Thirty years ago, “Back to Europe!” fittingly expressed what society expected from the Velvet Revolution.* The name of the continent represented the entire democratic West, including its flagship, the United States.
In short, that’s how we saw it from Prague at the time. We remembered how Ronald Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987, called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” After November 1989, the U.S. became the key country for the new Czechoslovak, and later Czech, polity. One can aptly describe the general transformation of our orientation over the past 30 years in terms of the development of relations between the Czech Republic and the U.S.
It was a honeymoon at first. The U.S. helped us throw off the Soviet shackles, and Americans saw us as proof that their ideals of freedom and universal human values really worked. Moreover, we had Vaclav Havel, whose personal story – as Americans particularly like it – confirmed everything. From dissident to president: that was a “larger-than-life” tale.
After a brief intermezzo, during which Havel, coming from a background of dissent, proposed a simultaneous dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and NATO, the political and social milieu settled on a clear-cut project. It soon became obvious that the Eastern danger, as a source of instability, if not aggression through influence or even force, did not disappear with the end of the Cold War. The goals of Czech foreign policy were totally clear: entry into NATO and membership in the EU.
Concentrated Pro-Western Forces
The Czech Republic joined the alliance in 1999. It wasn’t only a matter of embedding the country in security structures but also a first concrete, vigorous assertion that we had been received back into the “family of the West.” We became members of the EU five years later. We owe the successful completion of both basic post-Velvet Revolution projects to two things: political agreement on the domestic scene, and at the same time, a congruence of our interests with those of our strongest ally, the U.S.
The central figure of the Czech drive to join NATO, President Vaclav Havel, depended at the time on a broad political consensus. “The storm brewing in the East, where the centuries-old Russian colonial empire is collapsing, demands that we strive to join the North Atlantic alliance as quickly and closely as possible,” read a 1992 statement of the Civic Democratic Party. That party won the elections and, under the leadership of Vaclav Klaus, became the main governing power after the birth of the independent Czech Republic.
In April 1998, the Chamber of Deputies approved the Czech Republic’s NATO membership by a large majority (154:38). The only votes against it were from the Communists and the far right – Miroslav Sladek’s Republicans.
But on the American side, the Bill Clinton administration hesitated briefly on how fast NATO should expand. In 1994, it tried to gain time for the Partnership for Peace, and we also needed to convince the U.S. Senate. But in the end, the verdict was clear: expansion of the alliance was in America’s security and strategic interests.
Can We Withdraw from NATO ?
Shortly after we joined, however, Czech-American relations suffered a hard blow. Czech politics and society split over air strikes by the alliance in Serbia.
Then-Foreign Minister Jan Kavan, who had recently handed over ratification documents on joining NATO to Madeleine Albright, asked whether it was also possible to withdraw from the alliance. Then-Prime Minister Milos Zeman and the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Vaclav Klaus, both had problems with Czech participation in NATO’s actions.
That was obviously an extreme test, in which the views of America and the Czech Republic (with its historical and geographical proximity to Serbia) necessarily differed. It was also a clear sign that the honeymoon was over. As in domestic politics, so it was in relations with the rest of the world; the Czech Republic had sobered up from the revolutionary euphoria of “Let’s Go West!”
This was also confirmed in 2002, when then-Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik began negotiations with the George Bush administration on the possible deployment of elements of American anti-missile defense on Czech soil. It is symptomatic that Tvrdik was a Social Democrat, a member of a party that six years later, under the leadership of Jiri Paroubek, would bury the American radar project.
As late as the beginning of 2007, when the Bush administration officially offered the radar to the government of Mirek Topolanek, Paroubek did not rule out supporting the project. But as public opinion started to turn against the radar, Paroubek did likewise. By the end of 2008, it was already clear that the whole business had no chance of passing the Chamber of Deputies, and so it never even came to a vote.
Russia Has Returned ‘Home’
According to the Czech secret services, Russian money and activities were behind the strong public opposition to the radar. The fact that Moscow had attempted once again to intrude on Czech policymaking was not surprising in and of itself. What was new was the realization of how effectively the Russian trick had worked. It was an embarrassing but definitive end to the clearly dominant orientation of Czech society, and thereby of foreign policy, toward the U.S. and toward the West in general.
It was replaced by a “policy of multiple horizons,” in terms of priorities a euphemism for a new rapprochement with Russia and large-scale accommodation of China. Formally, it meant a rupture in Czech foreign policy, most visibly between the governing coalition and the president, but it also appeared frequently within the executive branch.
Such a disparity could be seen in many instances starting from that time. For instance, under the caretaker government of Jan Fischer in summer 2009, the partially state-owned CEZ** announced open bidding for completion of construction on the Temelin Power Plant, without taking into account the strategic and security dimensions of the project.
Prime Minister Petr Necas was photographed in the Oval Office with Barack Obama in November 2011, thanks to the fact that the American firm Westinghouse was interested in a contract, but Milos Zeman launched a rigorous lobbying campaign in favor of the Russian company Atomstroyexport after his arrival in office in spring 2013. When bidding on Temelin was discontinued a year later, on one hand, it was the end of hope for a big new project with the Americans, but on the other hand, many people were relieved, because the whole affair could have ended much more badly.
China, Please Don’t Take Offense
In early 2014, the government of Bohuslav Sobotka came to power, with the self-confident Minister of Foreign Affairs Lubomir Zaoralek, who solemnly swore that Czech foreign policy would now be integrated and transparent. But that suddenly sounded frightful when his deputy, Petr Drulak, declared that the Czech Republic had to put an end to Havel-style “human-rights-oriented Atlanticism.”
Minister of Defense Martin Stropnicky also made his own bizarre pronouncement that the potential deployment of NATO forces on Czech territory could be “a bit of a psychological problem,” definitely for the generation that had experienced the stationing of Soviet troops here.
Minister Zaoralek rhetorically reproached Milos Zeman for his statement that the war in Ukraine was just a touch of the flu and that he didn’t believe NATO reports on the presence of Russian soldiers in the conflict zone, because the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergey Lavrov, had assured him they weren’t true. But Zaoralek never managed to stifle Zeman’s influence on political debate at home or on the Czech Republic’s image abroad. And maybe he didn’t even wish to succeed.
That’s how it turned out in relations with China, when Zaoralek’s Foreign Ministry formulated the “Declaration of the Four” (signed by the president, the speakers of both chambers and the prime minister) in October 2016, the self-abasing apology to China by the Czech Republic’s highest constitutional functionaries over Minister of Culture Daniel Herman’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Like a Marriage with No Sex
In comparison, the government of Andrej Babis is a glimmer of hope in foreign policy, if only because Babis was the first Czech politician invited to the Oval Office in over seven years just this past March.
But let’s have no illusions about relations with the U.S. A rebirth of our values system is decidedly not taking place, and our interests are downright transactional: we’ll buy 12 helicopters from you if you stop threatening us with tariffs on automobiles.
With Donald Trump in the White House, it is now, from both points of view, a completely different story from that of 1990, when George H.W. Bush became the first American president ever to visit Prague. He brought a replica of the Liberty Bell and rang it several times for a full crowd on Wenceslas Square: “[O]nce for your courage, once for your freedom and once for your children.”
Back then it gave us goosebumps; today, it sounds melodramatic. Lacking pathos, it seems rather folksy instead. Thirty years after November 1989, the idea, expressed at a 2014 conference on Czech-American relations, that “we’ve worked our way from falling in love and honeymooning to a sexless marriage”*** still holds true.
We’ve heard the motto “Back to Europe!” too many times by now. And instead of an exclamation point, it mostly seems as though there’s a question mark at the end.
*Editor’s note: The Velvet Revolution refers to the nonviolent transition from communism in Czechoslovakia. Lasting from Nov. 17 to Dec. 29, 1989, students and older dissidents demonstrated against the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, leading to the establishment of the present parliamentary republic.
**Translator’s note: CEZ was a conglomerate of utility companies in Central and Eastern Europe, with 70% of shares belonging to the Czech government.
***Editor’s note: This quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.