Stagnation in 2012 Czech foreign policy

A look at Czech foreign policy in 2012 leads to the simple conclusion that it was a quieter, and therefore less significant, time. It is clear that the Czech Republic was not faced with any major questions, like the building of a radar base or the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. A certain calm is perfectly logical after the preparation of new versions of fundamental documents in 2010 and 2011 (The Security Strategy and Foreign Policy Concept, respectively). On the other side of the coin, however, there is no denying the fact that this “lull in foreign-policy” was caused in large part by a lack of clear strategic vision and strong political leadership. The Czech Republic therefore often came across as an entity wrapped up in itself, and as a country that had no real interest in involving itself with events going on around it.

The Czech Republic undoubtedly faces challenges that arise more from developments in domestic rather than foreign policy. Nonetheless, this offers no justification for key actors to simply give up on the formulation of a Czech position on contemporary global problems. The highest political echelons in the country lacked a sufficiently loud, consistent and clear voice on issues like the continued development of European integration and the position of the Czech Republic in the European Union, the growth of authoritarian tendencies in Russia, the orientation of security policy after withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2014, the conflict in Syria, the significantly more critical stance of the United States and EU towards Israeli policy or the fight against climate change. In all cases these are subject-matters on which the Czech Republic has something to offer and by which the country is directly affected.

The absence of political leadership was an even greater problem given that the Czech Foreign Policy Concept from 2011 reduced issues to their lowest common denominator and failed to push interests and values in an unambiguous direction. The insufficient amount of strategic planning was merely confirmed by the fact that the government has yet to submit a conceptual document on European policy, something it undertook to do in its programme declaration. The shape of the Czech Republic Defence Strategy is also problematic; because of its rushed preparation, when the deadline was moved at the last minute and the team of writers dramatically reduced, this is likely the biggest missed opportunity.

The year 2012 saw the Czech political scene’s long-term underestimaton of international context serve to intensify an unfortunate trend in which internal political and party-related conflict spills into foreign policy and the image of the Czech Republic abroad. Perhaps most typical of this tendency was a speech given by Prime Minister Petr Nečas at the Engineering Trade Fair in Brno, in which he condemned support for the convicted members of Russian band Pussy Riot and the Tibetan Dalai Lama in the vein of “fashionable political speeches”. The Prime Minister is certainly entitled to cast doubt on the premises of Czech foreign policy and its particular expressions, though one can imagine a more appropriate forum for the presentation of such criticism. It ensues from the political context that his speech was not a seriously-intentioned attempt to spark debate on foreign policy priorities, but a tactical move in response to his shaky position within the ODS.

There was also little success in in overcoming the existence of a number of uncoordinated and non-intersecting lines of foreign policy – quite the opposite, in fact. The evident conflict of the stances adopted at Czernin, the Castle and the Straka Academy was the prevailing trend in questions of European integration and can also be seen in reactions to the latest developments in the Arab world, including the civil war in Syria, in Russia and in Serbo-Kosovan relations. The government, which should be the flag-bearer of foreign policy, was torn between the ODS and TOP 09 on key questions. The outgoing President, who in the wording of the Constitution is the executor of government policy and a representative of national interests, used foreign policy as a megaphone for his own, private opinions, opinions that were often directly at odds with government opinions and the stance of the MoFA. Insufficient coordination or even institutionalised rivalry at ministries and other central authorities revealed conflicts at the highest political levels. Examples of this are the repeatedly referred to, but remain unresolved, and include a rivalry between the MoFA and the MoIT on economic diplomacy and lapses in communication at the MoFA and the MoI in awarding political asylum to Ukrainian citizens.

This is about much more than losing the ability to project the interests of the state and its people in a uniform amidst party-led and bureaucratic games. These games are not primarily aimed at foreign actors, but nevertheless – or perhaps because of this – they could have serious impacts on the credibility of the country among other members of the international community. Doubts over the fundamental position of the protection of human rights merely serve to confirm to Russia or China their belief that this dimension of Czech foreign policy is merely a cover for other interests. The dual track of economic diplomacy cannot bring the desired results in the shape of increased support for Czech exporters and investors in countries where state assistance is essential. Transformational cooperation programmes will not bring the desired result if the Czech Republic simultaneously makes it clear to the citizens of Ukraine and Belarus, through our visa policy, that we do not want them here, even as visitors. Leaving aside the stance of the President, who is entirely outside any sound integrational discourse, we will hardly be taken seriously by EU partners if Czech politicians are unable to agree to the creation of a permanent, working mechanism for coordinating European affairs. It is not only a matter of these problems going unresolved, but of a complete lack of serious discussion about them at a political level.

The above-mentioned political and institutional disputes simply underline that Czech foreign policy is, on important issues, inconsistent, reactive and lacking in strategic dimension. In spite of all the documents adopted, there is really nothing to identify as a Czech grand strategy. The priorities of foreign policy are unclear because there is a failure to differentiate the essential from the less important. In other words, long-term strategic balance and political boldness are not apparent in Czech foreign policy at this time. This results in overly cautious stances, which fail to lead to any clear, visible, international initiative based on a firm domestic consensus, and manifests itself only in the occasional pouting on European issues. Even in a situation in which the Czech Republic is not under threat from any great external or internal danger and is able to draw on a generally favourable international context, political representation is unable to come up with a vision for using these advantages creatively.

In contrast, it must be said that Czech foreign policy is successful on subject-matters where there is broad agreement, to which diplomacy and state administration adopt an active approach and which benefit from long-term political support. The best results can be found in policy related to our neighbours, within both multilateral and bilateral dynamics. The second semester of the Czech Presidency of the Visegrad Group arrived in the first half of 2012. The Czech Republic was successful in achieving progress on all dimensions of cooperation that were identified as priorities. Joint efforts meant that the Visegrad Group influenced discussions about European Union cohesion policy in the course of the forthcoming Multiannual Financial Framework, launched other projects for the countries of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership and agreed on closer cooperation in defence and security matters.
The foreign policy concept identified two of the Czech Republic’s neighbours, Germany and Poland, as strategic partners. In both cases it can be seen that Czech diplomacy is working to make sure that these relations are of a high quality, although the aforementioned absence of vision and courage generally prevents more intensive cooperation on the key issue of the day – the future of the European Union. Geographical proximity and the growing interconnection of Central Europe bring the need to solve problems arising from the instense relations which appear almost daily and in various sectors (for example energy, consumer protection, environmental conservation etc.). Apart from the considerable intensity of political contact, it is important in these cases to stabilise relations state administrations have at various levels. The positive, open and active approach the Czech Republic has to issues like anti-drug policy, border controls and consumer protection against harmful food products contributes to cultivating relations with neighbours. An atmosphere of trust is fundamental because negative consequences that ensue from the absence of such trust fast affect individual citizens.

Visible efforts were also made in 2012 to make the foreign service more rational and improve its quality. Experienced, able people were appointed to key ambassadorial posts. Martin Povejšil became ambassador to the EU and Jiří Šedivý took up the post of ambassador to NATO. Moreover, the MoFA resisted the considerable efforts of the Castle to put president-backed candidates in ambassadorial positions. Although the terms of several ambassadors in certain important countries (Russia, Austria) ended in 2012 and were not immediately replaced, this cannot be seen as any failure on the part of Czernin Palace. In contrast, the President was at fault for trying to encroach on the personnel affairs of the MoFA in a way that outstrips his mandate.

The decision of the government to continue in rationalising of foreign representation in 2013 should also be viewed favourably. After several waves of simply closing embassies, new offices look ready for opening. What is more, the MoFA has promised a low-budget format for the representation of Czech interests. Together with plans to share space with other countries, which has also been the case for Czech representation in Armenia since 2012, this is a trend that is in line with proper diplomacy in the 21st century.
The MoFA has also been a part of trends that prioritise greater openness and transparency in how public institutions are run and must be commended for a whole range of steps in this area. It is now perfectly simple, for example, to find information on public contracts or budget expenses on the MoFA website. Moreover, the Ministry again began publishing the Czech Republic Foreign Policy bulletin at the end of 2011 and consultations between the Ministry and experts from the wider public was conducted at various levels. However, in this regard we should point out that there are major differences between the functioning of individual departments and in some cases there is still the conviction that formulating and representing the interests of the Czech Republic is a matter for a tiny elite of experts. We should realise within the context of the 21st century that foreign policy is also policy and should therefore be open as much as possible to input from experts and the general public. In many cases, the information flow in 2012 ws sporadic and dialogue was selective.

In summary, then, Czech foreign policy in 2012 was a combination of prevailing political indolence and more-or-less professional operation at an official level. Unfortunately, the institutional, programmatic and procedural potential remains unfulfilled. The path towards change undoubtedly leads through restoring consensus and interest among political elites. The year 2013 could bring interesting stimuli in this regard given the entirely new atmosphere following the first direct presidential elections, and with the President traditionally occupying an important role in foreign policy. The question of how the performance of Miloš Zeman differs from that of Václav Klaus is one of the great unknowns of 2013. A President with a newly-conceived mandate could play a positive role in maintaining the political stability that is essential to effective foreign policy. Experience to date means that there is reason to hope that the input of the new President is more positive that the frequently obstinate and less-than-constructive action of his predecessor.

Authors are research fellows at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think-tank. The text is a part of the annual publication Agenda for Czech Foreign Policy that evaluates performance in the last year and formulates policy recommendations for the year to come.
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published: 12. 6. 2013