Radar issue shows the need for a generational transition in Czech politics

October 27, 2009

In a recent lecture for the United States Institute for Peace, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the world cannot afford to continue to rely on recycled Cold War thinking. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Czech politicians and media think in Cold War terms, and as a result Czech society does as well. The cancellation of -  or better said, the modification of - US plans for missile defense in Europe has revealed the inability of Czech political elites to liberate themselves from their fixation on the totalitarian experience, a fixation through which they continue to perceive and interpret current world events.
Václav Havel labeled the news that a US radar base would not be built in the Czech Republic a victory for “piss-poor selfishness” and called opponents of the radar pacifists “of the Munich type”. However, it was Havel himself who often referred to the fact that while the Soviet military bases were forced on the Czech people, the Czech nation is now in a position to freely decide for itself whether it wants US bases here or not. It is sad that Havel, a leading world figure in the field of human rights protection and freedom promotion, is now disparaging the legitimate, freely held opinion of a large part of the Czech public in such a pejorative way. Yes, the public may lack a deeper knowledge of security issues – but wasn’t it Václav Havel who said he was not interested in the technical and military parameters of defense, adding in the next breath that the radar is purely a defense matter? Why, then, did the former president and many other former dissidents and current politicians of the pre-revolution generation so vehemently support the US project?

We can find the answer in the text of an open letter addressed to Barack Obama in July of this year and formulated by leading Central and East European political personalities, including Václav Havel, Alexandr Vondra and Karel Schwarzenberg. The letter is proof of its authors’ deep belief that the only trustworthy guarantor of Czech (or rather regional) security is neither the EU, nor even NATO, but the United States of America. The radar was so highly appreciated precisely because Americans in uniform would be accompanying it. Setting aside the question of how easily and quickly such personnel could be evacuated from the country, Václav Havel and those close to him simply want to have the highest possible guarantee that neither they nor their children will ever have to experience again what they went through during totalitarianism. Havel, who had to suffer communist ill-treatment and who perceived the Americans as all but semi-divine through their Voice of America and Radio Free Europe broadcasts and what they symbolized during communism, is doing his best to beat back the bogies of the past from within the changed conditions of the present and of a future which is undergoing a stormy creation. For Havel and other Atlanticists, the Americans are the only relevant force for good and the only relevant standard-bearer of freedom and democracy in the world, and support for them must be all but uncritical. That has been manifested by Havel’s support for the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq, and the building of the missile defense. The silence of Czech Atlanticists over the torture of prisoners in the War on Terror paradoxically reveals the same kind of pragmatic realism which these same people have now condemned in their open letter to Obama.

The recent change to the US missile defense plans has meant the end of the dream of “special” or “enhanced” relations with the United States. The question is whether the radar was ever going to bring about such relations in the first place. There are dozens of countries all over the world convinced they enjoy special relations with the USA, and for the vast majority of them this is simply an illusion. Czech politicians who supported the radar made it into two things it was never intended to be:  First, a test of Czech solidarity as a US ally, and later, a test of the US commitment to the Czech Republic. After President Obama’s telephone call with Czech PM Fischer regarding the re-evaluation of the US plans, all the strong words about alliances seemed to evaporate within seconds, as some representatives of the ODS party began to speak hysterically of withdrawing Czech units from Afghanistan. Their many years of arguing that Czech soldiers in Afghanistan are also protecting Czech security interests and are not there only at the wish of (or under pressure from) the Americans also evaporated into thin air.

The Czech media responded in tabloid style with equivalent hysteria. The media took no interest in the fact that the new concept of missile defense will better protect Europe, and not only the territory of the United States. They took no interest in the fact that this new concept will cost less, be more effective and can be put into operation sooner than the original plan. They took no interest in the fact that unlike the original plans, there is now room for the full NATOization of missile defense. The Czech media also was not really interested in analyzing Russian foreign policy or even in a basic understanding of what the Russians have been concerned about all this time. Newspaper headlines gave the impression the Russian military was going to march into Prague the very next day once the radar’s demise was announced.

Naturally, the media does not live in a vaccuum. To a certain extent it reflects, facilitates and responds to the opinions of political elites. Their black-and-white, provincial commentaries on the radar, in which fear of Russia played the main role (Iran suddenly stopped being an issue), simply copied the mindsets of Czech politicians – the very Cold War mindsets that Hillary Clinton warned us about.

Yes, Russia is rather an autocratic state and is in the process of finding a new identity and role for itself in the world. It has its own ideas about the global order of power, but they are based on a universal legalism (minus human rights agenda), a new contractual economic/political/security relationship to the northern hemisphere, and a classic definition of sovereignty rather than on military confrontation. If the states of Central and Eastern Europe are in any sort of danger from Russia, it is danger of rather an economic nature, which cannot be faced militarily, but is best faced from within the framework of the EU.

What most Czech politicians forget is the broader context for re-evaluating US missile defense, a context that exceeds the borders of the Czech Republic and primarily has to do with Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. This is not one man’s naive vision, but a highly pragmatic policy pursuing American national interests. The ongoing disarmament talks between Russia and the USA are directly related to this vision, as are the Iranian nuclear program, China’s military modernization, developments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of these topics are mutually interrelated, but the key role will be played by developments in relations between Russia and the USA and between the USA and Iran.

An extensive study financed by the British, Norwegian and Swedish governments has recently presented a detailed and extensive (over 300 pages) report of the obstacles and challenges on the way to complete nuclear disarmament. Among other matters, the study researches the relationship between nuclear disarmament, nuclear proliferation, and missile defense. It is precisely missile defense that can play a positive role under certain circumstances in the process of nuclear disarmament, but only under the condition that the main nuclear powers reach an understanding and cooperate to implement it. Otherwise, even an embryonic missile defense system may be seen as a strategic advantage which will prompt other states to respond by being unwilling to continute to reduce their numbers of nuclear weapons and could even prompt them to increase their numbers and modernize. The Bush plans had to be modified and time had to be gained for the eventual location of missile defenses capable of shooting down ICBMs so that Obama’s hands will not be tied when it comes to finding the necessary mode of understanding and cooperation with other powers so missile defense and nuclear disarmament can complement one another instead of dialetically canceling each other out.

The inability or unwillingness of Czech politicians from the pre-revolution generation to perceive the broader political context of contemporary world events, as well as their willingness to bet on bilateral security guarantees at the expense of existing multilateral organizations, is completely inadequate in the context of today’s modern challenges. These challenges require courageous political vision instead of clinging to the traumas of the past. In their open letter to the US president, Havel, Vondra and Schwarzenberg complained that in Central Europe a new generation of politicians is growing up which does not share the memories or experiences of the pre-revolution generation. Rather than a cause for complaint, that may be a reason for hope.

Šádí Shanaáh – graduate of the European Studies at Cambridge, former advisor of the Minister of Education of the Czech Republic