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Prague, NATO, and European Security

Authored by Dr. Stephen J. Blank. | April 1996

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The Czech Republic's security policy priority is the soonest possible entry into full NATO membership. Prague thereby hopes to achieve primarily political and psychological goals of self-identification and acceptance as a member of the West, not Central or Eastern Europe. Czech officials do not seek membership out of a sense of military danger or threat, though they do worry about Russia's apparently revived neo-imperial outlook. Politically the Czech Republic wants security integration with the most successful alliance in Europe, a lasting and durable transatlantic security guarantee so it is not alone with Germany in Central Europe, and an opportunity to reorient its policies away from the other neighboring states in Central Europe.

Thus, Czech policy is unilateralist to a high degree. Prague eschews virtually all forms of regional cooperation except where it might help foster NATO membership. It has avoided anything other than a free trade zone with Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, virtually disdains the latter in public, and Czech officials express highly uncomplimentary views about Polish policy. Prague also seems unconcerned, or at least relatively unconcerned about the security destiny of Ukraine, the Baltic states, and the Balkans if it gets into NATO. Thus its provincialist, if not nationalist, policies, do come into conflict with the spirit of NATO's and the United States' professed ambition to engineer, over time, a pan-European security settlement. Nor does its aversion to cooperation with its neighbors bode well for a Czech state that is located in Central and Eastern Europe, policymakers' preferences notwithstanding.

Prague also apparently is banking too much on Western commitments to come to the area's and to its rescue in the event of a crisis, even though much official sentiment in Europe and even in the United States is averse to any kind of involvement there. The sad record of European and U.S. inability to act effectively in Yugoslavia for 4 years would seem to indicate the need for a security policy that has other cards to play than just NATO membership.Similarly Prague's entry into the EU will not be as smooth as it wishes since EU's statist and highly centralized orientation is at odds with the nationalist and unilateralist policies of the present Czech government led by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Clearly many serious issues connected with the Czech Republic's entry into NATO have yet to be fully realized and resolved. For these reasons Czech security policy is subject to serious criticisms and may not suffice to defend the country's vital interests.


This monograph examines Czech security policies as Czech practitioners see and present them, and then assesses whether these policies advance Czech security. The author's purpose is not to argue for or against Czech membership in NATO and/or the EU. Those topics are already under public discussion. Rather the author presents Prague's views of its security goals, attempts to understand whether current Czech policy adequately serves the Czech Republic's interests, and analyzes the likely results of Czech policy.

Today the fundamental question and first priority for Prague is obtaining membership in an enlarged NATO. NATO enlargement has been Europe's most urgent security question since NATO committed itself in principle at its 1994 Brussels summit. Though NATO enlargement has triggered strong Russian objections and an intense Western debate, the discussion in the United States is mainly about whether enlargement serves U.S. and NATO interests, and Russia's role vis-a-vis NATO. Whether NATO membership serves the candidates' interests or what they want from NATO is rarely discussed in the U.S. public arena. This lacuna in the debate serves neither NATO nor the candidates for membership. Furthermore, it obscures issues that must be faced if potential members are to contribute to European security.

Since some analysts single out the Czech Republic as the state that should enter NATO first, Prague's motives and policies merit examination.1 Precisely because many, including Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, claim the Czech Republic is Central Europe's most ?reformed' state (an assessment open to question, e.g., by comparison with Estonia), and therefore is allegedly the most ready to join NATO, this assessment of Czech policy should offer a particularly revealing perspective on current issues.2

Czech security policy amalgamates diverse formative factors. Among the most prominent formative factors are the Republic's location in Europe, its history (i.e., the memory of German or Russian occupation), and the psychological processes of cultural self-identification. A coherent and unifiedCzech policy has arisen out of the interaction of these factors.

The geographical consequences of Czechoslovakia's 1993 split into Czech and Slovak republics have decisively shaped Czech policies. That split severed direct Czech contiguity with any member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. At least two states lie between it and Russia, its greatest potential threat. Russia's distance, economic prostration, and military declinepreclude a direct military threat to the Czech Republic for a long time. Czech policymakers recognize that current borders define the most benign threat environment in Czech history.3

Furthermore, by cutting Slovakia loose, Prague gave up its most backward and unprofitable region while enhancing its ability to integrate with Western Europe. The government has exploited its new borders to orient itself economically and politically even more toward Germany, the Czech Republic's leading trade partner and foreign investor.4 But this split has reduced Czech interest in Slovakia and Central Europe.5 Czech officials deny being part of Central or Eastern Europe (though the map, culture, and history say otherwise). Instead they insist that the Czech Republic is a vital part of Western European civilization and wants to defend it, even forcibly. Therefore Prague is ready for and deserves NATO membership.6 NATO membership is essential to ratify Czech self-identification as a Western European nationality that rejects being in Central and Eastern Europe. Hence NATO membership is supposed to satisfy a symbolic, psychological need for such self-identification .7

This psychological aspect imparts a contradictory quality to Prague's desire to join NATO. Czech officials maintain that their state contributes to Western civilization, but that neighboring states are at best only partly civilized.8 This response is typically Central European since Hungary and Poland assert the exact same motive for entering NATO and their public opinion is often not very complimentary to neighbors further east and south.9 This cultural self-identification also leads Prague to repudiate interest in Central and Eastern Europe or regional cooperation programs there. Interviews with key officials show a surprising indifference to, if not disdain for, their neighbors' concerns even though their policies frequently parallel Czech ones.

Precisely because of this attitude, Czech policy focuses on the West, especially Germany and the United States, and has, through 1995, rejected calls for regional integration. Klaus has called the Visegrad organization of Poland, Hungary, and the former Czechoslovakia that was formed in 1990 an artificial one that the West foisted on Prague to keep it out of the West and he has obstructed any political or military cooperation under its auspices.10 Unilateralism, not regional cooperation, has been Prague's regional policy. Czech policies are, in their own way, nationalistic.

Prague also has no fear of a Russian military offensive. Since it feels no threat, the Czech Republic's motives for joining NATO are political and are tied to its self-identification project as a Western state. Yet this project also denigrates Russia's claim to be a major European power and defines it as somehow "other." Therefore, paradoxically, Russia, even when weak, is defined as a threat which must be countered by NATO membership.11


One of those unfortunate consequences is that Prague's provincialism and ethnocentrism contribute to and reinforce tendencies to avoid thinking about the truly hard and serious questions inherent in enlarging NATO. These difficult questions apply as equally to military planning as they do to political issues.92 And undoubtedly Russian elites would view such activities or anything that could be so perceived with jaundiced eyes.

Nor is Western policy any clearer. Numerous observers cite with dismay the contradictory statements emanating from Washington, European capitals, and Brussels about NATO enlargement which amount to what they call a policy of "continental drift."93 It is also not yet fully clear to legislatures that most applicants for NATO membership will require considerable subsidies for some time to come at a time when legislatures are notoriously resistant to such funding. The absence of means with which to reward prospective members of NATO or the EU also signifies the inability of governments, even when they grasp the magnitude of current challenges, to elicit domestic support to finance (not to mention defend) the transformation to the new world order.94 Accordingly, many governments of EU and NATO member states are apparently not yet ready to deal with the transformations they must undergo or to tell their publics what is required of them.95

For this reason, it is important for the United States, which has created the PfP program and is the main champion of NATO enlargement, to focus Prague's and other capitals' attention on the importance of mutual cooperation through the PfP process as a prerequisite and training ground for membership. If a key purpose of NATO is to prevent the destructive tendencies visible in the former Yugoslavia towards a renationalization of defense policies, it needs to keep the pressure on Prague to move towards greatercooperation. Failure to move forward along this line in one country would certainly increase other states' temptation to follow suit in the belief that they either have something to gain thereby, or something to lose if they do not do so. The experience of 1994-95 shows that the PfP process and the prospect of membership does induce governments to espouse greater real cooperation than was ever true before. The IFOR's composition in Bosnia exemplifies this and is widely regarded as a kind of test of the participants' willingness to cooperate as they would have to in NATO. Thus, while each state submits its own individual PfP program, the process as a whole, as led by the NATO cell that runs it, has already begun to shape more cooperative ventures and integrate Central European states into that process.However, in the final analysis, individual governments like Klaus' will have to make the fundamental intellectual and political decision to prefer cooperation with their more or less like-minded neighbors to more unilateral policy preferences.

For now, Prague's threat assessment is based on, indeed haunted by, a memory of past threats and injustices, and by a uniquely self-deceiving ideology that it is not living where the map says it is and, therefore, need not fully cooperate with its neighbors. Thus, officials maintain the Republic is not nationalist when it follows a nationalist, or provincialistpolicy.96 It is not sufficient to argue that Czech concerns are truly universal and that the Czech Republic is a Western European state when history and geography say the opposite.97 Officials seem to forget that prewar Czechoslovakia did not find a modus vivendi with its neighbors and was consequently isolated even when it had formally binding treaties of alliance. Prague should not repeat that same error.

In the final analysis current Czech policy uniquely but selectively amalgamates history, geography, and a unique kind of self-identification. Although many elites may think so, no successful Czech policy can rest upon a concept of Europe that deprecates Bratislava, Warsaw, Budapest, and the Balkans, and excludes St. Petersburg and Moscow from Europe.98 A policy that truly advances Czech and regional security must orient itself to the future, not the past.

Rebuilding European security requires leadership and vision. However, Czech policy, though it professes integration with NATO and the EU, reflects a general renationalization of security policy that largely stems from an internal failure of vision. It is unclear that so insular a policy can give Prague security for it has not done so previously. Moreover, the Western failure in Yugoslavia suggests that Prague might have to face future crises on its own and cannot simply rely on adequate and informed foreign support. Rebuilding European security is a most difficult, frustrating and perplexing challenge. No one knows in advance the right or even the wrong answers. But it is never right for a state to spurn geography and history and pretend that it does not live with its neighbors.


1. James W. Morrison, NATO Expansion and Alternative Future Security Alignments, McNair Paper No. 40, National Defense University, Fort Leslie J. McNair, Washington, DC, 1995, pp. 127- 128.

2. David B. Ottaway, "Czech Republic Resists Trend to Put Ex-Communists Back in Power," Washington Post, May 24, 1994, p. A12, provides a balanced look at the myths and realities of Czech reform.

3. Interviews with Czech officials in the Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs, Prague, December 1994.

4. Open Market Research Institute, Daily Digest, April 18, 1995, (henceforth OMRI Daily Digest); "The New Bohemians," The Economist, October 22, 1994, pp. 23-27; Prague, Radiozurnal Radio Network, in Czech, December 6, 1994, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Eastern Europe, (henceforth FBIS-EEU), 94-235, December 7, 1994, pp. 19-20; Colin Woodard, "Little Czech Nation Latches Onto a Big Neighbor, Germany," Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 1995, p. 6.

5. Prague, Ekonom, in Czech, January 11, 1995, FBIS-EEU, 95- 040, March 4, 1995, pp. 1-6, on the long-term economic decline in the mutual relationship with Slovakia; Kosice, Domino Effekt, in Slovak, April 6, 1995, FBIS-EEU, 95-093, May 15, 1995, pp. 12-13; and Jeffrey Simon, "Czechoslovakia's ?Velvet Divorce', Visegrad Cohesion, and European Faultlines," European Security, Vol. III, No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 483-484.

6. Ibid., pp. 485; Warsaw, PAP, in Polish, November 25, 1994, FBIS-EEU, 94-228, November 25, 1994, pp. 2-3; Prague, Lidove Noviny, in Czech, April 27, 1995, FBIS-EEU, 95-103, May 30, 1995, pp. 13-14; Jane Perlez, "The Fist in the Velvet Glove," New York Times Magazine, July 16, 1995, p. 18; Prague, Rude Pravo, in Czech, December 21, 1994, FBIS-EEU, 94-251, December 30, 1994, p. 9, for an interview with Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec where he openly advances this argument, an argument that appears often in public and private statements of Czech officials. See also President Vaclav Havel's address to the Parliament, Prague, Radiozurnal Radio Network, in Czech, October 12, 1993, FBIS-EEU, 93-196, October 13, 1993, pp. 3-5. This sentiment also pervaded every interview I conducted with Czech political and military officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense in Prague, December 1994.

7. Vienna, ORF Television Network, in German, March 16, 1995, FBIS-EEU, 95-052, March 17, 1995, where Prime Minister Klaus admits this by saying, "For us NATO membership also possesses a symbolic significance. It would mark a definitive break with the past. For us, NATO membership would mean that we are definitely a part of the Western world."

8.Interviews in Prague with officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defense and the Institute for International Relations; J.F. Brown, Hopes and Shadows: Eastern Europe After Communism, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994, p. 65.

9. Ryszard Zieba, "Poland's Search for Security in the Post-Cold War Europe," paper presented to the International Studies Association convention, Chicago, IL, February 21-25, 1995, pp. 13- 21, presents a frank exposition of Polish security concerns in 1994 and an exposition that remarkably parallels Czech views.

10. Milada Anna Vachudova, "The Visegrad Four: No Alternative to Cooperation?," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Report, Vol. II, No. 34, August 27, 1993, p. 41.

92. Milan, Il Sole 24 Ore, in Italian, July 8, 1995, FBIS WEU, 95-135, July 14, 1995, pp. 21-22.

93. Bruce George and John Borawski, "Continental Drift,", European Security, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer 1995, pp. 1-25.

94. Ted Hopf, "Managing the Post-Soviet Space: A Continuing Demand for Behavioral Regimes," Security Studies, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter 1994/95, pp. 270-272; William Wallace, "European-Atlantic Security Institutions: Current State and Future Prospects," The International Spectator, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, July-September, 1994, pp. 38-40, 47. More recently see, Martin Sieff and Ben Barber, "NATO In No Hurry To Grow, Britain's Defense Chief Says", Washington Times, January 24, 1996, p. 13; and Theresa Hitchens, "Pressure Builds To Delay Expansion of NATO," Defense News, March 11-17, 1996, p. 6.

95.Ibid., p. 49.

96.Pehe, "The Choice Between Europe and Provincialism," pp. 14-19; Brown, pp. 56-65.

97. Miroslav Polreich,"Central/East European Security Perspectives," Perspectives, No.2, Winter 1993-94, pp. 55-56.

98. Interviews with Czech officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense in Prague reveal a widespread perception of Russia, Slovakia, and other states to the East in just this way.