American Politics in a Nutshell

imagesI am a comparativist by training and so it is not particularly surprising that I am fond of  T. S. Eliot’s famous quatrain from Little Gidding:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And I am therefore extremely grateful to Michal Kovacs of the Introduction to North America class at the Economics University of Bratislava for the chance to reverse the normal equation and talk about my own country using the tools that I usually use to talk about Slovakia.  Thanks, too, to the students who paid close attention and asked excellent questions (but I’m still not telling whom I would vote for if I were a citizen of Slovakia).  For those students who participated and for anyone else odd enough to care, a hasty, non-annotated (and therefore probably incomprehensible) .pdf of the talk is available here:

Since this is in many regards just a highly abbreviated version of lectures in my Citizenship class, the truly foolhardy can find a more extensive treatment at (login:, login: abercrombie)

Life imitates Onion (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love AC/DC)

First there was the monument to Bon Scott (among other ‘died young’ rockers) in Samorin, Slovakia (  Now we find an even more astounding tribute: “AC/DC Inspired Czech Leader’s “Road to Hell” Riff” (  It is hard to say which part of this story would have been more astounding in, say, March 1989: that the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic attended an AC/DC concert or that AC/DC was still touring.

Regardless, it is tempting to follow the lead of Scott Brown of “Springtime for Dubcek” ( and speculate about other songs that Topolanek might have used with regard to administration policies:

  • Money Talks
  • Nervous Shakedown
  • Back in [the] Black

In general the list applies better to the Clinton adminstration.  Alas, Vaclav Klaus does not appear to have attended any in the mid-1990’s AC/DC concerts.

Obama in SME

Obama in Sme

After months in Slovakia hearing reasons why Americans would not vote for Barack Obama for President (including some from Americans) the question is how President Barack Obama will relate to Slovakia. On Monday I received a series of excellent questions from SME.  Since space considerations dictated the publication of responses to only the most immediately interesting–see (I am still waiting for the day when articles in Slovakia’s newspapers regularly exceed the 500-word mark, something that should be possible in the internet era)– and since I would hate to let my 10 minutes of top-of-the-head responses go unpublished, I post below both the questions and my answers.

Why is America and American president important for Slovakia? Which American presidents can we consider as very important for Slovakia and Slovak nation?

As the world’s largest economy and largest military the United States has an almost unavoidable efect on every country.  It is unlikely that the new administration will have much practical significance for most citizens of Slovakia, but in symbolic terms this inauguration is one of the most important in the past century, and the excitement among Americans—particularly the college-age students I teach—is unprecedented in my lifetime.  Among those American presidents who have had a deep influence on Slovakia’s development it is difficult to name any except Wilson, who aided the creation of Czechoslovakia, and Roosevelt who pursued a successful course in the Second World War.  Some might cite Reagan, but scholarship suggests that his effect on the collapse of the Soviet Union was marginal at best—a matter of timing rather than outcome.

Let’s look back to the history of Slovak-American relations – how do you see its development from 1993 independent Slovakia until now? What were the turning points?

The turning points in US-Slovakia relations are really the same as the turning points in Slovakia’s own politics.  Relationships between the Clinton administration and the successive Meciar governments cooled very quickly and remained quite cold during the 1990’s, though I never got the sense of any animosity toward Slovakia itself.  The defeat of the HZDS government in 1998 improved relations, both because the new government seemed more firmly committeed to democracy and stability in the region which helped aussuage the long-term concerns of the State Department.  The new government then ingratiated itself further through active cooperation with the Bush administration‘s foreign policy goals, even to the extent of supporting the war in Iraq. Under Fico the government has pulled back from this active cooperation and has offered some sharp criticisms, but it is not clear to me whether this has translated into a relationship that is more conflictual at the operational level, and it is notable that the US has moved ahead with the process of reducing or eliminating visa requrements.

May we expect Obama’s visit to Slovakia or Europe in the next years? When and why?

Unfortunately, I would not expect a visit.  I suspect that Obama’s main goals in the first few years will be domestic and that when he does travel abroad he will work on improving relations with countries where the Bush Administration’s policies did the most damage.  Slovakia is far down that (rather long) list.  I’m afraid, too, that the prominence of the Bush-Putin summit in the relatively recent past will move Slovakia further down the list.  Unless there are compelling reasons, countries that win one of these big events tend to move to the bottom of the list and cycle back to the top very slowly

Don’t you think European countries and leaders are expecting too much from Obama in sense of  „monumental change“ in mutual relations and US foreign policy?

I think almost everybody (except maybe Sarah Palin) is expecting too much from Obama.  I think his policy will certainly differ from that of the Bush Administration, but that administration’s policy stood near the extreme of unilaterialism.  Obama will not transform American diplomacy, and he will not radically reshape relationships with adversaries or allies, but he will bring it back toward the norm under Bill Clinton (and this is no surprise given that Hillary Clinton will be the Secretary of State).  The US under Obama promises to be a country that will make strong efforts at multilaterialism but that will still act unilaterally if it feels that its interests will be otherwise threatened. 

Our last government presented itself more in the light of euro-atlantic cooperation, current government is more ambiguous.  May this play a role in mutual relations in sense of change of American position towards Slovakia after Obama is inaugurated?

I will be interested to see whether the Fico government changes its relationship once the United States has a government closer to the economic left and more prone toward multilateralism.  My sense is that foreign policy stances and foreign policy rhetoric in Slovakia have been driven largely by domestic political considerations.  I do not know whether the relatively more left-of-center positions of the Obama presidency will change those considerations and shift the positions or rhetoric of the Fico government.