Interview: Confusing Czech foreign policy worries allies

  • Monika Tesařová
  • 25.5.2017 12:49

We asked Karel Kovanda, the former Czech ambassador for NATO, about Czech foreign policy - its direction, its limits and also about the role of the Czech Republic not only in NATO but in international organizations in general.

You were our first ambassador to NATO, can you compare the role of the Czech Republic in the Alliance at the time we entered it and now?

We entered the Alliance when Czech foreign policy had only begun to bear its fruit. The fundamental objective of the Czech foreign policy, since the establishment of the republic, was to become a part of Euro-Atlantic structures, which meant NATO on one hand and the EU on the other. There were also smaller tasks, like joining the OECD or international banking institutions, but joining the Alliance was the first objective that we successfully completed.

However, this was not easy because the public's view of the Alliance membership was not clear. The Czech Republic did not adopt the approach of, for instance, Poland, whose public was very pro-Alliance - both for historical reasons and due to its geographical position.

The attitude of the Czech public was ambiguous, which was an issue we struggled with both on the domestic soil and during the talks with the Alliance. The ambiguity of the Czech public opinion only deepened with the Kosovo crisis, and after that it took several years for this attitude to change.

According to public surveys, the attitude of the Czech public towards NATO is currently positive, which is related to several aspects. On one hand, as a country we have done a great job in Afghanistan and with protecting the Baltic airspace with our Gripen jets, and while this sort of work is not publically noticeable, it is very apparent within the Alliance. The second thing is that we had some brilliant ambassadors for the Alliance, such as Martin Povejšil or Jiří Šedivý, and another visible result of our work is that General Petr Pavel is currently the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee.

As a result of how successful we are and how we act in the Alliance, there is a complete confidence in our armed forces in our home country. It has been long since our army was considered to be an army of Švejks.

What is the Czech Republic's limit within NATO? The criticism aimed at the Czech Republic very often concerns the insufficient contribution to the Alliance.

This is our main weakness, we spend only a little over 1% GDP on defence. Despite the occasional calls for a gradual increase of the contribution up to 2%, which we have reached in the past, nothing really happens.


"We have, in particular, gotten better at being able to sell what we have."


On the other hand, what do you think the Czech Republic has gotten better at in the Alliance, what it has learned, aside from the increasing confidence in NATO and the army among the Czech public, which you have already mentioned?

We have, in particular, gotten better at being able to sell what we have. For example, we sold a lot of aircraft to Iraq, but not much is known about the presence of Czech pilots who train Afghan pilots there. We cannot always sell what we do that well.

We have our citizens and soldiers in the Alliance structures, which we have been working hard towards ever since the time I had been an ambassador. The highlight of this effort is the position of General Petr Pavel. We do this better than we did before.


"It seems to me that our republic is becoming more open to forces, that have nothing to do with the Alliance."


From 1991 to 2005 you worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. How would you evaluate the Czech foreign policy you were a part of during this period? How did you perceive it?

The foreign policy of any country is usually impartial and mostly dominated by the consensus of the main political parties. It is unusual that it would change with the change of government in a democratic system, but I am not sure to what extent this would apply to the Czech foreign policy.

There are two factors here. The first is the external policy factor - the direction of the Czech foreign policy - and there has long been a consensus with which we have entered the Alliance: that we are a reliable and suitable ally for our Western friends. However, in recent years, it seems to me that our country is becoming more open to forces, that have nothing to do with the Alliance, in particular opening up to Russia and China to an extent that is quite questionable. When I look at the influence Mr. Nejedlý has on our president, I am amazed that such a person can be anywhere near the centres of power. The consensus on the direction of the Czech foreign policy seems very flawed to me, various actors - the prime minister, the president, the foreign minister, are all looking in different directions and they put different emphasis on various directions of our foreign policy.

The second factor is internal, it concerns foreign policy making, and in that I see chaos with regard to Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


"A politician does not let himself to be dragged by public opinion."


You mentioned the direction towards Russia and leaning towards China, but in the V4 countries, euroscepticism manifested in several waves, can it be said that this also affects Czech foreign policy?

A politician does not let himself to be dragged by public opinion. Mečiar once said, "Let people tell me what they want, I will get them there". But this is not a politician. I would hope that the eurosceptic public opinion will not play a role in how our policy evolves. Quite the opposite, prudent and responsible politicians will influence and shape public opinion.

Why is euroscepticism so widespread in the V4 countries compared to Western Europe?

I do not think it is widespread. Every V4 country is different, each has its specific problems. I do not know where Euroscepticism in the Czech Republic streams from, because if we look at how much we contribute to the EU and how much we get, the balance is in our favour. I would not be surprised if euroscepticism retreated after the elections in France and Germany. However, there are things we are right to be upset about. For instance, recently, the Czech Republic has been trying to get the European Commission to ensure that the products sold on the Czech market are the same quality as the same products sold in Austria or Germany; the European Commission will probably look into it. This is a specific case of how the European Commission, potentially the EU, contributes to the quality of our lives.

Aside from the above-mentioned direction, do you see other limits of the Czech foreign policy?

The limit, or that chaos, is based on how it is perceived. Perhaps more in the EU than in the Alliance, these limits lead to a certain unease over the direction of the Czech foreign policy and the extent to which it can be relied on. This unease weakens us.

Do you see any way out of this situation?

The solution is political, it depends on Czech political representation. The development will, in my view, essentially depend on the extent to which the ČSSD will participate in the post-electoral political representation.


"The problem is the non-transparent policy of the Czech Republic which causes unease among our allies."


You have worked at the European Commission for several years now, how do you assess the role of the Czech Republic within the European institutions?

The role of the Czech Republic is twofold - at the technical level, we are very good. For example, Czechs are gradually being promoted within the EC, no one has any objections to the Czech Republic from the technical point of view. However, the ambiguity of Czech positions still manifests sometimes, such as with the resignation of the government during our presidency, or with the occasional criticism of European policies. The problem is the non-transparent policy of the Czech Republic, which causes unease among our allies.


From 2005 to 2010, Karel Kovanda was the Deputy Director-General of Relex in the European Commission. He previously served as the Czech Permanent Representative to NATO and also held several positions at the United Nations, where he served as the Czech Permanent Representative. Currently, he works as a senior analyst at Covington.
About author: Monika Tesařová


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