Adam Sterling: We think, that closure of CEU would be a mistake
Adam Sterling currently works as a US ambassador to Slovakia, he took the office from Theodore Sedgwick in 2016. He’s been employed in Foreign service since 1990 and has held many different posts. As a career diplomat he represented governments regardless of political orientation of majority or president. We talked with him about issues of world and Slovakia.
When did you decide to become a diplomat, what was your motivation?
Actually, it came rather late. I grew up in a family, where no one had ever left the United States, despite that my father was a university professor. First time I’ve left the US was when I went for a year to study in Paris during university, then I spent couple more years there, after the university. That gave me the idea that I like living abroad. In college I first heard about the thing called ”foreign service“ and there is such a career. When I came back from Paris I moved back to New York where I worked for the UN there in the diplomatic environment I realized that it suited me.
In your diplomatic career, you’ve been to many countries, most recently to Azerbaijan and Netherlands. How would you compare these countries to Slovakia?
Azerbaijan is post-soviet country, that’s still in transition but not far from being part of EU and NATO. On the other hand, the Netherlands are old European country, a founding member of EU and NATO and Slovakia is geographically and also politically somewhere in the middle, I’d say closer to the Netherlands.
Speaking of NATO, our president claims to reduce funding of this organization and US military presence in the world. How will this change your diplomatic work?
Well, you have to look at what the other official statements say, including those from President Trump. For example, a few weeks ago, when he met with Chancellor Merkel, US commitment to NATO is rock solid. We still see NATO as the essential security organization, as our strongest global security partner but President Trump is concerned, as his predecessors were, about the fact that most of our allies in NATO are not living up to commitments they themselves made for defense spending. President Obama said the same thing, it’s just that President Trump has a more colorful way of saying it. He will push very hard on this particular issue but that doesn’t mean that US are not still fully committed to NATO. As far as the military action in the world goes, we are 90 days into administration and President Trump has already used US military.
In diplomacy, it really matters what diplomats say, what presidents say, what ministers say and how they say it, even the slightest gestures, for example, some journalists really peaked on that Donald Trump didn’t shake hands with Angela Merkel. So, how much do these Twitter posts and social media in general matter in diplomacy?
I don’t think anybody knows the answer to this yet, this is all new. I think that lot the impact depends on how others choose to respond. Clearly, anytime the president of US communicates people take measures.
Do you face Russian anti-US propaganda in your office? If yes, how?
We do face it, it is there but I have to stress that Russian disinformation campaign is not just targeted at the United States, it’s also targeted on all other countries, including Slovakia, that share our democratic values. Their goal is to weaken our confidence in democratic institutions. It’s an issue we face together and we do cooperate with Slovak partners (universities, newspapers etc.) to develop tools to recognize it and strategies for responding to it. Our embassy has sponsored some conferences, training and other ways to solve this issue together.
The Hungarian government has currently passed a law targeted against Central European University (CEU), which was founded by Americans. What’s stance of US government on this issue?
We’ve publicly opposed the closure of CEU, we think it could be a mistake. Senior US diplomat has been in Hungary this week (interview was conducted on April 7th) and is having talks with the Hungarian government. I don’t know the details of those talks, yet but the closure of a university would be a contradiction of our values and frankly won’t be in Hungary’s interest.
Would you recommend Slovak government to invite this university to Slovakia, if they had to leave Hungary?
I don’t want to jump ahead. Right now the goal is to keep CEU where it is, continuing to do its President work.
What kind of people do you meet in your work?
Interesting people, especially those who are under eighteen (laughter). I think diplomats should not be meeting only with elites and as it’s certainly part of my job to meet with members of parliament and cabinet business leaders and so forth, it’s also part of my job to talk to everybody else across society that’s why I travel every two or three weeks outside of Bratislava to speak with people from local communities such as Roma communities I’ve visited a few weeks ago.
Do you see some regional differences in people’s opinion on the US?
There are regional differences, as you can see that in election results. Polling data away from Bratislava there is, in some parts of the country, less familiarity, perhaps a little skepticism and questioning of Slovakia as part of NATO, the role of NATO and so on. That’s why I travel to address questions people may have.
Why is the fence around US embassy there? Why it can’t go away?
We recognize, that it’s not pretty and it disrupts the physical beauty of Hviezdoslav’s square. That said, threats to the diplomatic personnel around the world are a reality today and the US is by far the biggest target of attacks and can be attacked everywhere. We need an extra measure of security and this is recognized under international conventions. Convention of diplomatic relations requires the host government, in this case Slovakia, to ensure the security of our embassy. The ultimate solution to this is not to take the fence down, as it is unacceptable for security reasons, the solution we are pursuing is to move.
What happens when the diplomat is asked to leave a country? Is it a big thing in the diplomatic terms, or is it just that a person leaves?
It’s like being expelled from school, it’s a big deal. It’s very rare, sometimes it’s an actio