Peter Kmec: The Times of Hugging Will Be Followed By the Period of Realpolitik

Published: 1. 1. 2021
Author: Luboš Palata
Photo: Photo Official White House photo and archives of Peter Kmec
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Peter Kmec served as ambassador to Israel, Sweden and the US, where he experienced the rule of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Today he works in domestic politics, is a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic and has left the SMER-SD for the HLAS - Social Democracy party. What is his view on the tumultuous US presidential election? And why did he switch to domestic politics? We talked to him about that and more.

As a Slovak ambassador to the United States, even though a former one, how much sleep were you able to get in the period of the US presidential election?

Very little. Until the last moment, I tried to guess the result of the election, which was really difficult to estimate in the current pandemic situation. My preliminary tip was that Joe Biden would win tight. But in the first hours of counting the votes cast in the polls, it looked quite significant in favour of Donald Trump. But as expected, then they starting counting the incoming mail-in votes, reversing the vote in favour of Joe Biden. So my guess was right…

But it was nerve-wrecking, wasn’t it?

I took it completely neutrally. The American president is elected by American voters, and we Europeans and the rest of the world must live with that.

Was it surprising to you how much the American polls of voter preferences, which clearly favoured Biden, differed from the very tight win reality?

I had quite a lot of doubts about the polls five years ago, when it turned out that they were more of wishful thinking of the liberal media to get their preferred candidate to the office. In my opinion, this also happened in the case of these elections. But if you looked at a more relevant survey by Rasmussen, which conducts surveys among voters who are really determined to go to the polls, then its numbers were more telling. The problem with liberal polls is that they are based on national popularity data, and they favour Democrats. But when you go to the individual constituencies, the picture is a bit different. That happened five years ago to Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden paid much more attention to this, not being satisfied with surveys that gave him a big lead. And yet the result was quite tight in several states.

When I spoke to the former Czech ambassador to the USA, Petr Kolář, the day after the election, he said that compared to the surveys, a surprising number of voters had only now "showed the real face of preference" of the United States. Do you agree that Trump voters did not admit in the polls they wanted to opt for him?

Donald Trump has hidden voters. Considering tensions that prevail in American society, not everyone wants to be known for having sympathies for such a candidate. These included conservatives working in larger teams on the coast, who avoided publicly acknowledging their preferences. This is because both coasts are strongly liberal, sometimes even radically liberal.

How were these elections different from those five years ago, which you experienced as a Slovak ambassador to the USA?

I was surprised by two things. in 2016 the disinformation was outside the US, and now it was  within the United States, primarily propagated by Donald Trump. The second thing was how significantly the campaign moved to social media and how significantly artificial intelligence became involved. This scares me a little, because in the future we may not only see fights between candidates, but also between social platforms. Donald Trump, along with Republicans, has already announced the creation of an alternative social platform to Twitter and Facebook called Parler, to which large funds of conservative and Republican sponsors are already flowing. In the elections of 2024, platforms with robotically created content will be able to compete with each other.

So just as we already have drone wars today, can robotic social platforms fight for the US President? That's pretty scary.

Yes, it is.

You have experienced both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. What is their basic difference?

Barack Obama sought to unite Americans within, for example, on a topic such as health care reform. But he didn't succeed, and Donald Trump used that as leverage to get power, which caused society division. But they both probably had the goal to make America great again, although they chose different means to do so.

Is Democrat Joe Biden as the new President of the USA a good choice for Slovakia and the entire European Union?

Joe Biden is a good choice for the US to return to the negotiating table with the European Union. We want to raise issues together again, both at the global level and in the transatlantic dialogue. This was very difficult for Donald Trump, because he aggressively promoted the interests of the United States even at the expense of American allies. Joe Biden and his team are sending very positive signals towards the European Union, so the first phase will be very positive. But we need to be careful, because the times of hugging will be followed by a period of realpolitik and the promotion of one's own interests. It is worth recalling the great disappointment in the failure to conclude a transatlantic trade agreement under Barack Obama. Therefore, it is necessary not to have too high expectations even for Biden, so as not to be too disappointed. I have more positive expectations in the area of ​​the climate agreement, the return of the United States to the Paris climate agreement is very important.

Among other things, you were an ambassador to Sweden. What lessons can we learn from the already world-famous approach to the coronavirus crisis?

The fact that politicians left the decision to experts. In Sweden, almost all decisions were made by the Chief Hygienist and not by the Prime Minister. That is why the recommendations and rules addressed to the public were much better received. The fact that the experts had the main say decided that they had better numbers than the rest of Europe during second wave.

You switched from diplomacy to domestic politics. You are a Member of Parliament. What is it like to be one of the members of the National Council after having been an ambassador?

It's a bit of a change. But I had a period in which, after returning from the United States, I became a Foreign Policy Adviser to then Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini. We built confidence in each other and found a common view of a number of areas in foreign and domestic politics. Therefore, after two years, it was easier for me to decide whether or not to enter politics. If you really want to influence things in both domestic and foreign politics, you can do more from a political chair than from a diplomatic one. It was also about my effort to bring home the best experience of world's best practices I learned from my work as a diplomat.

Is parliamentary life harder than diplomatic?

It's harder, and it's a much more open fight. We diplomats use a completely different language than is used in today's politics. This is a trend you can see in many countries.

As you said, you were an adviser to Prime Minister Pellegrini for two years. It was probably not difficult for you to decide whether to go with him to his newly established party the HLAS - social democracy?

I decided to join Peter Pellegrini at a time when he was promoting the concept of a "responsible change" within the SMER party. In this way, he tried to move the SMER party into the future, both in terms of personnel and the programme. SMER got into a state where they had no vision for the future. Pellegrini had one, but he failed to push through his SMER programme. His subsequent decision was to go his own way. I subscribed both to the personality of Peter Pellegrini and to his politics. Therefore, it was not difficult for me to go to a new political party.

With the new party, you managed to perform a derring-do that got you immediately the top of the list of electoral preferences. How do you feel about it?

There is great interest in social democratic politics in Slovakia. But we take the numbers with humility. We did not expect such a sharp increase in electoral preferences at the beginning. However, the ruling coalition currently has a constitutional majority, although the people are disillusioned with its functioning. We will try to call a referendum to reduce the term. Its success will depend on how successful the collection of signatures under the referendum proposal will be. If it's over half a million, it will be promising.

The author is the editor of the Deník


Judr. Peter Kmec (born in 1966 in Nitra) is a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic.

He graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) under perestroika. In 1990 he graduated from the Faculty of Law of Comenius University in Bratislava and in 1992 a course of Parliamentary Democracy in the US Congress.

He began his diplomatic career at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, including being a political adviser to the OSCE Mission to Georgia. After working at the Slovak Embassies in Israel and the USA, he was the Ambassador to Sweden from 2007 to 2012 and from 2012 to 2018 to the Ambassador to the USA.

Upon his return, he worked for two years as an Adviser to Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini. In February 2020, he was elected a member of the SMER-SD party; later he co-founded a new HLAS party - Social Democracy.

He and his wife Monika have two grown up children, a daughter Lucia (24 years old), who is a medical student in Bratislava, and his son Adam (20) is studying mathematics and physics at Oxford University.

#He likes political literature, sports, listens to music from the 80's - Dire Straits or Deep Purple.


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