US Ambassador to Prague Richard Graber: Our policy on the radar won’t change

Richard Graber, photo:

In this edition of One on One, we talk to the US ambassador to the Czech Republic Richard Graber about current issues in Czech-American relations including the positioning of a planned US radar base on Czech territory, visa-free travel to the United States, and about possible changes to Czech-American relations might see under the new US administration.

Last week, Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States, and his motto during the presidential campaign was “Change We Need”. My first question to Ambassador Richard Graber was what changes he thought the American people were looking for.

“I think any time you have one particular party for a period of time leads to people desiring something different, a different face or a different voice. And I think that’s what the American people said last week. In terms of specific changes, we’ll see what the new administration wants to go forward with. But it will be a different style, a different approach, and that’s seems to be the message.”

One of the issues on which President Elect Barack Obama differs greatly from the current administration of George W. Bush is the focus of US foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you think that the new president will also reassess the planned American anti-missile defence shield in Europe?

“Well first of all, I don’t think the administrations differ a great deal on Afghanistan; I think both believe it’s a difficult area right now that requires a lot of attention. I also think that as time has been going on, there aren’t that many differences on Iraq. There’s been tremendous progress in Iraq over the past months, and I think that under either administration, we would have seen a gradual reduction in troops; that’s what I would expect in the next administration. But with respect to missile defence, I don’t think there will be any change of policy at all. We are facing an emerging threat in Iran, and I think that the United States, both Democrats and Republicans, believe that’s a threat that must be addressed. Our world changed after September 11, we all have a responsibility now to be more pro-active when these threats emerge, and we believe that missile defence is one of these ways.”

According to most polls, a majority of Czechs oppose the plans to position a US radar base in the Czech Republic. Several Czech sociologists have suggested that the new President Barack Obama, who is hugely popular in Europe, might bring about a change of heart. Do you agree?

“I saw those reports and I find them interesting. If in fact that’s the case, if a different face, a different president can cause Czechs to have a different view on the missile defence, that’s obviously a good thing. In the end, this is all about our collective security –the security of not only the United States, but of the Czech Republic and Europe, of working together against common threats. Any progress we can make in that regard is welcome.”

The Czech Parliament is going to vote on the Czech-American radar treaty in December, and the result of the vote is uncertain. What will happen if Czech lawmakers turn the plans down?

“The United States has always said that it would respect the Czech decision on this. We remain very optimistic that the Czech Parliament will ultimately approve this. Perhaps now that elections are over in the United States as well as in the Czech Republic, we can get somewhat out of the political atmosphere that has been going on in both countries and really focus on the issue at hand – our collective security.”

Barack Obama,  photo: CTK
So what would be plan B in case the Czech Parliament does not approve the treaties?

“Again, we think that’s unlikely. Our full intent is to move forward with it but if the Czechs ultimately say no, we will of course respect that. This is a sovereign country, and the United States will then have to pursue alternatives.”

One day after the US presidential election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned that Russia would install missiles in the Kalinigrad area in response to the American defence shield. Are you ready to face such threats, and if so, how?

“I think that kind of rhetoric is disappointing and unfortunate. We continue to desire to have cooperation with the Russians but as I said, statements like that are not helpful, they are disappointing. I think that we can strive to be far more constructive.”

A week from now Czech nationals will be able to travel to the United States without visas for the first time ever. That day, November 17, marks 19 years since the fall of communism. Great accomplishment as it is, why did it take so long?

“It’s a wonderful accomplishment for the Czech Republic and frankly, it’s probably overdue. But the reason that it is happening is that there was a tremendous cooperation between the United States and the Czech Republic. It was really President Bush’s leadership on this issue and the passing of a new law in the United States that allowed it to happen. So I think we should focus not so much on why it didn’t happen sooner but on the fact that we have at long last solved the problem. Democracies don’t always move quickly. In this case, the United States and the Czech Republic did move quickly when they saw an opportunity to change the status, and that’s something we should really celebrate. It’s a major, major step in strengthening the bonds of friendship and partnership that exist between our countries.”

Canada had abolished visas for Czech citizens much earlier but reintroduced them in 1997 due to an influx of Czechs applying for asylum in that country. Are you worried that something similar might happen in the United States?

“We’re really not. What we want to do is to encourage Czech citizens to visit the United States; that’s the most important concern here. We are also interested in protecting safety and security and under this new way of going about things – the travel authorization system – both of our countries will be safer. So not only are we encouraging Czechs to visit the United States but we are also making our world safer. And that’s a very important and positive thing.”

So what do you think could happen if there is such a large group of Czech citizens applying for asylum? Would your government consider re-introducing visas?

“That’s for the future administration to decide, but I don’t think so. I think we have reached a major milestone in the relations between the two countries; the Czech Republic and the other countries that were admitted are tremendous allies and friends, and I think that everyone agrees that it was important for the United States’ policies to change on this and I think it will remain changed.”

The Czech government has announced its plan to invite the new American president to an EU summit held during the first six months of 2009, during the Czech presidency of the European Union. Will President Obama’s first European trip bring him to Prague?

“I certainly cannot speak for the new administration and what their travel plans will be. I’m very biased, I’ve had the opportunity to live here for a couple of years; it’s a wonderful place and I think it would be great for the country if that were to happen. But I can’t in any way predict or take a guess as to whether or not this would be his first stop.”

Many people might not know how US ambassadors are appointed. How will the result of the presidential election affect your position here in Prague?

“US ambassadors all serve at the will and the pleasure of the president, and in the normal course, this next administration will appoint my successor. I’m not quite sure when that will be, but that time will come, and regardless of when that happens, it’s been a great honour for me and for my family to serve in this country. It’s been a tremendous privilege and a tremendous honour, and I think that the Czech Republic will always be a part of our lives.”

Mr Ambassador, thank you for talking to Radio Prague.

“Thank you so much for the opportunity to be with you.”