Czech ambassador to Washington Hynek Kmoníček discusses questions surrounding President Zeman’s planned visit to the White House – and much more.
In recent times Mr. Kmoníček has been working to secure a Washington meeting between Mr. Zeman and Donald Trump, after the former announced in January that he had received an invitation to the White House from then president-elect Trump.
We discussed questions surrounding that visit – and the affinity between the two presidents – when Hynek Kmoníček was in Prague recently.
But I first asked the diplomat how his work was impacted by the high turnover in the Trump administration and its failure so far to fill many posts at the State Department.
“Definitely it makes it more challenging, because normally you would communicate a lot with the State Department, and the State Department would be able to navigate you in other parts of the administration, including the National Security Council.
“With still hundreds of vacant places at the State Department, you must basically follow your own instincts and rely on yourself and navigate yourself in the National Security Council, with all the changes which happen to be there.
“So, maybe surprisingly, I’ve spent three times more time at the White House than in the State Department, because it is time efficiently spent.”
President Miloš Zeman was famously one of the few European leaders who backed Donald Trump for the White House. You’ve worked closely with Mr. Zeman for several years. What is it, do you think, about Mr. Trump and his policies that so appeals to Mr. Zeman?
“I think the main point of appeal for the Czech president was Mr. Trump’s principled stand on the fight against terrorism.”
“I think the main point of appeal for the Czech president was Mr. Trump’s principled stand on the fight against terrorism.
“Because President Zeman feels the danger of militant Islam coming to the European streets as far greater than any other danger, and often misunderstood and underestimated.
“So that part of the Trump agenda was probably very appealing to him.
“There are some places where they would probably disagree.
“For example, President Zeman categorially opposes any kind of economic sanctions and protectionism, which would not go so nicely with the America first agenda – there he would be more European than Trump-like, if you like.
“But definitely the principled stand in the fight against using terrorism as a method of political fight would be the main thing common ground for them.”
Is that the only thing they have in common? Surely any American president would be relatively strong on terrorism?
“Well, relatively strong, but if we follow especially the pre-election rhetoric of candidate Trump, he was very principled on that.
“So maybe even that, let’s say, mental closeness in the expressiveness of their political speech would be there.”
In January, Mr. Zeman said that then president-elect Trump had invited him to the White House. Mr. Zeman also invited Donald Trump to Prague. What’s the situation today surrounding those visits?
“The situation is that we expect the first of these visits will be the visit of the Czech president to the United States.
“It’s on the agenda without a date, because we sort of expected a date at the end of April, but unfortunately it came at the time of one of the many peaks of the North Korean crisis.
“The programme of President Trump and the White House is… usually I make a parallel with an international airport: If your plane misses your time slot, then air traffic control will leave you to cruise above the White House and land you at the first possible time opportunity between two already scheduled different planes.
“That’s basically where we are. We are preparing the agenda. The American side talks about it with me around once in 10 days.
“And we will see when air traffic control will help me to land the plane I am circling over Washington.”
What’s your response to suggestions that Donald Trump doesn’t actually want to meet Mr. Zeman over some alleged Russian-Czech arms connection?
“One US official told me, We solve just big countries and big headaches. So the Czech Republic with 10 million people cannot be a big state. And we really are not a big headache.”
“That’s completely nonsense. I read it on one of the security-based blogs of some former military person who shares their wild ideas of how the world is run.
“Well, the world is not run like that, and anyway there is absolutely no substance to it.”
On a different blog, on the website The Hill, it was stated that President Zeman’s team had hired a lobbying firm to try to secure a meeting with Mr. Trump. Is that true?
“No, that’s more fake news. One of the many lobbying firms approached us, with their offer.
“We considered the offer and in the end nothing came of out of it. No contract signed, no bill paid, nothing.”
How likely is it, do you think, that Mr. Zeman will actually visit the White House, given that the elections for president are happening in January and that may be the end of his career?
“Well, that’s very hard to predict, and I do not believe it will be the end of his long and successful career.
“Basically I can say that we will prepare the agenda for the first time that the White House’s air traffic control says there is a time slot.
“And because the agenda gets longer and longer, and more and more interesting for the American side, if I believe in logic – and I hope air traffic control is logical – I would let a plane land with a long list of what I would like to hear.”
Is there the chance of some kind of meeting between the two presidents at the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September?
“We were considering it, but after consulting with American friends we found that if we divide our agenda into one or two full side events this year, which we could have easily done, then we would lose the agenda for the real major meeting.
“And we also find it a little symbolic. Through eight years of President Obama there was not a Czech president in Washington.
“Our ties are so good that there is really no reason not to have [such a meeting], for the symbolic reason especially that we are coming close to 100 years of the independence of Czechoslovakia, where America played a role with president Woodrow Wilson, and we believe it would be, let’s say, more classy to have a full working visit.”
What would it mean for Miloš Zeman himself? You know him well. Would it be a kind of personal success for him to be invited to the Oval Office?
“Well, it’s a pleasant thing. It’s an interesting thing. On the other hand, the price must be correct.
“A politician can do a lot of things, but one thing he cannot do is to overpay for a picture.”
Generally speaking, what state do you think Czech-US relations are in right now?
“Very good, very positive – and paradoxically sometimes that plays against us.
“Because with the very hard start of the Trump administration… if I can quote one American official, who told me, We solve just big countries and big headaches.
“So the Czech Republic with 10 million people, like one American city, cannot be a big state. And we really are not a big headache.
“If we were a big headache, the Czech journalists would be so happy, because they would have finally have something to write about President Zeman – and they love writing about President Zeman.
“For me the important thing is we are not even a small headache. We are a small, Western, Central European state, something like Austria.
“It’s typical for many US subjects that people start behaving as they know they should be behaving because they saw it in the movies.”
“It took us a long time to get there. We know what our value is. We don’t undervalue ourselves. We don’t overvalue ourselves.
“And we believe that this approach will every time make sure, for us and Washington, that we will see each other eye to eye and speak very openly about a growing, growing number of mutual interests.
“Let’s face it, the United States is our major strategic partner from the security point of view in this area.
“And the future might be volatile, so it’s very good that we are not a headache.”
You referred to next year’s centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. Is your embassy preparing many events in connection with that huge anniversary?
“Yes, we are. And what I try to make sure is that they will not be focused just on Washington or New York, because America is much wider.
“The last time I checked the list we had over 100 events prepared all over the United States, including in places where we have the Czech diaspora, from Texas through Illinois and Iowa.
“I believe that it’s an important thing. And it’s an important thing to use it to remember the ideas on which we were born as free Czechoslovakia – and to submit ourselves to the test of if we still have them.”
I’d like to end on a lighter note. I was reading that you take a great interest in film and you’re a published film reviewer. How do you view the depiction of Washington and the White House in movies, generally?
“So it’s typical for many American subjects that people start behaving as they know they should be behaving because they saw it in the movies.
“Typical of this, I think, was the great Scorsese series of movies about the mafia, where suddenly, according to the police buggings, it was found that the Mafiosi finally speak like Mafiosi, because they saw it in films!
“And I think in Washington it works very much the same, that people who watch, say, House of Cards sometimes have the tendency to see it around them as well.”
Are you a fan of House of Cards?
“Well, I banned myself from watching it. Because I’m afraid of this dialogue becoming an inner dialogue of mine.
“I try to have open eyes and an open mind and I’m looking forward to watching House of Cards once I close my doors in Washington. But not before – I take it as self-hygiene.”
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