So, Big O. met Lil’ B. regardless… Yesterday Prime Minister Borut Pahor concluded his visit the United States. This in itself would be of only mild importance had it not been for the infamous Wikileaks cable detailing how Pahor did some diplomatic tit-for-tat and, among other things, told the top ranking US diplomat in Slovenia that this country will consider taking in one Gitmo detainee, but he’d like to speak to President Barack Obama for 20-or-so minutes. And – somewhat surprisingly – did get what he asked for.
Big O. meets Lil’ B. (source: RTV SLO via STA)
Now, fair’s fair and it should be noted that Gitmo and quality-time with the Big O. were only part of a bigger package, much (if not all) of which was discussed with various US players by Slovene delegation which included foreign minister Samuel Žbogar and finance minister Franci Križanič. The fact that the latter was on the scene suggest that preliminary talks with J.P. Morgan over the bank possibly buying a stake in state-owned Nova Ljubljanska banka may actually yield results. Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath, although it seems that Slovenian delegation mostly got what it came for: pleading a case for US direct investments, American acknowledgement of Slovenia having clout in the Balkans and some face-time with Obama.
Truth be told, this wasn’t an Oval Office meeting. According to the infamous cable Pahor wanted a 20-minute private pow-wow with the US president, but instead got what appears to be a half-hour group huddle in the Roosevelt Room (adjacent to the Oval Office) where the two leaders were accompanied by their entourage.
Furthermore, it must be said that Pahor is not nearly the first Slovene leader to have met a US president. Way back in 1997 Slovenian President Milan Kučan had a private meeting with president Bill Clinton, which according to reports lasted about half an hour and every Slovene President and/or PM sice was either visiting or hosting the President of the United States of America. A year later Cliton was paid a visit by Slovene PM Janez Drnovšek. Then Clinton came to visit Slovenia in 1999 (co-hosted by PM Drnovšek and President Kučan), then we had the legendary Bush – Putin summit in Slovenia only months before 9/11 with Kučan and Drnovšek again playing co-hosts. A year later Drnovšek meets George W. Bush in the Oval office. Two years later, upon entry into NATO, Bush meets with Slovenian PM Tone Rop, whereas two years after that President Bush meets PM Janez Janša, who – again – two years later, in 2008, together with Slovenian president Danilo Türk plays co-host to President Bush while he visited Slovenia on his farewell tour in 2008. And now, two years later, Slovenian PM Borut Pahor visited US President Barack Obama.
Point being that starting with Clinton, Kučan and Drnovšek US presidents regularly met with Slovenian presidents and prime ministers. In this respect yesterday’s meeting is not really so much of a breakthrough as it is a continuation of Slovenia (again) punching above its weight in terms of regional diplomacy. While Slovenian politicos across the board consider themselves specialists on the Balkans issue, fact of the matter is that the moment the US realised that the endgame of Yugoslav wars will be played in Kosovo and took the Kosovar side, Slovenia was slowly but surely sidelined, although Kučan’s and Drnovše’s advice was much sought before the big boys decided to clear things up and finally kicked Milošević’s ass. Slovenia’s “special status” in the Balkans was of course confirmed by the 1999 Clinton visit.
Under Bush the US focused on their war on terror, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness and since at than time Slovenia was still outside NATO looking in, it continued to curry the US favour, often in a less-than-tasteful form (i.e. by co-signing the Vilnius Letter). Fast forward to 2008 and Slovenia has virtually no more clout in the Balkans (economic expansion into the region notwithstanding). Not that we didn’t have information, insight or opinion, it was just that the border dispute with Croatia was becoming an ever bigger mess, often almost on the brink of a shooting war. And if you can’t solve a petty dispute on your border, how can you give advice in the region? But that was solved, courtesy of big case of cojones on the part of PM Pahor and his Croatian counterpart Jadranka Kosor (with a little arm-twisting from Brussels and Washington) and now Slovenia can have a serious go at regional diplomacy once again. And since it is the US which shuffles this particular deck of cards, Slovenia again has to curry their favour, this time in clearing up the human rights mess that is the Guantanamo Detention Camp. Bottom line: although at times it looked more like Slovenia was blowing American dick and a lot of people looked away in disgust, Slovenia always tried whisper into the Americans’ good ear and for the past twelve years it has more or less succeeded.
Having said that, despite heartwarming assurances that Slovenia is an equal partner and all that jazz, it is obvious that yesterday’s meet-up was not a culmination of a long and successful diplomatic streak but a sort of a re-start, which had some good karma to it. However there are things that were conspicuously missing, mostly the fact that Obama did not meet Pahor separately but sort of “invaded” meeting with VP Biden. However, it is plainly obvious that the whole thing was carefully planned, despite a tweet by foreign minister Samuel Žbogar couple of hours before the meeting asking himself whether or not Obama will drop by.
This has all the hallmarks of a diplomacy Pahor-style, where everyone is playing stupid, allowing everyone to get what they wanted. Something like this happened late in 2009 when Bill Clinton came to a Diners event and bored everyone to death for 45 minutes, but refused to meet with Slovene leadership officially, apparently because the State Department will not have him pissing in his wife’s pool. But Pahor being what he is, he engineered a “chance meeting” in downtown Ljubljana. You can imagine the scene: a former US president just happens to be strolling down Čopova Street and the incumbent Slovenian PM by pure chance happens to find himself on that particular street and you’ll never believe whom he met…
The Pahor-Obama huddle is special when viewed through the prism of the Wikileaks cable which caused plenty of embarrassment and produced some very ballsy denials both in Ljubljana as well as Washington. In terms of defying the public outcry which – although largely unwaranted – followed the release of the cable, the meeting is both an achievement as well as a strong commitment of both Slovenia as well as US. However, when viewed on a larger scale of things, it only shows that what we are seeing is a variation of a familiar tune. A pretty good variation, but nothing radically new.