presidential medals of freedom.

TSS: Which sectors of Slovakia’s economy do you see as prospective for US investors? Have the opportunities been fully tapped?
The IT sector is very attractive for American companies and it impresses me that I can’t name a major American IT company which is not here in Slovakia. In IT, there is a huge area of talent. Companies such as AT&T, IBM, Dell, Cisco and Amazon come here because of skilled workers and these jobs will not migrate somewhere else simply because some other country can provide cheaper labour. This is the value added knowledge industry.

But it would be a mistake to ignore manufacturing because Slovaks are skilled in building cars and making steel, while manufacturing activities provide a lot of jobs. Slovakia needs to make sure that the business climate is still attractive for manufacturing because it would be a mistake to outsource all of these to other countries.

TSS: In your recent interview for one Slovak daily you said that not many Americans know about Slovakia. What could Slovakia do to draw more US tourists and promote itself on the world map?
It’s a shame that many Americans seem to travel to Vienna, Prague or Budapest, but they often bypass Bratislava or when they come here they stay only for a few hours and do not leave much money here. Yet, Slovakia has so much to offer. For example, there is certainly a potential for hundreds or thousands of Slovaks living in the US to engage in Slovak heritage tourism and research their ancestors. You have wine tourism and many Americans love wine.
Very few people know that you have exquisite Gothic-era churches and I myself would like to do the Gothic Route from Levoča.

TSS: You have a background in the publishing industry. What are the biggest challenges the publishing industry faces today? Are these challenges different in the US and Europe?
The challenges are the same in the United States and in Europe: how to deal with the increasingly digital world. It is getting harder to find physical newspapers in major cities but is easy to go on an iPad and download the newspapers. Nevertheless, there is an interesting phenomenon: the subscription service, Piano, which has become a big player not only in Europe, but has also bought a major acquisition in the United States. I am very pleased that the model of having people pay for content is working because you cannot just keep giving away information for free while publications can’t just rely on online advertising. When people are paying money for the product, they value it more. It is a challenge, too, how people get reliable information, since there are many websites but you do not necessarily know where the information comes from. There is still an important role for the traditional media companies to play: they serve as a filtering mechanism so that the reader gets reliable and objective information.

TSS: The US Embassy in Bratislava has been criticised for its high and strong fence on the Hviezdoslavovo square and an agreement was reached that the embassy would move to a different location. What progress has been made in this matter? How do you view the discussion around this issue?
Due to the security environment and the emergence of new terrorist threats, it is very important for embassies to be adequately protected. Some local politicians want us to remove the fence, but we can’t do that. We were willing to change it to something more attractive but that was not acceptable. So we agreed to move the embassy and we’re actively looking for a new site. We hope to stay in the downtown as our daily work involves being in contact with others – with the other ministries or journalists – so it’s important that we are able to be part of the community. Changing the location will take five to seven years and it is not because we are trying to delay the process. We are working very closely with the mayor’s office during the process.

TSS: You have been in Slovakia for four years already. What surprised you the most here in Slovakia, something you did not expect?
Slovakia was a wonderful experience. There are so many places to discover and people are very friendly everywhere you go. One of those things which surprised me a bit is when Slovaks told me they are citizens of a very small country and there is little they can contribute. But in my job I found that in so many areas Slovakia is very successful: Slovakia has military diplomats all over the world, in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Bosnia and Gaza and is making significant contributions. I have been impressed by the EU structure where small countries have a similarly important voice as big countries. So I hope that Slovaks will recognise that their country is a major player in world affairs and that it has a very important voice.

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