American Abroad

Republic of Slovakia photo

The U.S. diplomatic corps is one of government’s elite institutions, representing the United States in many countries with diverse cultures, languages and perspectives on world affairs. It’s hard to get into the Foreign Service, and even harder to become an ambassador, whether as a career diplomat or as a presidential appointee. The importance of ambassadorial postings is reflected in the requirement for Senate confirmation.

U.S. Ambassador Theodore Sedgwick and his wife, Kate Watt Sedgwick, are at the tip of the diplomatic spear in the
Slovak Republic, a nation of 5.6 million people at the center of Europe. When they invited me to join a small group visiting them in Bratislava this spring, I jumped at the chance to have an up-close look at the ambassadorial life.

We took the opportunity to visit Budapest, Vienna and Prague, in addition to Bratislava during a 10-day trip. Tracing the tragic history of this region, we saw many monuments commemorating the millions of people who had suffered repression and slaughter at the hands of the fascists and the communists over five decades of the 20th century. We were reminded too during our travels of the power of ethnicity in these areas, the occasional stirrings of un-savory nationalism and the limits on the power of the United States to influence political trends.

Sedgwick is only one of many ambassadors in Bratislava who compete for the time and attention of Slovak authorities. But he is probably first among equals, given the political and economic power of the United States, its sway in NATO, and its strong connection arising from waves of immigration that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of Americans claiming Slovak descent.

After Hungarian rulers began a period of repression in 1848, a quarter of the Slovak population immigrated to North America. Poverty at home brought another wave to these shores in the 1930s. Many settled in Western Pennsylvania, able and willing to take on the tough mining and industrial jobs at companies like U.S. Steel, a leading employer there. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, the company is now led by Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John P. Surma, who is of Slovak descent. U.S. Steel is the largest private employer in Slovakia, having taken over a big production facility near the eastern town of Košice in 2000. 

U.S. companies are big employers in Bratislava as well. The city has become a magnet for technology giants like Amazon, Cisco, Dell, Google, HP and IBM, which have taken advantage of the country’s low tax rate and labor flexibilities on issues like hiring and firing that were adopted by Slovakia’s center-right government. Slovakia’s technical schools churn out programmers and other specialists to be employed by these companies, and demand for their skills is beginning to outstrip the supply. Sedgwick has been speaking in favor of greater investment in education to meet that demand.

On a Monday morning, we were invited to the chancery to hear the press briefing— a rundown of what local news outlets are saying of consequence to the embassy. This is a daily meeting conducted by two of the embassy’s 70 Slovak employees for senior American staff. It’s the beginning of a big day for Sedgwick that will include visits to the president and the prime minister.

The embassy staff of about 30 Americans includes economic officer Robert D. King and information officer Matthew Miller. King, an interesting example of changes in State Department recruiting, joined nine years ago after a two-decade career in finance and operations for the Liberty Mutual insurance firm. 

Miller is younger, having joined soon after college, and he boasts five postings ranging from Haiti to Cameroon. King served in Greece, India and Mexico before coming to Slovakia three years ago. He’s thus had several journeys through the department’s intensive 24- to 44-week language training programs, as has Miller.

Sedgwick’s high-profile appointments shed light on the ambassador’s work. The morning meeting with President Ivan Gašparovič is all about the NATO summit coming up within the week. Sedgwick wants to help Gašparovič in his interactions with senior U.S. officials in Chicago and is sending several U.S. experts from his embassy staff to the NATO summit. The ambassador notes that Slovakia has maintained its commitment to the NATO Afghanistan mission: 350 “high-value” special-forces troops and experts in explosive ordnance disposal. Other NATO players, notably France, have been cutting back on their commitments. Also on the NATO agenda is the idea of cooperative defense among the Visegrád Four—Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic—and other NATO nations, a difficult- to-achieve idea that would require specializing in certain kinds of equipment and training, likely at the expense of a more rounded force. Sedgwick is among American officials who are pressing European nations to boost their defense spending from their current, rock-bottom level of slightly more than 1 percent of gross domestic product—a tough sell when European authorities are attempting to cap budget deficits at 3 percent of GDP.

The afternoon appointment with Prime Minister Robert Fico is about developing nuclear power generation in Slovakia. Of three competitors vying for the construction work, one is from Russia and one from France. The third is Westinghouse, long an American icon but since 2006 owned by Toshiba Group of Japan. Sedgwick accompanies a ranking Westinghouse executive to the meeting with Fico with the intention of saying little but demonstrating by his presence the interest of the U.S. government, right up to the White House, in the jobs the contract would create in Pennsylvania.

Later, in a conversation with a leading Slovak parliamentarian, I ask if U.S. companies are disadvantaged by our 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, under which the Justice Department is levying heavy fines on firms that engage in bribery abroad. Yes, he says, observing that Germany and other nation’s firms are adept at hiding payments to officialdom in hard-to-detect accounting artifices. Corruption is rife in many countries, and U.S. ambassadors do what they can to discourage it. Slovak authorities “pay attention,” Sedgwick says, to entreaties to crack down on sex trafficking by criminal networks dealing also in narcotics.

There’s a multinational effort to improve honesty and transparency in the country’s judicial system. Among the ambassador’s priorities is to help Slovak authorities guard against nuclear trafficking. U.S. government experts have been working with 10 Slovak agencies to prevent cross-border smuggling of nuclear materials, and in mid-June U.S. officials will conduct training for prosecutors and judges who deal with what the ambassador calls a “significant” problem. 

The United States is encouraging Slovakia to become a benign actor on the world stage. With its “unruly democracy, free press and free elections,” the country can offer practical lessons to neighbors like Montenegro, Sedgwick says. He’s excited by Slovakia’s participation in the Communities of Democracy program, in which developed, less-developed and developing countries team up to promote democratic governance. Slovakia, in the second category, has joined the Netherlands to help Tunisia as it emerges from decades of dictatorship. Sedgwick notes that an American ambassador’s job reaches beyond issues peculiar to any single country to encompass the more general ideals of democracy, transparency and human rights. His monthly column in Hospodárske noviny, the local equivalent of The Wall Street Journal, and weekly posts on his Facebook page reflect these ideas. Interestingly, about 2 million Slovaks, more than a third of the population, are Facebook users. So far they’re not much into Twitter, so the ambassador isn’t tweeting yet. 

Sedgwick wants to project the open and welcoming traits of the American personality. He has persuaded the State Department to fund construction of a nice, wrought-iron fence to replace the grim metallic cage that protects the embassy from passersby on Hviezdoslav Square, a grand boulevard of mighty trees and elegant buildings leading up to the Slovak National Theater. 

And the ambassador was found flipping burgers recently at a cookout on the square for Slovak youths slated to participate in a work-study program stateside this summer. 

In an amusing scene at the residence, Sedgwick hosts a practice session for the soft rock band for which he plays piano. The band includes the portly Greek ambassador, Nicolaos D. Kanellos; the multi-instrumental Romanian ambassador, Florin Vodita; an American expat who has been a translator here for 15 years; two local think tank leaders, one of them heavily tattooed; and, on this day, yours truly on blues harp. 

The group performs at high-visibility functions across the country. Sedgwick also makes a point of participating in charitable events, such as a recent tennis tournament, and making appearances in many other settings—on the Woody Allen theory, he says, that 80 percent of success is showing up. That seems a good approach to projecting American values in this small corner of the world. 

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