The Czech path towards a bolder foreign policy strategy

For about a year now Czech society has been discussing a revamp of its foreign policy strategy. Some commentaries might lead one to believe that the Czechs were about to resign on human rights support or even cut ties with “the West”, but nothing like that happened. On the contrary, the vigorous debate of the past year has in fact renewed a long overdue ambition.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Duncann Hull


Even before the Czech government took office last year, the minister and his deputy presented a set of ideas that were to become the basis for a new foreign policy concept. 1 The declared “comeback to Europe” was warmly welcomed by everyone, except for hardline conservatives; yet suggestions for a more sober evaluation of the West’s role in the world, and proposals considering the socio-economic and environmental dimensions in the foreign policy formulation, raised many eyebrows.

It did not seem to matter that in Western Europe, with which we’ve been trying to catch up for years, this is a mainstream discourse. The same goes for the discussion about the roles of men and women in public life – another topic, which the new team in the ministry opened.

It’s not that our Western partners would fully introduce these aspects in their foreign policy strategies, but they are on the table; they are a topic for discussion, and certainly not only among the Left. Step by step measures are being taken to implement them.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Climate change is neither distant nor improbable. It is here. Social inequality is not some “Trotskyte fantasmagoria”, but it is one of today’s crucial topics, undermining political freedoms worldwide. And yes, women, still half of the world’s population, are increasingly asking for their share in decision-making on the policies that impact their lives.

In the Czech Republic though there has been a reluctance to discuss these proposals in a serious manner. Some suggested that bringing such issues into foreign policy is useless, if not ridiculous; while others thought that although it is interesting, it is too abstract, and so they push it to a back burner for a later time.

No Time to Talk about the West in Times of War

Meanwhile, diplomatic life continued to bring a number of very concrete situations. President Zeman has made a number of embarrassing statements on both domestic and foreign policy issues, going as far as banning the US Ambassador from Prague Castle, after the ambassador suggested that it would be “awkward” if the Czech president was the only European politician attending the military parade in Moscow. 2 The Presidential Office later withdrew the “ban,” but situations like these, as well as Zeman’s reluctance to take a clear stand on Ukraine, have put Czech diplomacy in a complicated position.

Moreover, the government’s cacophony over anti-Putin sanctions and the CR’s role in Ukraine did not create very propitious conditions for the discussions about reframing the foreign policy foundations. Let’s highlight, that although Putin has long ago and repeatedly declared how important Ukraine is to him, the country has eluded the interests of most Czech political parties, be they left or right-wing. Czech interest in Ukraine was promoted mostly by a handful of diplomats and activists.

Eruption of the war in Ukraine then somehow spontaneously inspired the need and necessity to take sides. Not only was there no time for debates about a more balanced way to approach the role of the West in the world, these debates even became inappropriate in some settings, because they were considered beneficial for the Moscow-sponsored trolls.

As if this was not already enough, there was the minister’s trip to China 3, a few words about the late president and prominent thinker Vaclav Havel, and then another battle erupted in Prague as well.

Deputy Minister, Petr Drulák, an IR professor and former head of the Institute of International Affairs, became a polarizing figure and for many a symbol of the destruction of the best parts of the existing foreign policy. To illustrate, one recent front-page newspaper article that presented a leaked draft of the new foreign policy concept was printed under headline Czech Foreign Policy Concept: Comeback of Human Rights and Drulak’s Defeat. 4

Perhaps the most unfortunate part has been the framing of the new approach to rights as a juxtaposition to Václav Havel’s approach. Not because Havel is a “brand,” but because in Havel’s texts, speeches and by his example one finds many similar ideas to the current government’s vision of foreign policy. 5

The drafters of the new foreign policy concept were thus attacked for their idealism and lack thereof simultaneously. They received verbal slaps for threatening “our bond with the West,” as well as legacy of dissent and transition.

Yet, the debate that ensued uncovered something very important – how shaky the foundation of our so oft-declared allegiance to “the West” really was. It appeared that the Czechs are in fact confused about defining what “the West,” the “Atlantic bond” and human rights mean for them.

To blame Czech society a quarter of a century after regime change, for not settling on a shared version of its recent history and a clear vision of its future, does not make sense. 6 Is there a society that has actually achieved this?

But since the West, Atlantic bond and human rights became key words in the battle over the new foreign policy, it makes sense for Czech society to put more energy into clarifying what they mean, and for whom they mean it.

Which America?

Let’s put aside the paradox that the same government, that took steps to better the Czech Republic’s position in the EU, has been criticized for taking the country away from the West, some debates basically narrowing the Westernness down to the Atlantic bond. But if we talk about the Atlantic bond, or relations with America, which America are we referring to? The America of George Bush, the Tea Party, John Stewart, Amy Goodman or John Oliver?

Since we’re discussing foreign policy, it makes sense to consider Obama’s America. Yet the US Administration’s thinking on foreign policy and even domestic policy is not that far from the current Czech one, and this certainly constitutes good conditions for a better Atlantic bond.

Obama was elected on his promise that he would opt for a more multilateral approach to foreign policy than Bush, and he has tried to do this. He reset relations with Russia, began to normalize relations with Cuba, took steps towards a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear program and brokered a crucial climate deal with China.

None of this would have been possible had he entered the negotiations under a banner “We’re the West, who’s more?” Of course the American president received a lot of criticism for his initiatives, some even labeled him as the enemy of the West, but that’s not the issue here.

One may still wonder what the basis of the Czech-Atlantic bond really is. The reset with Russia has scared more than one Central European nation. Of course the Czech Republic has to watch its security, and so it is absolutely clear that a constructive and friendly dialogue with the US is in its best interest, regardless of which government is in power in both countries.

The US are a global super-power and if the Czech Republic wants to have a say in global politics, then a bond with the US is important. But the Czech MFA never doubted this.

Thus, what kind of America do we want? Only the one that guarantees Central Europe’s security, regardless of who is in power and what they do? Did we ever offer reciprocity for this security – for example, in support of Obama’s quest to improve health care for Americans?

Insecurities

Over the course of the previous year, we have witnessed plenty of insecurities surfacing in regards to our relationship with America and “the West”.

Another expression of insecurity is how the draft versions of foreign policy concepts appeared in the media (imagine if someone would publish an article that you have not yet finished!) before they were presented to coalition partners, the expert committee or even the minister.

Public oversight over state representatives is of course a condition sine qua non for democracy and the need to be the first one running a story is something that belongs to journalistic work. However, it is difficult to understand exactly how the public interest was served by publishing an unfinished document. Especially since the MFA was not secretive during the foreign policy concept’s preparation and neither the minister nor his deputy avoided public appearances.

The battle brought more expressions of insecurity, for instance when “human dignity” made it into the document. A number of commentators were worried that this meant the end of “human rights”. This is intriguing, because the demand for “dignity” was one of the basic demands of the Arab Spring. The Arab activists, we are assisting, as part of the Transition Assistance program would not wink hearing this word. One does not need to go overseas to look for dignity – think of the slogans of the anti-austerity movements in southern Europe. After all not even the Czech constitution is shy of dignity – reference to it can be readily found in the preamble, three lines above “human rights.”

Where are we now?

A plurality of opinions and a critical and often highly cultivated debate is one of the best things in the Czech Republic. It would therefore be a pity if the talks on our foreign policy vision halted with the headlines – “Drulak’s defeat” and “confirmation of the Atlantic bond” – and if human rights and Westernness simply became commodities in inter-party struggles.

According to public opinion polls, a number of Czechs seem to be confused about the conflict in Ukraine and only a few percent are convinced that the Czech Republic should be more involved in its resolution. 7 It’s difficult to blame the public if the experts are busy discussing whether “rights” or “dignity” matters more.  All this while some government representatives are not interested in any of it, which makes them very similar to some of the representatives of the previous government.

A more thorough reflection of what we mean when we say “the West” and what we are willing to do for the fulfillment of the concrete values we claim to support, could help us to sort out some of our current confusion and insecurity.

Petr Drulák has certainly moved this debate forward, and while one may disagree with some of his initiatives or style, it would be imprecise to portray him as a spoiler. Czechs are now debating a much more penetrating foreign policy concept than any of the previous ones; and now we hear fewer voices questioning the relevance of the social and environmental dimensions of foreign policy. Of course, the final version of the concept (and its implementation) is yet to be seen.

A version of this article is available in Czech at Denník Referendum. An in-depth analysis is forthcoming.

Notes:

  1. See article by Petr Drulak here (in Czech) “Lidská práva v zahraniční politice aneb od snění k naivitě a zpět“; in V4Revue we covered the issue last summer – Lucia Najšlová, “A clash of selective empathies: Human rights and the West in Czech foreign policy,” V4Revue, 14 July 2014.
  2.  “US Ambassador Barred from the Prague Castle by Czech President”,  BBC News, 5 April 2015.
  3.  See Olga Lomova. ”The Czech Republic and the Peoples’ Republic of China. “Good Old” Relations Restarted?”, V4Revue, 20 October 2014.
  4.  Kateřina Šafaříková “Koncepce zahraniční politiky: návrat lidských práv a Drulákova prohra“, Lidové noviny 31 March 2015. 
  5.  Jakub Patočka  “Také Drulák a Zaorálek navazují na disent, jen by to měli říct“,  Deník Referendum 18 July 2014. 
  6.  See also article by Jan Adamec “On whataboutism and Czech underperformace” , V4Revue, 24 Feburary 15. 
  7.  See polls conducted by the Institute of Sociology of Czech Academy of Sciences; Over the past year, more than half of the Czech respondents did not know what stance to adopt regarding the events in Ukraine. The February report (which includes data from earlier polls) is available (in Czech only) here.
Lucia Najšlová

Lucia Najšlová

is the editor in chief of the V4 Revue. She is a lecturer at the Charles University in Prague and at UPCES CERGE-EI and associate fellow at the IIR in Prague.