Two years ago, relations between the U.S. and its closest ally in central Europe entered a difficult stretch after a long period of cooperation and harmony.
The Czech Republic had been a steadfast supporter of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq. It had sent troops to both countries. And, although the proposal was controversial domestically, the Czechs were prepared to host U.S. missile-defense radars in their country.
After lengthy negotiations, the Bush administration planned to do so. Washington even proposed basing U.S. forces in the Republic — for the first time — in order to man the equipment.
That was a clear sign of gratitude and commitment to the Czechs in the face of noisy Russian objections and even threats. It also reflected credit on the diplomatic skills of both partners — including the then–U.S. ambassador to Prague, Richard Graber.
But when Ambassador Graber returned to America after the 2008 election, he was not immediately replaced. The embassy was run well by an able staff, but it lacked the direct line to the top that is needed when major and potentially disruptive decisions must be made.
That was soon demonstrated in the summer of 2009, when President Obama decided to withdraw the proposed radars in favor of a ship-based missile-defense system.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the president delivered the news in a phone call in the middle of the night to Jan Fischer, the Czech prime minister.
This decision left Czech officials confused and feeling jilted. Many of them had paid a high political price for standing with the U.S. in the fight against Islamic extremism and in accepting the missile-defense program. The change of plans left Czech transatlanticists, both in the government and outside it, deeply disappointed.
Over the past year, however, U.S.-Czech relations have improved significantly. The man largely responsible for that improvement is the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norm Eisen. (In the interest of disclosure, Weinstein is a personal friend of the ambassador’s, but writes in a professional capacity here.)
A Washington attorney who served as the Obama administration’s ethics czar before being nominated for the ambassadorial post, Eisen has become an energetic symbol of the U.S. in Prague. He has a visibility few officials in the Czech Republic can match. He seems to be present on every public occasion. And his efforts have been publicly recognized by innumerable Czech officials, including the leading transatlanticists, Prime Minister Petr Necas, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, and Defense Minister Sasha Vondra.
Vondra himself noted, “as the former Czech ambassador to the U.S., I know how important diplomacy is. Norm Eisen is one of the most energetic, optimistic ambassadors I have ever seen. The bilateral U.S.-Czech relation[ship] needs him.”
Nor does it hurt that Eisen, a longtime friend and former law-school classmate of Barack Obama’s, has ready access to the president. Useful in itself for diplomatic purposes, this closeness is seen in Prague as a mark of America’s commitment to the U.S.-Czech relationship.