Being an American ambassador can be a pretty surreal experience, but it can lead to some real advice for people considering careers in international business law.
Rick Graber, a prominent Milwaukee lawyer and Republican leader, was ambassador to the Czech Republic for the last two and a half years of President George W. Bush’s administration. He described his experiences as ambassador and gave advice during a recent hour with about 25 students in Profossor Irene Calboli’s International Business Transactions course at the Law School.
Graber called the lifestyle of an ambassador unimaginable – a spectacular 60,000-square-foot house and eight to ten people to run the house. “You’d take your shirt off in the evening and, magically, it would be clean in the morning,” he said. “That doesn’t happen much in Shorewood.”
Graber described the two major issues that occupied him during his time in the Czech Republic.
One, missile defense, attracted extensive attention around the world. The other, clearing the way for Czech citizens to visit the United States without visas, was a hot issue in that country, but drew little attention in the U.S. or elsewhere.
The Bush Administration, including Graber, did not prevail on its missile defense plans, which included placing facilities on Czech soil. “To work on something every day for two and a half years and not get it done was frustrating,” Graber said. “On the other hand, it was an incredible experience.”
As for the second issue, Americans are allowed to visit the Czech Republic without a visa, but, for many years, the reverse was not true, which made many Czechs unhappy. Graber said “the most satisfying day I had in Prague” was when he went to the airport to extend wishes for a good trip to the first Czechs to head for the U.S. without visas.
Based on his experience as ambassador and his extensive work in international business matters – which has resumed since he returned to Milwaukee – Graber gave the students some basic advice:
“At the end of the day, most places around the world, business is business,” he said. International dealings inevitably are more complex than comparable domestic deals, but don’t make them more elaborate than necessary, he said.
On the other hand, it is good to have a trusted advisor on the ground in the country where you are doing business. And you should know cultural differences, such as the very methodical style of doing business in Prague that can seem too conservative to people who are not familiar with it.
And pay attention to basic matters, such as time differences – if you want to do business during conventional hours in central Europe, you had better be prepared to get to your office in Milwaukee early in the morning.
Graber said his Czech time including many unforgettable moments, from a visit by President Bush to talking to the mother of the mayor of a village while sitting in her kitchen. Graber said he got to spend quite a bit of time with Vaclav Havel, the poet and playwright who was the first president of the Czech Republic, after Czechoslovakia was split into two countries in 1992. “When you’re sitting, talking to someone like that, you’re talking to history,” he said.