Outgoing RFE President Jeffrey Gedmin discusses his four years as RFE president, his surprising beginnings as a musician, and the road ahead with Prague's leading English-language weekly "The Prague Post."RFE/RL Chief's Exit Interview
Benjamin Cunningham | The Prague PostMarch 2, 2011
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, does the world still need Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty? And in the age of austerity, do U.S. taxpayers still care to pay $100 million annually to fund a 28-language international radio service?
"There is a saying, 'If you believe in peace, invest now,' " says RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin on one of his last days on the job. "That is what we do."
"Americans have a lot of obligations, and quite understandably say 'We can't be all things to all people,' " he continues.
"But don't be deceived by the name. We are not only in Europe, not only on radio and we are saying, 'Wait a second, there are areas of the world that still need accurate, fair-minded news.' "
Gedmin has been at the helm of RFE/RL for just over four years, overseeing, among other things, the relocation of the station from its home in the old Czechoslovak Parliament building at the top of Wenceslas Square to a new 21,925-square-meter state-of-the-art facility in Prague 10, a move that paralleled the ongoing more existential transition to a "platform agnostic" organization utilizing the Internet and social networking.
Today, much like another institution forged during the Cold War - NATO - RFE/RL has its sights firmly fixed on Central Asia and the Middle East with broadcasts to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran among the 21 "not free, war-torn or in-turmoil" countries it addresses.
Gedmin says during a recent meeting with Hamid Karzai, the embattled Afghan president told him the station is "the first thing I listen to in the morning."
A self-proclaimed "failed musician," Gedmin took a circuitous route to Prague. He grew up near Washington, D.C. before studying music at American University, including a stint singing in a choir "a long time ago." It was during a study year abroad in Salzburg that he developed an affinity for Germanic culture and took his first trip behind the Iron Curtain.
"It was like going from a color movie to a black-and-white movie," Gedmin says.
Aside from cinematic impressions, he came away with a new nose for politics.
"I went as a rather apolitical left-leaning musician and came back a crusading anti-communist," he says.
A graduate degree in German Area Studies followed, and eventually a Ph.D. from Georgetown. After a seven-year stint as a teacher at a Washington, D.C. Jesuit high school for boys, Gedmin became a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning D.C.-based think-tank. In a final six-year stop before RFE/RL, he rekindled his taste for Teutonic culture as director of the Aspen Institute, a humanist nonprofit group in Berlin.
But it remains the events of 1989, their prelude and aftermath, Gedmin says, that influenced many of his generation and lead to his own "hawkish liberal internationalist" perspective on international affairs.
"We came of age intellectually and politically when there was a fight against communism," he says. "Our worldview was formed by the liberation of these places."
While somewhat reluctant to refer to himself in the now often pejorative term "neo-conservative," Gedmin was a supporter of the Iraq war and a signatory of a 1998 letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton urging regime change in Iraq that included many of the neo-con movement's leading lights (Francis Fukayama, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, William Kristol).
He says he is a strong advocate of "free trade, internationalist foreign policy and human rights."
"Given a choice, people will choose freedom over tyranny," he continues. "That is why [many of those who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s] are applying some of the same ideas when we talk about Iran, Putin's Russia and the Middle East."
Asked about the continued events in North Africa and the Arab world, Gedmin says, "Who doesn't like people power?" before citing one of those aforementioned contemporaries, Anne Applebaum, an author and columnist for The Washington Post who is married to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski.
In a Feb. 21 column, Applebaum sought to differentiate current events in North Africa and the Middle East from those in 1989 Central and Eastern Europe. Her article argued that the disparate causes of revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere are more akin to European revolutions of 1848, many of which failed to bear fruit for decades to come.
"There are more differences than similarities," Gedmin says in comparing the Maghreb of 2011 with the Warsaw Pact of 1989. "History is not linear."
Returning to the cause of RFE/RL, he argues that questions like the ones posed in the opening of this article could have been asked, for example, in 1988.
"Someone could have said, 'Can you prove that your broadcasts are having an impact?' " Gedmin says. "And the answer would have been no."
Gedmin concedes that RFE/RL's source of funding, the U.S. Congress, presents an "optical problem" - the Iranian regime, for example, refers to the station as "CIA radio." He is quick to add that a strong and necessary "firewall" is in place to limit any political influence on editorial content.
"People aren't stupid. If you deliver news that stands the test of time and continually checks out as accurate, they notice," he says. "To be influential, you must be credible. To be credible, you must be independent."
One wonders why Gedmin, who is clearly still enthusiastic about RFE/RL, has decided to leave his post at the head of the organization. His next stop is the top post at a London-based think-tank, the Legatum Institute. The institute is known for, among other things, its Prosperity Index, which was launched in 2010 and combines traditional economic data along with how satisfied a country's citizens are with their lifestyle when calculating wealth.
"I believe in principles, and I always encourage growth and taking risks," Gedmin says. "If I preach this, maybe I have to practice it."
He cites the "entrepreneurial" challenges of the new job as what excites him most.
"I am going from a symphony orchestra to chamber music," the former pianist, guitarist and choral conductor says. "But chamber music can be quite exquisite."