Interview with William Cabaniss: US Ambassador to the Czech Republic

As the US ambassador settles into his new job, New Presence publisher Martin Jan Stránský paid him a visit to see how he is adjusting to life in the Czech Republic, and what he hopes his diplomatic mission can achieve.

As a new member in the European Union (EU), the Czech Republic has the fewest derogations going into the EU of all incoming members. Some Czech politicians have criticized Czech negotiators as not negotiating more exemptions, while others have stated that, of all the new members, this means that the Czech Republic is the best prepared. Which do you think is the case?
I believe that it is clearly a complement to the Czech Republic that it is better prepared legally, structurally, financially and economically to be a part of the EU, particularly as compared to its peers that have also recently joined.

What do you think are the most significant positive changes that EU entry will bring to the Czech Republic?
Though the benefits may not be immediate, they will come. But let me say that at the same time, I am hoping that apart from what people say the EU can do for the Czechs, I hope that the Czech Republic and other countries like it will bring good economic judgment to the EU. The Czechs have a long history of industrial success, engineering talent and strong technology. The Czechs need to show the EU their entrepreneurial abilities, and the fact that a good business climate can attract investment and trade. This will serve as a good contrast to some of the slow-growth EU states, which have restrictive work rules. Let me also say that now that the new members are in the EU, the banking and investment community will automatically get more involved. The increased competition among the banks will benefit both business and the ordinary citizen, via better loans, interest rates, etc. Don’t forget that bankers need to be competitive, just like everyone else.

Besides the good news, what potential problems lie ahead?
I always worry about bureaucratic red tape, and I think there will be a lot of that coming out of Brussels. I‘m not sure if the small countries are fully equipped to handle this. Every chance I get, I suggest that the Czech Republic get off on the right foot and submit justified requests for EU funds, particularly for infrastructure projects. I’ve seen states go to sleep and other states take advantage of this, and I hope the Czech Republic is aggressive in this regard.

Internationally, many EU politicians view Czech president Klaus with disdain, due to his tendency to lecture them about the dangers of the EU. Klaus’s relationship with the US and former US Ambassador to Prague Craig Stapleton can best be described as rocky. Despite his being in office over one year, Klaus has yet to be invited to meet his American counterpart. What is your view of Klaus and his office? Will he ever be invited to the White House?
I have had several meetings personally with President Klaus. We are getting to know each other. We talked mostly about economic matters. I have mentioned to the president that I see very few young people working in manufacturing jobs. He also views this as a problem. I hope the country does not lose its valuable resource in young people moving to the manufacturing and tool and die sector. This is something the Czechs were good at. This disturbs me here and at home, because it doesn’t look like the young people want to get their hands dirty anymore.
I firmly believe that government is a people-to-people business. I am not here to change the Czech government or to personalize issues, but to build on good relationships and to be in a position to deal with issues that come up between our two countries that need talking about on a particular issue.
The Czech president can have a lot of influence in what goes on in the country. He can be a strong voice, depending on his ability to convince parliamentarians and the government. He can have a great impact. Ultimately, it depends on the individual and on the respect that he has.
I told President Klaus that I’m confident we can schedule a White House meeting.

In the Czech Republic, as in other post-communist countries, corruption and a lack of transparency in doing business remain major issues.
A lot of improvement needs to be made in this area, particularly in transparency and in creating a level playing field. Corruption continues to be a problem that must be dealt with at all levels of society. The ability of governments and businesses to operate successfully depends on peoples‘ confidence in them. Corruption destroys this confidence. I have to say this recognizing that we in the US have our own challenges with regard to corruption.

Many Europeans, including Czechs, have come to view the United States in a negative light due to its international policy, particularly as regards Iraq. Do you feel that the United States has made some missteps in communicating with its European allies?
Unfortunately, I think that the US has suffered a big hit when it comes to other countries understanding why we went to war with Iraq. I think others tend to forget that there were over 14 UN resolutions that were not kept by the Iraqis. We did not decide to go to war overnight. It is not our policy to act unilaterally. When disasters happen in the world, the US is one of the first to offer assistance. I don’t think our story has been told very well. We don’t publicize our humanitarian efforts, but they are there, and they do show our concern about our fellow man.
Before Madrid, European countries generally had a different viewpoint about terrorism than we did. I don’t think that they understood the American psyche after 9/11, but I think that now, following the heinous crime of Madrid, they have a better impression. However, I can understand some of that disconnect. Nevertheless, our outlook on the way the world operates, on who our friends and enemies are, and on what the threats to democracy are, has changed.
Though there are differences of opinion, I truly believe that some of the leadership in Europe were trying to use our role in Iraq as a means of dividing the North Atlantic Alliance. When you have several strong leaders in Europe contesting the position of the US, that creates a negative impact and an imbalance of opinion. There is always room to improve communication with our European allies.

Thus far, Europe has not been able to create a common defense or anti-terrorist policy. There is evidence that the United States has not acted on all of the intelligence it received from some European countries regarding terrorists. Are there gaps that need to be closed between Europe and the United States regarding the fight against terrorism?
I definitely think that the US and Europe are coming together since Madrid. There has been an awakening on the part of European leaders that terrorism is going on in their back yard. I see close cooperation in the European intelligence communities, and it is getting closer. Furthermore, the intelligence communities are not impacted by any possible negative political decisions of the respective nations.

In the Czech Republic, as in other “coalition“ countries, there is an ongoing debate as to the risk that the country’s support of the US poses in creating an increased terrorist threat.
As far as the Czech Republic being at greater risk for a terrorist attack due to its involvement in Iraq, any country that believes in freedom and democracy is a target. The fact that so many European countries are open democracies means that we are all targets. From what I have seen of the Czech Republic, the country and its leaders are not listening to these threats. They believe in defending democracy here, and I am proud to be part of a country that is doing that.

NATO has now expanded eastward to include the Baltic states. Russia has protested, claiming that this will undermine US-Russian cooperation. Do the Russian protests have any weight?
The countries of NATO and Russia have an open line of communication via the NATO-Russia council, which started several years ago. This ensures that the leadership of NATO and Russia can get together on issues that they have a problem with. Realistically, I think that Russia knows exactly where NATO is heading, and they should not perceive NATO as a threat.

During their tenure in the Czech Republic, each US Ambassador developed a particular interest or area that they engaged in. What are your particular interests as far as the Czech Republic is concerned?
I would love to see the Czech Republic regain the position it had in the First Republic, when it was a major world economic power. I think the best way for the country to improve the quality of life for its people is to attract good and better jobs. You get there by having less red tape, a business climate, and work rules, labor laws and free flow of people and products, which are better than those of other countries around you. For this to happen, you have to have a government that understands how important this is. Though the Czech Republic is doing some things right in this area, there is room for improvement.
I am already involved in building a good case for Americans to invest here. On my next trip to the US, I plan to meet with business leaders who are looking at this part of Europe. I will tell them the story of the Czech Republic.

Even though you are just getting started in your tenure here, from what you have seen, would there be anything that you would change?
So much begins with education, particularly early on at the grammar school level. Though the Czech Republic has an outstanding reputation for education, from what I have seen and from my discussions with educators regarding issues in the education reform battle, I hear the need to get students involved in discussion, and for them to question and challenge things. Though this is starting to take place, the old style of teaching, where the teacher lectures and the student listens but does not respond or question, instead accepting everything at face value, is still very prevalent. This is not going to serve students well as they go through life. That is what democracy is all about. It is about questioning, challenging, and being able to voice your opinion.

Interview conducted by Martin Jan Stránský


The New Presencesummer 2004

My priority is that patients recieve
and have access to the best care possible.