The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The US Embassy has been active in the fight against extremism in Slovakia: notably, you organised the visit of Christian Picciolini. Why is this topic of particular interest for you?
Adam Sterling (AS): We brought Mr Picciolini here three times and exposed him to about 3,500 students around the country. We are planning some more follow-up activities to his visit, to develop a school curriculum Slovak teachers could use in schools to teach about extremism, using excerpts from Picciolini’s autobiography. We’re also looking at the possibility of a future project with the Justice Ministry to develop a way of using the book in prisons.
This topic really gets to the essence of the US-Slovak relationship. We are friends, partners, and allies, because we share democratic values like the rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of expression, etc. Yet extremism, or as I prefer to call it, hate movements, runs counter to these values. Hate movements have never done good for any society, they’ve only led to disaster – so we see it very much in the interest of our country and the importance of our relationship with Slovakia to do what we can to contribute to the efforts in this country to counter extremism.
TSS: Hybrid war, fuelled by hoaxes and fake news, is one of the main security concerns for the entire western world, while voices calling for regulation of social networks, particularly Facebook, are growing stronger in Europe. How is this problem viewed in the US and do you see space for a joint approach?
AS: This is coming from Russia, which uses social media as an important part of a larger campaign using bots, trolls, fake news, to undermine democratic institutions. To counter it requires an effort across society. It’s not just for the social media managers. I actually had dinner recently with a young Slovak who is working at Facebook on this very problem. The Facebooks of the world have their role, but so do conventional media, governments, civil society organisations, schools, IT companies. When it comes to social media regulation, all these actors have to get together and figure out what’s the best approach to counter the misuse of social networks, especially if they are coming, in many cases, from non-people.
TSS: The US is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. How does the US now expect the negotiations with partners to go?
AS: President Trump said that he thought the Paris Agreement as it now stands is not in the economic interests of the United States. He did emphasise, however, that the US is environmentally friendly and is interested in seeing whether the Paris Agreement can be renegotiated so the US could re-enter on terms that better balance the economic burdens with the environmental goals; or he is also open to an entirely new agreement. Secretary of State Tillerson has pointed out that the US has a very strong record already, even before the Paris Agreement, on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2005, US greenhouse gas emissions are down by about 11.5 to 12 percent. The United States will continue reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The question is how to find an agreement that better balances all the considerations. The US is open to working with European and other global partners on finding out how we can best cooperate.
TSS: Some observers are quite sceptical that renegotiating the Paris Agreement will be possible, and there are concerns that the US might be left out. How do you, as a diplomat, see the concerns that this might turn the US into an outsider?
AS: First of all, it is still early since the President’s announcement, and the State Department is going to be doing a review of our diplomatic approach to see where this is going to lead. It’s too early to say exactly what will happen. But as Secretary Tillerson said, the US is part of the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
TSS: The US Embassy in Bratislava is at the centre of attention of the local press in the capital due to the controversy surrounding its fence in the very centre of the city. The municipal council did not prolong the rental contract for the plots under the fence, the fence is subject to evaluation by the local construction office and there is a petition calling for dismantling the fence. What is the current stance of the Embassy to this problem?
AS: We have long been negotiating in good faith with the city about the fence.
The second point is that the lease is under consideration by the City Council. The council has not refused to approve the lease. They have voted on it but just not had enough votes. Under the City Council rules, to pass anything, 60 percent of the members have to vote for something. When it has come up for a vote, there simply have not been enough members present to reach the 27 votes needed, but the votes have been overwhelmingly in favour of a lease. The city is asking the US government to pay a significant amount of money to rent the land and the Embassy has made clear that we are willing to pay the requested amount. We also feel that it is clear that an agreement exists entitling our Embassy to have a security zone.
his is consistent with international commitments for the protection of embassies. As a US embassy, thus we have particular security needs. The most important thing is that we have a good relationship with the city, we’re negotiating in good faith with them, and we have the support of the mayor and the city leadership. The Foreign Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and other parts of the government have expressed their understanding as well.
TSS: When and where will the embassy move?
AS: Our government has decided to build a new embassy in Bratislava, so we would be off the Hviezdoslavovo Square, which will ultimately settle the issue. After a long search the State Department has identified a few sites of interest and we are now negotiating with the owners of the top site on the list; so we hope to acquire the piece of land and then design and build an embassy.
TSS: Slovakia has recently confirmed its commitment to spend 1.6 percent of GDP on defence by 2020. President Trump has repeatedly stated that the US will insist that the allies observe their commitments. How are Slovakia’s efforts viewed in this perspective?
AS: It’s not President Trump who is demanding that Slovakia and other allies spend more. This is a commitment that Slovakia and all other NATO allies made at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defence by 2024. Slovakia, moreover, made an interim commitment to spend 1.6 percent by 2020. So President Trump is not the first US president to say that we would like our allies to live up to the commitments they’ve made. In Slovakia, it’s not just a question of meeting their commitment to the alliance. It’s also in Slovakia’s interest to spend more on its own defence. Defence spending is still below 1.2 percent of GDP. I have been heartened as the US Ambassador by the recent expressions of political will by parliament and by the government to make sure that Slovakia meets the commitment of 1.6 percent by 2020. This is very encouraging. But it must be said that it’s going to be a tough task, because it’s still under 1.2 percent. The Slovak economy is growing very fast, which means it will take even more to reach that target. The Defence Ministry in particular has a big task ahead of it to spend the money in a sensible way to reach the 2020 target and then ultimately the 2024 target.
TSS: Slovakia has already purchased Black Hawks helicopters from the US. Recently, another modernisation project has been approved by the cabinet, while the Defence Ministry also plans to modernise the supersonic aircraft fleet. Do you see any space for cooperation between the US and Slovakia in this regard?
AS: Absolutely, there are a lot of ways that we can and will continue to work together. For some of these modernisation projects Slovakia is considering purchasing US equipment and of course we would be very happy if that happened. It’s important that Slovakia is only looking at planes that are interoperable with NATO rather than the Russian-made planes that Slovakia now flies. We will certainly be looking to train together and at other means of support.
TSS: Expectations were high concerning the TTIP deal. What is the current outlook for the TTIP talks?
AS: There’s still interest in the US in a potential trade agreement with Europe. Trade and investment between Europe and the US are extraordinarily important. Roughly half of global economic production is based on the investment between the US and Europe, and one third of global trade is between the US and Europe. The exact status of TTIP right now is essentially under review. President Trump ordered an analysis from the US Department of Commerce and US Trade Representative about the reasons for US trade deficits. And once the results of that study are in, they will be used to re-evaluate what approach our government wants to take to the negotiations.
TSS: Amazon is building what will be the company’s most modern returns centre in Sereď. What does the selection of Slovakia for such a state-of-the-art centre indicate?
AS: It means a lot for Slovakia. It’s a real sign of confidence that one of America’s premiere companies, and an innovative company that has basically transformed the entire retail sector has the confidence in Slovakia to make this kind of investment. I think it will be good for Slovakia not only because of the jobs it creates but also because Amazon, as an innovative company, will contribute to the innovation eco-system here in Slovakia and help the country to develop its own innovative industries.
TSS: What is attractive about Slovakia for American investors?
AS: There are a lot of opportunities in different sectors. We have about 150 US companies already operating here, they’re attracted by the quality of the labour force in Slovakia, while the geographical location at the centre of Europe and Slovakia’s eurozone membership are also big advantages for companies. Slovakia is certainly unique among the V4 countries as a member of the eurozone. At the same time, I hear concerns from US companies about the business environment, concerns about regulatory barriers, about the labour force in certain sectors, certainly about corruption and the perceived inefficiency of the judicial system.
TSS: The US Embassy has supported several projects focused on education, most recently Generation 3.0 of the Pontis Foundation. Why is it important to support such projects?
AS: In democratic societies you need a good education system to have well-informed citizens that make democracy succeed. During the nine months that I’ve been here, when I meet with both American and Slovak companies, I do frequently hear concerns about the ability to find qualified university graduates in the sorts of knowledge-based sectors that really are the future of the Slovak economy. This is due both to the quality of technical education that many students are getting in universities, as well as their ability to be problem-solvers. We also see an issue when a significant percentage of the Slovak population is effectively limited in its educational opportunities, particularly the Roma. Additionally, we believe that education is a factor in the rise of extremism. Are young Slovaks able to react and understand what they read on the internet when they see disinformation? Can they evaluate it critically? The Pontis Generation 3.0 project is one project that we saw as promising in generating ideas for different kinds of educational reform. We were happy to be able to support it by funding the involvement of a couple of US experts in educational impact assessment. Their skill is in measuring what effect pilot projects are having.
TSS: How do you feel in Slovakia? Did you know much about the country before you came here?
AS: I knew it intellectually but I had never been here before. I worked on Slovakia 10 years ago when I was the Director for Central and Eastern Europe at the White House. It was one of the 17 countries I covered, but I never got to visit. So these nine months have been my first time here. My family has really come to love Slovakia for many reasons. We’re hikers, we love to travel. This country is stunningly beautiful. We love living in Bratislava, we go to a lot of concerts and opera. But also, as somebody who has sort of followed Slovakia over the years, I’m really impressed with how far this country has come in only 23 years. What I find particularly moving about a country that has made so much progress is that the Slovaks I meet are so modest and down-to-earth about it. Slovakia has done remarkably well and I find it so pleasant and easy to deal with the people across the country.
7. Jul 2017 at 12:30 | Michaela Terenzani