US ambassador Norman Eisen looks back at his first five months in Prague

Norman Eisen

Czech-American relations are going “from good to great”, according to the US ambassador to Prague Norman L. Eisen who will soon complete his first five months in the Czech Republic. Mr Eisen has been working to shift the focus from missile defence, a top priority during the era of President George W. Bush, towards cooperation in nuclear energy, commerce and the fight against corruption. In an interview for Radio Prague, Ambassador Eisen looks back at some of the developments of the past five months.

Norman Eisen
“What I’ve tried to do is to be a good friend and partner to the Czech government and all the political parties but also to the Czech people including the NGO sector, working with the media and business, to come up with ways that we can take the good relationship and make it great in three areas of focus.

“One, defence and strategic. That’s why I personally went to Afghanistan with General Picek to look at how Czech and US troops were working together on projects and to come with new ways we work together. That’s why the high-level defence group met here, led by US Assistant Secretary Vershbow; that’s why we went to Washington with Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg – I personally accompanied him all over the US, including Washington, and that’s why the Deputy Secretary of Defence Bill Lynn is coming: because we working on ways to take the relationship from good to great.

“Second, in the commercial and economic area, we worked very hard to build stronger commercial ties. When I was in the US with Minister Schwarzenberg, we signed an agreement on nuclear cooperation between Czech universities and US institutions of higher learning. We went to Hollywood and met with the movie studios; we went to Washington and met with the Chamber of Commerce, so that we can have good business and good jobs in both counties.

“And finally, the third area where we have been working very hard in the past months is the area of good governance and the fight against corruption. Like the first two, it’s a two-way street. I share my expertise gained in the White House, but I also learn from the Czech people and Czech NGOs about new ideas for sighting corruption. For example, progress has been made on the public procurement bill. I personally have helped train lawyers, and the embassy has worked with judges to improve judicial and legal performance. So we have been active in a variety of ways, so I think we are getting there, going from good to great.”

Norman Eisen, Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: Archive of the Czech Government
I’m sure your trip around the United States with Minister Schwarzenberg was memorable one. At the end of it came a promise from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that negotiations on a new investment protection treaty will start in September. How do you this will affect the relations, particularly of course US investments in the Czech Republic?

“The commitment of the US to work on the bilateral investment treaty, or BIT, is a reflection of how important the relationship with the Czech Republic is. Obviously, this is not something that we do every day, negotiating a new treaty when one has already been signed.

“Neither the Czech Republic not the United States wants to do anything to discourage foreign investment. The United States is the fifth largest foreign direct investor in the Czech Republic, and we want to see that investment grow, not shrink. So both parties will be very careful. The protections will be very strong as they were under the existing BIT. But it has been a long time, and this was a top priority for the government and because I believe the relationship is a two-way street, we heard you, this mattered, and so we are going to reopen discussions once we establish the parameters of the new treaty.”

If Czech officials insist indeed that the protection must be lower – there have been complaints that the treaty granted US investors too much protection and the Czech Republic lost several arbitrations – do you think there is a risk it might decrease direct investment from the US?

Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas, Norman Eisen, deputy chair of the Czech Senate Přemysl Sobotka, photo: Archive of the Czech Government
“Nobody has said to me that the protection should be lower. What we discussed in Washington and what we always discussed is modernizing the BIT. The original treaty was signed 20 years ago. Obviously, the Czech Republic is at a different place than it was 20 years ago. The Sametová revoluce [Velvet Revolution] has been a success, the country is thriving, and so the request is that we have a modern BIT. The US thinking of the BIT has also evolved over that time, so we going to modernize it. It will have strong protections but we’ll have more modern protections that accord with the desire of the Czech Republic.

“I don’t believe anybody wants to discourage any foreign investment because that will discourage jobs. I travel all over the country, I’ve been to 12 cities outside of Prague already since I came here, and I see American companies operating in the country under the BIT creating thousands of good jobs for the Czech workforce. Everyone wants that to continue, and indeed, to grow.”

Coming back to the first area you mentioned, our cooperation in strategic and military issues, there has been a shift in focus in the US policy since the Bush administration when the relations were centred on the issue of missile defence. How would you say Czech officials coped with that shift?

“There has been a shift in focus, and our approach to the focus has been that the US and the Czech Republic are very good friends, and a friendship should have many aspects. It should all be one issue. And we are continuing to work with the Czech government on the new Phase Adaptive Approach. NATO is now implementing and the Czech Republic as a key NATO allay will be part of that conversation. But we need to have much, much more. We are looking for a broad array of issue, in addition to missile defence where we will continue to work with you. When a rope has many strands, that rope will not break.”

Before you came to Prague, you were an ethics advisor to the White House, and you came up with rules to regulate lobbying. You now work to support the US bid in the planned Temelín extension – how does it feel being on the other side of the barricade?

“I’m very proud, it feels good because I think I’m working transparently – transparently – to achieve an important partnership between the US and the Czech Republic. I feel that the point of our US rules was that you should work in the government in the public interest, and that is what my work does. But let me say that the work that I have been doing with the Czech Republic on nuclear energy is not just about the Temelín expansion. That’s important. We have a much broader civil nuclear partnership, not unlike our military partnership.

“When I was in Texas [with the Czech foreign minister], I was present for the signing of the agreement of our respective nuclear education leaders to work together on education and research and development. The US has signed a joint declaration of cooperation in nuclear energy, our regulators cooperate, the US is working with the Czech research institute in Řež on a variety of projects, and your top scientists came with the Industry and Trade Ministry for a second meeting in Washington just in April to find new ways out countries can partner.

“So I think that this very broad partnership is strongly in the shared interest of the United States, and I’m transparent. That is my belief to be fully transparent and I say the identical things on Czech Radio as I do in meetings in the United States or in the Czech Republic about the importance of our two countries working together.”

Speaking of transparency, you have supported projects and hosted events aimed at promoting the fight against corruption in this country. Have you seen any practical impact so far?

“I have seen practical impact. For example, the public procurement bill – which is one of the very important issue because you need to get public procurement right in order to make progress in the fight against corruption – is moving through the government and I’m very encouraged by that. I think we have been engaged in other areas – you know, for the first time ever, whistleblowers have been recognized and awarded. We were proud to host that event here at the US embassy. We’ve held conferences on judicial and prosecutorial ethics integrity and training. We brought the best and brightest people from the US to come and share expertise; just yesterday, we had our best expert on defence procurement who was in town giving a seminar.

“So we’ve shared a lot of technical expertise and we are starting some results. Obviously, it’s a very long, tough struggle in both of our countries. This is not unique to the Czech Republic but I believe that there have been encouraging, positive developments in the past month and we are going to keep working on it.”