Czech-US relations: like a 20-year-old marriage without sex, envoys say

Michael Žantovský, William J. Cabaniss, Alexandr Vondra, Norman Eisen, photo: CTK

In this edition of Czech history, we look at the development of Czech-American relations over the past two decades. Ever since the fall of the Iron Curtain, they have been the pivot of Czech foreign policy. But after the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution and the era of Washington’s fascination with Václav Havel, these relations today are like a 20-year old marriage with no sex – at least according to some current and former diplomats who appeared in Friday’s debate hosted by the Foreign Ministry.

'The Lion and the Eagle' debate,  photo: Robert Janás,  Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic
Last week was rich in events highlighting Czech-American relations. First a statue of US President Woodrow Wilson was re-erected outside Prague’s main train station, 70 years after it was destroyed by the Nazis. Then on Friday it was announced that Prime Minister Petr Nečas would meet President Barack Obama in the White House later this month.

But that’s nothing compared to the days before and after the fall of communism in 1989 when history was made and Czechoslovakia’s new president, playwright and dissident Václav Havel became a global celebrity.

Entitled The Lion and the Eagle: Czech-American Relations through the Eyes of Envoys, the debate on Friday brought together ten current and former diplomats from both countries. One of the speakers was Defence Minister Alexandr Vondra, who served as Czech ambassador in Washington between 1997 and 2001.

“We had those 20 years of sunshine when our influence in Washington was much greater than our physical strength. The story of the Velvet Revolution, the image of Václav Havel played a crucial role. But the US also had a mission, a special mission – to make Europe ‘whole and free’.

Václav Havel
All the envoys in fact mentioned Václav Havel, the first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. He was the most important single player in these relations for more some two decades, from his dissident days until he left office in 2003, having secured his country’s membership in NATO. Current Czech Ambassador to Washington Petr Gandalovič was nostalgic about the fascinating 1990s.

“Sometimes it may fill you with a feeling of envy and even a feeling of void, after so many glamorous events that happened in the last 20 years.”

Even under communism, the American envoys in Prague talked to Václav Havel. William Luers was the US ambassador in Prague for three years in the 1980s.

“On July 4, 1985, as we normally do, we had a July reception for hundreds of people. We always invited Charter 77 people, and Václav Havel would come. He was there and the deputy foreign minister came. I was shaking his hand and he looked over my shoulder and saw Havel standing there. And with horror in his face, he said, ‘that man is here’. He reeled on his heel and left, as did many of the officials with him.”

When Ambassador Luers took office in December 1983, the relations between the US and the Soviet block were at a new low following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the deployment of Pershing missiles in West Germany.

Michael Žantovský,  William J. Cabaniss,  Alexandr Vondra,  Norman Eisen,  photo: CTK
But less than five years later, free Czechoslovakia emerged and Mr Havel addressed a joint session of the US Congress. On his legendary trip to Washington and New York, he was accompanied by his spokesman Michael Žantovský who returned there as ambassador in 1992.

“The ten plus years that followed under three different US presidents from both parties must be seen as the absolute height of this relationship. What made it so fruitful was not just the extremely close rapport between the leaders of the two countries, the favourable international climate and the efforts of diplomats but the fact that it helped achieve in practical ways crucial goals of both countries.”

For the Czech Republic, this was primarily joining NATO which happened in 1999. The envoys said relations between the two countries were based on shared values, interests and history that went back as far as the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918.

But by the time Czechs joined NATO, a Social Democrat government took office for the first time that did not share the enthusiasm of the previous liberal, right-wing cabinets. Ambassador John Shattuck, who was in Prague between 1998 and 2000, said one of the major dissonances came with NATO’s attacks on Kosovo.

'The Lion and the Eagle' debate,  photo: Robert Janás,  Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic
“Just a few weeks after the NATO accession, I went to the office of Foreign Minister Jan Kavan and said, ‘your NATO membership is for real; it’s not a symbolic event and NATO is now going to lead some air attacks in Kosovo and Belgrade’. This was very controversial among Czechs who had strong connections with the Serbs, and it was not easy. There were questions whether we really did share the same values.”

The Czech-US relations went through a significant twist in the years after the attacks of 9/11 which coincided with the end of Václav Havel’s term as president. The Czechs took part in the War on Terror and the administration of George W. Bush was also planning to place a radar base in the Czech Republic as part of its controversial missile defence project.

The plan was opposed by the public and the Czech government needed something to balance the asymmetrical relationship. Czech officials pushed for the abolishment of US visas for Czech citizens, but it took years before the visas were finally cancelled. Petr Kolář was the Czech envoy in Washington between 2005 and 2010.

“From one side you hear that you are the best ally and you can have the radar. At the same time, you are still in the category of a second class EU citizen because of the visas. Fortunately, we had many friends not just here at the embassy but also in Washington. But the acknowledgement, the way we had to persuade others and sometimes even explain even very simple facts; that was sometimes frustrating.”

Petr Gandalovič,  Alexandr Vondra,  William J. Cabaniss,  photo: CTK
Then in 2009 came a setback, as Alexandr Vondra put it. The newly elected American president Barack Obama moved his foreign policy focus away from Eastern Europe, a fact that Czech policy makers found hard to digest. But the current US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen, says the change is not for the worse.

“I don’t believe that in a mature relationship, you need those tokens of the new and exciting relationship of the post Sametová revoluce period. I say this having been married almost two decades myself; you settle into something that is even better, and that is a friendship, a mutual understanding, a shared history of success, a maturity… That’s not to say it’s not exciting.”

Mr Eisen said Czech complaints about the diminishing importance of the relationship were “discontents of success”. But his metaphor provoked a colourful reaction from the panel. Alexandr Vondra again.

“The question was whether this mature relationship requires sex or not, and Norman [Eisen] is of the opinion that sex is not necessarily.”

“Wait a minute, I didn’t say sex was not necessary, I said it was different!”

Mr Vondra was considered a staunch supporter of George W. Bush’ doctrine in foreign policy. He believes that the Czech-US relations will suffer if both countries don’t invest in them.

“I think we do have an obligation to fill the agenda with some sex on the government and state-to-state level because we have common interests; I don’t have any doubts about this. So it’s an obligation to do something here, otherwise I’m afraid that we could somehow drift apart.”

The Czech Republic still shares some values and interests with the US, such as human rights, the rule of law and increasingly, nuclear power. But without the extraordinary contribution of Václav Havel, Prague has now lost its “special relation” to Washington.