After President Barack Obama nominated me as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic in 2010, I turned for advice on transatlantic relations to my almost 90-year-old Czech American mother, who had fled to the United States after surviving the Holocaust and Communism. Her counsel, delivered with a small laugh and the black humor that had helped her survive the 20th century: “Expect the worst.”
Today, her quip seems even more warranted, with anti-democratic leaders proliferating on both sides of the Atlantic. They include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Italy’s right-left coalition and Hungary’s proudly “illiberal democrat” Viktor Orbán. Where extremists are not in power, they are in many places on the rise. In my own former host country — one of the biggest post-Cold War success stories and a longtime bastion of liberalism — leading politicians have embraced Putin, vilified and barred migrants and attacked the media. Perhaps most unthinkably, here in the United States, an anti-democratic president presides in the Oval Office.
Where does all of that leave those of us who care about the best traditions of transatlantic democracy — and who want to fight for it in Europe as well as here at home? We Americans are properly focused on the deterioration of our own institutions, but we should also devote energy to helping democracy abroad. It’s not just the right thing to do: It’s expedient. The stronger the flame of democracy burns in Europe, the more light it casts on our shores.
But how best to help? My experiences fighting the illiberal surge during my four years as ambassador, and the lives of those who dwelled in the ambassador’s residence before me, suggest some answers.
We have more power than we think. The magnificent house that serves as the official residence of the U.S. ambassador in Prague was built by the Czech coal baron and financier Otto Petschek. A fervent Americanist, Petschek’s construction was in part a tribute to President Woodrow Wilson’s efforts to set up the League of Nations at Versailles, even incorporating elements of that palace. America’s interwar isolationism stunned Petschek. But it was not our government’s withdrawal that shocked him the most — it was that of his fellow bankers in the United States. They called their loans to the Czechs at a crisis point in the Depression, kicking them when they were down instead of lending them a hand, needlessly worsening Czechoslovakia’s suffering in the global economic downturn and delaying the country’s eventual recovery.
American business leaders have just as much power today. I saw that sway firsthand when I was ambassador and attended host government meetings with our visiting captains of industry. They were attended to by Czech officials with every bit as much attention as congressmen or Cabinet members. When our businesspeople meet with governments like the new one in Poland that is dismantling the independence of that nation’s judiciary, they should tell leaders there that functioning courts are critical for honest dispute resolution, which is, in turn, necessary for foreign direct investment. It’s not just CEOs who have that power; distinguished visiting Americans including college presidents, newspaper editors and cultural stars all call on foreign officials and can speak up for democracy.
Beware the bear. The next occupant after Petschek of the palace I would eventually call home was the Wehrmacht Gen. Rudolf Toussaint during Nazi Germany’s World War II occupation of Prague. He covertly tried to open the city to Gen. George S. Patton so the Americans could enter Prague and end the fighting there. I was startled when as ambassador I learned who had blocked a willing and eager Patton: Dwight Eisenhower. Focused on ending the larger war, and evidently on avoiding alienating his Soviet fighting partners who claimed Prague as theirs, the supreme Allied commander ordered Patton to halt — and in so doing set up the eventual domination of the Czechs by Moscow.
Russia is just as dangerous today as it was then — but we can resist its whispered blandishments, like whatever was said behind closed doors by Putin to President Trump in Helsinki. A virtually unanimous Congress forced new Russian sanctions on our reluctant president. It should take that bipartisan resolve on the road. When I was ambassador, I welcomed congressional delegations to come to Prague. I found visiting members of Congress to be powerful persuaders, and, quite contrary to the caricature of luxury junkets, they worked hard, packing meetings and events into their long days. Such trips can be large or small, and they can even consist of a single member of the minority party warning of Putin’s danger. Members of Congress, pack your bags.
Save what you can. After Toussaint’s tenure in the house came the first American resident, Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, who arrived in 1945. He fought to promote democracy as Communists advanced creeping control of the country. But when Communists finally consolidated power in a coup in 1948, Steinhardt didn’t give up. He saved what he could, smuggling a stream of refugees to the West — and preserving Petschek’s architectural treasure by buying the palace where he had rented for the United States to keep. Today, it’s recognized by Czechs and Americans alike as a precious cultural heritage, one that might otherwise have been razed in the anti-capitalist frenzy of the post-coup years.
Even with today’s democratic deterioration on both continents, there is still a tremendous amount of good that can be done by diplomats on both sides, as proved by the negotiation of the recent NATO communique hardening the alliance’s defenses — one of the most substantive in years. Ex-diplomats have their part to play as well; I serve as part of a group of former government officials, civil society advocates, think tankers and others who speak out about preserving democracy, giving our friends in Europe someone to talk to when those in our government won’t (or want to but can’t) pick up the phone, thus maintaining ties for a better day.
You are not the star. As we are deploying our businesspeople, lawmakers, current and former government officials and the rest of the troops of democratic reinforcement, they should tread lightly, offering help with modesty and humility. That is the lesson of a fourth palace resident, Ambassador Shirley Temple Black. A witness to the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 (she happened to be visiting the palace the day it happened), she decided to embark upon a diplomatic career, and returned in 1989 after an appointment by President George H.W. Bush, just in time to aid in the fall of Communism.
She did so with an exquisitely light touch, working intensely behind the scenes with both her own and her host governments. She was, despite her stardom, careful never to upstage her friend Vaclav Havel and the other Czech leaders of the Velvet Revolution, reportedly going so far as to secretly rent a room to observe demonstrations so she would not be noticed. When I was ambassador, I saw that most effective interlocutors with my hosts were the most self-effacing ones. We Americans would do well to follow those examples in our transatlantic engagements today; we have a lot to be humble about given our own challenges.
Listen to your mother. When I was ambassador, my mother was one of my closest advisers and a considerable resource to me during my service. At one point in 2011, I found myself confronting a diplomatic incident when I helped lead a group of Prague ambassadors in co-sponsoring a gay pride week topped off by a large parade. The Czech far-right, in and outside of government, exploded with fury. The matter escalated to the point where my ability to do my job was in jeopardy, with the Czech president openly attacking me, and risk that he would bar me from engaging with the officials working in Prague Castle. I had to choose between laying low and hoping it would blow over, or speaking out to denounce him and the other illiberals. "What choice do you really have?” my mother said, although with a bit of maternal (and historical) anxiety. “You have to say something.”
So I did, issuing an embassy statement saying, “It is regrettable that there are people in official positions that hold intolerant views.” Still, the pride events went off without a hitch, the flap blew over, and I ended up serving three more years with my own pride — and reputation as a defender of liberalism — intact. I often think of her call to action and its moral authority, and how frequently the wisdom of the past is the message that remains most salient today.