An Interview with Norman Eisen, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic
Norman L. Eisen has served as the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic since January 2011. Born in Los Angeles, Eisen received his B.A. from Brown University and his J.D. from the Harvard Law School. He was an active member of civil rights organizations before coming to Prague, working with the Anti-Defamation League and founding Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). An early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, Eisen served as the Deputy General Counsel of the transition team. Since his arrival in the Czech Republic, Eisen has been recognized for his efforts to broaden the strategic partnership between the U.S. and the Czech Republic, defend civil rights, and advocate for stronger economic ties between the two nations.
Interview conducted via email.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your country that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
Yes, Václav Havel [the first president of the Czech Republic] has been a tremendous influence and inspiration. He has demonstrated to me, and indeed, to the entire world, what an individual with ideals and determination can accomplish.
The Politic: What sorts of exchange and community outreach programs do the most good?
The International Visitor Leadership Program and the Fulbright Exchange Program have done the United States a tremendous service. For more than 60 years, these initiatives have brought tens of thousands of future leaders of industry, government, commerce and the media to the United States, to both teach us about their cultures and civilizations, and learn from our example. The benefits are clear. F.W. de Klerk, Margaret Thatcher, and many other world leaders have seen our country for themselves, before they achieved their political destinies, through the International Visitor Program. Tens of thousands of students, professors, and researchers have had the opportunity to study abroad and gain knowledge they could never have obtained at home, thanks to the Fulbright Program.
The Politic: How do you promote American economic, political and cultural interests or values in your country?
I meet with senior Czech leaders in all branches of industry and government here. Interviews with the electronic and print media also figure into my work, as does outreach through blogs and social media, such as Facebook. Finally, I reach out to Americans in the Czech Republic to learn about their concerns and interests. Being an Ambassador is a 24/7 kind of job.
The Politic: Before becoming U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic, you had extensive experience working in law. How do you feel your professional background prepared you for the position you hold today?
Law school offers excellent preparation for government service. I studied critical thinking under the tutelage of some of its greatest practitioners at Harvard Law School (sorry, Bulldogs — though some of my professors were Yale law grads). As an attorney, I learned the art of negotiation and achieving the possible.
The Politic: How do you U.S.-Czech economic ties, and what particular cultural aspects of the Czech Republic influence the way American businessmen have to conduct business in the country?
I urge you to look at U.S.-Czech trade figures. You will see they have grown over the past three years. We have a tremendous cultural relationship with the Czechs. For example, as I write this, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts is completing a two-week seminar here, which he teaches every year in Prague. To take another example, the Washington-based Kennedy Center is expected to send an expert on museum management, as they have done in the past. We teach English to the Prague police. As for U.S. business, note the substantial number of American firms in the high-tech sector operating here.
The Politic: Can you describe the strategic importance of the Czech Republic and Eastern Europe to the United States, and the importance of the United States for the region?
We see the Czech Republic as part of Central rather than Eastern Europe. This is a vitally important region for the United States. The area is an economic motor for Europe (and has been since the days of the Hapsburg Empire, if not earlier). The Czechs play an important role in NATO; they have deployed hundreds of their armed forces in Afghanistan; and they contribute to efforts designed to achieve dialogue in the Middle East.
Finally, the Czech Republic hosts the headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which broadcasts to audiences in Russia and the Eastern Partnership states, as well as to the Middle East and Central Asia. We collaborate with the Czechs on the Václav Havel Fellowship Program, named for the great Czech playwright and statesman. The Havel Fellowships provide on-the-job training for promising young journalists, whose countries of origin are either bereft of democracy, or whose democratic systems are under great stress.
The Politic: Your tenure at the U.S. Embassy in Prague has been marked by the promotion of “Roma Integration Initiatives.” How would you assess the program today? Do you feel that a particular policy or approach attempting to lessen the discrimination suffered by the Romani people could serve as an example to other U.S. embassies seeking to implement human rights policies?
We regularly raise with our Czech interlocutors the importance of advancing the integration of Roma in Czech society, sometimes through speakers from the U.S., who address civil rights and educational topics that relate to their situation. We also work with U.S. firms to encourage them to take on interns of Roma descent. Not long ago, I wrote an op-ed in the Czech press about the Roma and human rights. Ultimately, the role of the Roma in Czech society is a question for this nation to consider, debate, and resolve. We try to be helpful and point to our own successes and failures in situations that parallel the plight of the Roma minority here.
The Politic: In your blog post about the REST initiative against corruption, you mentioned that you were proud to share ideas from your “White House days” and “other reform experiences,” and that you always “end up learning a lot as well.” What do you think the United States can learn from the Czech Republic and the Czech Republic from the United States?
Some sons and daughters of the Czech Republic (and its predecessor, the former Czechoslovakia) are among the most influential of Americans. These include Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State; the late artist Andy Warhol; and Ray Kroc, who founded McDonald’s. A visitor to this country cannot help but note its architectural beauty; the friendliness of its citizens; and the efficiency of its public transportation system. Let’s not forget the beer — some of the world’s best is brewed here. I think of enterprise, entrepreneurism and individualism as attributes that we, as Americans, can share with our Czech friends.
The Politic: As Ambassador, you have focused on three key areas in U.S.-Czech relations: strategic relationships, increased and improved U.S.-Czech economic ties, and defense of shared values between the two countries. Which one of these three pillars has presented the biggest challenges to you, and to which do you feel most closely connected?
All are challenging. In the economic area, we are assisting an American firm, Westinghouse, which is bidding for a $10 billion contract to enlarge a nuclear reactor complex in Southern Bohemia. We believe Westinghouse offers the best, safest, and most technologically sophisticated option for the Czech Republic. We also believe this option best addresses the Czech Republic’s energy security needs.
The Politic: What is the thing you most enjoy about your work as the U.S. representative to the Czech Republic?
The maternal side of my family originated in the former Czechoslovakia. My mother was a Holocaust survivor who departed the country in the late 1940s. I have roots here, and I enjoy visiting institutions and buildings that had either a direct or peripheral role in their history. These include the synagogue in Brno, where my grandfather worshipped, and the American Ambassador’s residence in Prague, named for its builders, the Petschek Family. I also enjoy the challenge of representing the United States, highlighting where American and Czech interests meet, and engaging in a range of activities designed to bring our two peoples closer together.
Embassy of the United States to the Czech Republic: http://prague.usembassy.gov