To the traditionally skeptic Czechs, the idea of the ballistic missile defense system was never an easy sell for the Bush administration. Even Alexander Vondra, a leading Czech Atlanticist under Vaclav Havel who pushed for Euro-Atlantic integration, could not convince the public of the merits of the radar base planned for the Czech Republic.
Vondra, Havel and former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek argued simply that “There is no such thing as a free lunch” when it comes to matters of national security, but this didn’t exactly work. About 70% of Czechs were opposed to the U.S. radar system, and a small majority of parliament representatives would likely have refused to ratify the U.S.-Czech treaties had Topolanek’s government allowed a vote.
This is not the best score for Czech Atlanticists. What have they done wrong?
First of all, the young Czech political system is not very consensual, with crucial long-term problems like health care reform and energy politics being heavily politicized. With consensus so difficult to achieve, it sometimes seems impossible to transform differing views into real political decisions. This is often the case in Czech foreign policy also.
Since the fall of the communist regime, the Czech Republic’s foreign policy has been built on three pillars: good relations with neighbors, pro-European Union politics and strong transatlantic relations. There has been overall consensus on these three issues, but when it comes to “hard cases” like the Iraq war or the radar station, there is significant disagreement, perhaps even fundamental division, between pro-EU and pro-U.S. blocks of the Czech political elite.
Secondly, systemic problems in the Czech constitutional and electoral systems weaken politicians’ ability to form strong governments and build upon prior decisions. The presence of five different governments in the last five years illustrates the seriousness of this problem. The “radar treaties” with the U.S. were concluded with Topolanek’s former cabinet, but this cabinet has now been replaced by the new “bypass” government after sudden political turmoil during the Czech presidency of the EU.
However, this new government of former senior bureaucrat Jan Fischer has no clear political mandate and relies on a fragile accord of the main political parties. Fischer’s cabinet is supposed to rule until elections scheduled for June 2010. Yet, it is doubtful the government will reach a major decision on any of the new missile defense initiatives proposed by President Obama (for example, establishing the command and control headquarters for the new missile defense system in the Czech Republic, an idea proposed by Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher at an Atlantic Council conference last week).
Moreover, the unstable politics of the Czech Republic make it difficult for Vice-President Biden’s “reassurance” team to succeed in its diplomatic mission to Prague this month. Czech Atlanticists are dissapointed by the “reset” of the Bush project, and their position is much weaker after heavily investing their political capital in the unpopular “radar issue.” Social Democrats, the main opponents of the radar, will likely be victorious in the next elections, and they won’t be very open to the new offer of U.S. military presence in the Czech Republic.
Jiri Paroubek, leader of the Social Democratic Party, called the decision to stop the Bush missile defense project a “victory of the Czech people.” The radar issue was central to his populist political program, making the possibility of a change in position on missile defense from the main Czech left wing party improbable. Positive remarks from Paroubek about Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize could signal coming positive U.S.-Czech relations but are not a prediction of the result of future political discussions.
In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger lamented: “When I want to call Europe, I cannot find a phone number.” The Czech Republic has more than one phone number these months. Powerful Social Democrats and weakened Atlanticists make Prague an unstable ground for the new U.S. initiative. A timely and clear decision on the Czech role in the new Obama strategy should not be expected from Czech policymakers.
Lukas Hoder is a PhD Candidate at the Department of International Relations and European Studies in the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Czech Republic. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Global Politics Magazine.