Sitting in a carved antique chair in his vast, elegant office in one of Prague's historic neighborhoods, Richard Graber admits that he never sought to be a U.S. ambassador-a role imbued with a healthy dose of pomp and circumstance. But he received an unexpected phone call from the White House two years ago.
"They asked me, 'Would you be interested in being an ambassador?' and I said, 'Sure,' " recalled Graber, pictured above, fourth from left, shaking hands with Czech President Vaclav Klaus during President George W. Bush's visit to Prague in June 2007. At the time, he was a lawyer at a Wisconsin law firm and head of the state's Republican Party. "I didn't hear anything for about three months, then I got another call … and they said, 'It's the Czech Republic.' "
Graber readily accepted. Little did he know he would soon be at ground zero of a major foreign-policy debate.
In January 2007, soon after Graber took office, the U.S., the Czech Republic, and Poland began formal discussions about building a U.S. missile defense shield in Europe. The Czech Republic was selected as a possible site for a radar station; Poland, for several missile receptors.
Both countries' governments agreed to negotiations, but their citizens responded negatively. Early polls showed the majority of Czechs opposed the plan, and when Bush visited Prague last year, thousands protested in the streets.
Several small towns in the southwestern Brdy region, where the radar station would be located, held referendums in which citizens hotly contested the plan, citing possible security threats and health ramifications.
"I don't think anyone understood the magnitude of the response it would create, not only here but throughout Europe and certainly in Russia," Graber says. Russia opposes the shield, viewing it as encroaching on its security and regional influence.
Graber plays a largely educational role in the negotiations. He meets weekly with a Czech deputy minister of foreign affairs and has spoken to groups of journalists and Brdy officials about the radar. The embassy has even hosted online chats to spread information.
In his outreach, Graber highlights U.S. arguments for the missile shield, including the emerging security threat from the Middle East, particularly Iran, and how the project might be integrated with NATO defense systems.
"If you sit, listen, and try to respond as truthfully as you can to their questions, they're receptive," Graber says of his meetings with Brdy-region mayors. "I didn't persuade all of them, and there are some mayors who won't be persuaded, but if you treat them with respect, that sends positive messages that go beyond this issue."
Graber will meet more officials when he goes on a family biking trip through Brdy in May. The Czech parliament is expected to vote on the missile defense agreement this summer. Roughly half of the deputies are still skeptical of the plan, but it has the full backing of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. "Ultimately this is not an American decision," Graber said. "It is a Czech decision, and they have to take the lead on it."
Graber recently accompanied Topolanek on a trip to Washington. While there, in addition to taking in a Duke basketball game on television, Graber and other officials looked toward the future. If an agreement is approved and inked, the U.S. government plans to spend $90 million building the radar and $40 million maintaining it. Czech companies are expected to participate in both phases.
For Graber, that will mean more outreach, this time to explain timelines, logistics, and business investments. "The opportunity to talk about missile defense will continue and should continue," he says.
Richard Graber '78
American ambassador to the Czech Republic
June 1, 2008