Czech foreign policy review searches for new directions

Karel Schwarzenberg, foto:

The Czech Foreign Minister has announced a wide ranging review of foreign policy to take account both of changes in the Czech Republic and those in the wider world. The review comes with the jury still out on whether a more streamlined EU foreign policy can deliver, the outcome of Afghanistan still unclear and questions still up in the air about relations with Russia. We look at what might be questioned in the review and what changes might follow.

Karel Schwarzenberg | Photo: archive of Czech Government
Czech foreign policy was last subject to a major review in the run up and immediate aftermath of EU entry in 2004. Now, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg believes that reflection about foreign policy goals and how to achieve them is more than overdue. While he has not hesitated to flag up the review, the foreign minister has been less explicit on what might change. Instead, he has been clearer about what will stay in place and this includes a clear and uncompromising stance in defence of human rights.

This is what the Foreign Minister had to say at a recent symposium in Prague about the review.

“Human rights are first. So if we have to choose in a certain country to shut our mouth to promote our business then we will not shut our mouth. That is very clear. Basically if you are constant on it, even not so very nice dictatorships accept it. If you once agree to something you are lost. But if you keep up this principle in each country and they know you will not cede to any country, whether big or small, then they accept it. Maybe they think you are mad, but they accept it.”

Tomáš Karásek
So far, the Czech Republic seems to have got away fairly unscathed with this less than Machiavellian, morals first, ethical foreign policy. In that respect it has more fortunate than some other countries. Britain, for example, trumpeted an ethical foreign policy soon after the Labour Party came to power in 1997. That policy soon foundered on the fact that Britain is one of the world’s biggest arms providers and still has sometimes to act as policemen in former colonies doted across the globe and get involved in some messy conflicts.

But there are those who question whether the Czech foreign minister’s clear espousal of human rights might not have to be relaxed a little, especially if the ministry comes under more pressure to show more tangible results from its many embassies and staff around the world in the form of orders and contracts for local firms. In spite of resistance, commercial diplomacy is already being pushed upon the ministry. Tomáš Karásek of the Prague-based Association for International Affairs says advocating human rights and seeking foreign contracts at the same time might require some flexibility in certain situations.

“There are certainly problems. On the other hand, I do not think there is an outright contradiction or inevitable contradiction between the two. There definitely has to be a necessary amount of flexibility concerning the scope of goals we want to achieve. So for example, when we compare our policies towards China and Burma, we need to take account of the fact that we want to do business, and probably big business, with China and do not want to do that with Burma or Myanmar.”

Tomáš Karásek suggests that certain means of achieving the overall human rights goal might have to be preferred in some situations where gung ho declarations and actions will probably just hit a brick wall without achieving anything.

“We need to somehow act to adapt the other streams of foreign policy including human rights. But I think it is important we do not resign on that particular stream, even in cases where that might be difficult. So if we are not able, or if we think it might be harmful, say in the case of China, to promote human rights and democracy proper, we should try to find another stream within the broad steam of support for transformation. For example, let’s support consumer rights, let’s support NGO’s in the sphere of environmental policy. Things like that. I think we can realise our goals step by step even in cases where outright and direct support for hard core human rights are in some way problematic.”

Apart from human rights, the two other major pillars of Czech foreign policy have been the European Union and trans-Atlantic relations with the US. There is no likelihood that these foundations of foreign policy will be downgraded. On the other hand, a re-working of EU policy could be in order, according to Mr. Karásek, if only to rediscover some unanimity on policy between the two main political parties which has evaporated over the previous five years.

“In the past, Czech policy towards the European Union, from time to time at least, appeared inconsistent and unpredictable. The Czech Republic tended to act as a sort of spoiler within the workings of the EU. So I think there is room for improvement in this aspect of foreign policy. Most importantly, I think there is room to make this policy more predictable and make the Czech Republic a more reliable partner. That is, I think the main problem is not to make it more pro-European or more euro sceptical. The main problem was that partners within the EU were not sure from time to time where the Czech Republic stands and why. So making that clear would be quite a tall order and would be quite an important achievement for the government if it can do it.”

Václav Klaus,  photo: archive of the Czech Government
Not only differences between the main parties have muddied the water over Czech foreign policy, there is, of course, President Václav Klaus. He has been keen to exert his constitutional right to stick his nose into international relations as well, especially when setting forth his minimalist views of how the European Union should develop and what powers it should be given. Mr. Karásek believes that the president’s meddling powers in foreign policy should be curbed.

“I believe that the concept of foreign policy for the future should deal somehow with the mutual opposition of the government and the president. I am a bit sceptical about that actually happening in the concept. But I think that the disagreement between what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and government on the one side and the president on the other have been saying abroad at times really made the Czech Republic seem like a person with a dual personality and I do not think that is something that is helpful. In my opinion, the president should be strictly bound by government foreign policy goals and that he should definitely not act as a foreign policy person on his own.”

Whether Karel Schwarzenberg wants to cross swords with President Klaus can be doubted. It should be added that any direct election of the Czech President in the future would normally lead to a strengthening of his power not the opposite.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
The foreign minister is already battling Prime Minister Petr Nečas in a turf war which threatens to erode the ministry’s primacy in foreign relations. Basically, Mr. Nečas is pushing for a minister to coordinate European policy within the government office, which primarily services the prime minister himself and cabinet. Six months of arguments over this one have yet to produce a result though Mr. Karásek reckons the question is worth asking.

“There is an important task to determine who should be the main coordinator, should it be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in all cases or should there be a more ad hoc arrangement? Should there be a more specific coordination for European policies for example? That is something that should be discussed. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs quite naturally would, I think, be quite opposed to creating a Secretary of State for Europe. But, on the other hand, I still think this is an idea which it is worth taking into account.”

The foreign policy expert also believes that the Czech Republic could also relax a little bit about one key pillar of its foreign policy, national security, largely embodied by the NATO alliance. He argues that there is currently no major threat to the country on the horizon and, while maintaining its NATO commitments and promises, the country can take more time to ponder other policy areas.

One factor curbing the Foreign Ministry’s ability to push through ambitious changes is cash: new initiatives usually come with a price tag. The foreign minister says his ministry’s real budget has dropped by a third over the last decade. A handful of embassies and consulates have been cut during the recent spending squeeze. However, Mr. Schwarzenberg says many have to stay open to maintain the country’s prestige abroad. That has meant other, smaller, parts of the ministry’s 6.5 billion crown budget in 2010, such as Czech centers and foreign radio broadcasts have borne more of the burden.

Photo: archive of the Czech Government
Whatever the outcome of the review, which should be put before the government within a few months, the foreign minister will see want to safeguard some flexibility in a fast changing world. Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg again.

“Foreign policy adapts every year and every month to new circumstances. It should never be absolutely rigid. It should keep to the basic principles but adept to the circumstances.”