Jan Kavan: Not giving in to pressure from the powerful inspires respect, giving unwanted lessons makes us ridiculous

Czechia should be firmly entrenched in the EU, but the EU must change. Into a united, just and prosperous Europe. Czechia can also find a new, unique role in it. If we can use historical experience and learn to resolve disputes by an agreement, we can become mediators and peacekeepers in a number of conflicts.

Czech foreign policy is often somewhat incomprehensible. After 1989, when the Czech Republic emerged from the Soviet orbit, it was clear that the main goal was to move towards the EU and NATO. This has succeeded and this anchoring has not yet been questioned. This is undoubtedly our strength.

Weaknesses include the relatively frequent inconsistency in the approach to certain foreign issues between the main representatives of the state, i.e. the President, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Speakers of both chambers of Parliament. Examples include the different perceptions of the European Union between Václav Klaus and other leading politicians, different attitudes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict between President Miloš Zeman and a number of others, different attitudes to Taiwan between Senate Chairman Miloš Vystrčil and other representatives, different attitudes to relations with The Russian Federation between Miloš Zeman and Václav Klaus and many others, a different attitude to the bombing of Serbia between the then Prime Minister Zeman, myself as the then Foreign Minister and President Václav Havel, a different perception of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by then President Václav Havel and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and, on the other hand, Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla (also myself in the then position of President of the UN General Assembly) and two months later between President Václav Klaus and Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla. Other contradictions sometimes come to the surface, for example in attitudes to certain aspects of respect for human rights, in the approach to China, or even to the issue of nuclear weapons. 

Miloš Zeman – Czech politician, economist, forecaster and third (current) President of the Czech Republic, former long-term chairman of the ČSSD, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Chairman of the Czech Parliament.

Václav Klaus – right-wing politician, long-time chairman of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), former Prime Minister and President of the Czech Republic.

Vladimír Špidla – former long-time leading ČSSD official, Deputy prime minister and Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, European Commissioner.

After 1989, foreign policy of the Czech Republic was consistently pro-Western and oriented towards our greatest ally – the United States. This was in line with the convictions of the vast majority of all Czech actors in the field of foreign policy. Only Jiří Dientsbier caused smaller areas of friction, not when he was the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, but later when he was the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia in 1998-2001, as he advocated a different attitude to Kosovo events than his friend, US State Secretary Madeleine Albright, wanted. At that time, there were major differences between us and the United States. I was the Foreign Minister and it concerned the bombing of Serbia, the Czech-Greek Peace Initiative, widespread sanctions against Cuba, attitude to the invasion of Iraq, support for Czech exports for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, etc. Petr Uhl called my foreign policy "all azimuth policy" which was to some extent a slight simplification.

The evaluation of Czech foreign policy is, of course, influenced not only by the given international context, but above all by the personal experience and political convictions of the observer. So the only thing I can offer is my subjective view of events that have directly affected me in some way.

Joining NATO

On 12 March 1999, I signed the instruments of ratification on behalf of the Czech Republic at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, near Kansas City, along with the Polish Foreign Minister and my dissident friend Bronislaw Geremek and the Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi.

The first post-November Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Jiří Dientsbier, has already expressed unquestionable interest in NATO membership, followed by Czech Foreign Ministers Jozef Zieleniec and, during his brief tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jaroslav Šedivý. Of course, good cooperation between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense was necessary for a successful entry into the Alliance. Deputy Ministers often dealt with NATO accession issues. I well remember the reliable work of Depputy Minister of Defence Jaromír Novotný, who went with me to Kansas City in March 1999.

Sometime in early 1999, the then British Minister of Defence, George Robertson (now Lord George Robertson of Port Ellen), arrived in Prague and was appointed Secretary General of NATO a few months later. I knew him well from my time as a member of the British Labour Party. George told me that he fully supports the Czech Republic’s membership in NATO and that we have undoubtedly met all the political preconditions for membership, but that both the Pentagon and NATO are concerned about a certain military unpreparedness of the Czech Republic. He added that his talks with the leadership of our Ministry of Defence did not convince him that these fears were unjustified, and he asked me to inform the then Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and secure their meeting, which I, of course, did immediately. As far as I know, Miloš Zeman assured Robertson that he would provide a remedy, which will soon be reflected in the change in the post of Minister of Defence.

Public support for NATO membership grew slowly from 36% to a peak of 56% in 1999. There was a relatively strong group in the then ruling ČSSD that pushed for both a referendum on NATO accession and for a nuclear-free membership status negotiated and achieved by Norway. I admit that I felt a great sympathy for this approach. The then President Václav Havel sharply opposed the referendum. And NATO representatives have clearly refused to even talk about the "Norwegian" status. That decided the issue.

The bombing of the former Yugoslavia

Exactly one week after we joined NATO, the then Secretary General, Javier Solana called me at night and informed me that NATO would bomb the former Yugoslavia after the weekend because Milosevic had ignored the ultimatum, which was communicated to him by the NATO in December 1998, when the Czech Republic was not yet a member of the alliance. Javier expressed understanding of the difficult situation in which the three newcomers now found themselves, but added that in practice we have no choice but to agree on NATO action. And the planes were already on the tarmac.

I immediately called Miloš Zeman, who quickly convened the government. Enough has already been written about this meeting, which ended in the early morning hours. The atmosphere was tense, and of course no one liked the fact that we were faced with a done deal that we did not participate in, and now, as a newcomer to the alliance, we will be co-responsible for bombing Serbia, which has historically been one of our most loyal allies.

In Brussels they waited only for our decision. The low willingness to join the ranks quickly led the allies to criticism, which NATO directed primarily at Prime Minister Miloš Zeman.

As against the argument that Prime Minister Zeman eventually signed, it is often overlooked that Milos Zeman immediately agreed to my proposal to try to find potential allies among NATO foreign ministers for our efforts to end the bombing, negotiate a ceasefire and exchange troops for diplomats. I have spoken with a number of ministers, including Joschka Fischer (Germany), whom I knew from my student years, or my friend, the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. At times, I came across a certain understanding, which was always associated with a clear rejection of any confrontation with the United States. In the end, I found helpfulness and understanding only with the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jorgos Papandreu.

Jorgos had many friends in Belgrade and soon began negotiations with them. He also negotiated a peaceful solution with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the then Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and with US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. I must admit that some officials, both in the Czech and Greek foreign ministries tried to obstruct our efforts, which slowed down the negotiations considerably. At that time, my advisor Miroslav Had and Ambassador Ivan Bušniak helped me the most at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thanks to the above mentioned obstructions, my signing of the agreed text of the Czech-Greek Peace Initiative with Jorgos Papandreu was delayed until 23 May 1999. We took advantage of the fact that we were both on an official visit to China at that time, and so the signing ceremony took place at our embassy in Beijing. Michael Žantovský, for example, abused this to make a scathing comment that it was a "Peking duck".

We handed over the text to NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, the Allied Ambassadors and the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. We based our efforts not only on the fact that the Kosovo crisis has been the Alliance’s greatest challenge since the end of the Cold War and that there has been a threat to peace, democracy, reconciliation and reconstruction throughout the region, but also on historical ties between the peoples of Yugoslavia and the Czechs and Greeks.

In the document, we emphasized the need to guarantee the rights of Kosovo Albanians, to grant the province quite a broad autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and to ensure the rights of other ethnic communities to live peacefully in a multiethnic, multicultural Kosovo. By the way, we later succeeded in enforcing this principle in UNSCR Resolution 1244, which is still violated.

We proceeded from the need to respect the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Acts of revenge, ethnic hatred and inter-ethnic hostility were to be prevented by the presence of UN civilian and security forces to provide refugees with security and to force the disarmament of paramilitary groups, including the Kosovo Liberation Army.

In the post-conflict part of the document, we dealt with the modification of the Stability Pact approved by the EU, which ensured the economic development of the Balkan region and its democratization and created the conditions for the gradual integration of the region into the EU. Of course, we rejected all attempts to base the existence of the state on ethnic purity.

Many of our ideas have been reflected in the Ceasefire Agreement, the Stability Pact for the Balkans and, as I have already said, in the key UNSCR 1244, which set out the principles of Kosovo’s autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. Kosovo’s later declaration of independence violated this resolution. After all, President Milos Zeman never supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia and always referred to this UN Security Council resolution. The later Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg successfully pushed for the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by te Czech Government, but the Czech Republic still has no representation in Pristina at the level of ambassador.

It is true that the Czech-Greek Peace Initiative was clearly rejected by the United States, especially by the then State Secretary Madeleine Albright. At the same time, it is true that many of the ideas of this plan have proved supportive and have contributed to the end of the bombing, to a ceasefire and to the successful agreement on a Stability Pact for the Balkans. This was also highlighted by Serbian President Vojislav Koštunica, who invited Jorgos Papandreu and myself to Belgrade after the end of the fighting. By the way, the then Norwegian Foreign Minister Thorbjörn Jagland (later Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament, Secretary General of the Council of Europe and Chairman of the Nobel Committee) also thanked me for this initiative.

Developments since September 11, 2001 and the invasion of Iraq

The news of the attack on the New York "twins" and the Pentagon, in which almost 3,000 people died in the ruins of skyscrapers, reached me at the Czech Foreign Ministry. With the exception of 55 soldiers out of 125 victims who died at the Pentagon, the victims were civilians from a total of 90 countries, including the Czech Republic. In complete shock, I watched television footage of the second plane crashing into the Trade Centre and the subsequent collapse of the buildings. I learned from our services that there were a total of 19 kidnappers and they were led by Muhammad Atta, who had previously visited the Czech Republic. We found it difficult to find out the details of his stay and his contacts in the Czech Republic.

Among the nineteen kidnappers were fourteen terrorists from Saudi Arabia, two from the United Arab Emirates, and one each from Lebanon and Egypt. All were allegedly members of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization. None of the kidnappers was Afghan, but the main argument for the US government’s decision the following month to launch an invasion of Afghanistan was the fact that there were al-Qaeda training camps on its territory. Solidarity with the USA was expressed by the vast majority of countries in the world, including the Czech Republic, of course, but the fight against the Taliban was also supported by Russia, led by President Putin. Czech foreign policy supported the activation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, and soon after, Czech troops also took part in the fighting in Afghanistan. The last ones returned home in June 2021. The remaining American soldiers were to leave the country in September at the latest on the anniversary of this reprehensible assassination.

In July 2002, I was elected President of the UN General Assembly, whose formal session I opened on September 10, 2002. Two days later, President George W. Bush came to the UN. He stressed the need to fight Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom he likened to Adolf Hitler. He also expressed the view that the League of Nations enabled World War II to take place by its appeasement of Hitler, and stressed his hope that the UN would not behave similarly, as otherwise it would lose its meaning and reason for its existence. I pointed out that the weakness of the League of Nations was not only due to its attitude towards Germany, but also to the absence of the USA among its members, which made it very different from today’s UN. Then we agreed that a country like the Czech Republic, with its experience of the pre-war Munich Treaty and the related defeat of democracy, fully understands the dangers of appeasement and is clearly aware that "inaction is not an option."

However, we soon came to a major disagreement on what should be an alternative to "inaction" and appeasement. I underlined that I preferred a political and diplomatic solution, and expressed the hope that the UN and the US would agree on a joint approach to Iraq. President Bush has made it clear that if the UN does not support military action against Iraq, the United States will take a different approach, referring to the bombing of the former Yugoslavia without a UN Security Council mandate. It shocked me because at that moment I understood that the war with Iraq would probably take place against the will of the UN.

In his address to the UN General Assembly, President Bush clearly warned that the US would remain on the same path with the UN only if it follows it quickly in the direction the President wishes: "(…) We will work with the UN Security Council for the necessary resolution, but the US goals cannot be called into question. UN Security Council resolutions will be implemented, just demands for peace and security will be met. Otherwise, action will become inevitable and the regime, which has already lost its legitimacy, will be deprived of its power."

From the point of view of history, the development in relations between the USA and the UN until the outbreak of the war with Iraq in March 2003 is extremely interesting, but it does not concern Czech foreign policy, so I will not deal with it here. Suffice it to recall that the invasion of Iraq did not win the mandate of the UN Security Council. The USA counted not only on the Russian and Chinese vetoes, but also on the French one. However, they sought a so-called moral majority, i.e. a majority of votes of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. However, they did not succeed either.

Robin Cook, who resigned as UK Foreign Minister because of Iraq, ironically remarked at the time that "history will confusedly think about why the British government did not find the same independent spirit as the governments of Mexico and Cameroon." It reminded me of a question from a Mexican diplomat, why Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda did not find as much courage in himself as Mexico, which is "far from God but close to the United States, and yet refused to agree to the invasion." Minister Svoboda stated that we are, of course, on the side of the so-called coalition of the willing, "because it is a coalition of democratic states, and we state that Iraq has not fulfilled its obligations for a long time, has weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and bacteriological weapons (sic!)". However, the then Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla did not share this opinion and explained that "the Czech government is not part of a war coalition, but the government provides support to the United States, as well as Germany or France, based on the decision of the Parliament it agreed upon overflights and transits."

I would just like to add that when I presented our UN work to President Klaus on 28 March 2003, he remarked that "democracy cannot be exported on tanks." Later developments in Iraq proved him right.

Shortly afterwards, I went to the Congress of the then governmental ČSSD. There, Prime Minister Vladimír Špidla supported the resolution tabled by Libor Rouček, which expressed considerable understanding both for the cautious and extremely ambiguous position of the Czech government and for the US initiative.

Libor Rouček – a Czech politician working in the ČSSD, súpokepserson for the Zeman government, was a member of the EP, a publicist, in exile in 1977-89.

This was rejected by the absolute majority of delegates, who then expressed their opposition to "a war started without the consent of the United Nations and in violation of international law." The Congress also condemned Saddam Hussein’s "inhumane regime" and expressed the belief that it could be disarmed by "peaceful means." The then US Ambassador to Prague, Craig R. Stapleton, sharply criticized this ČSSD resolution.

The Czech government has offered to send its field hospital to Iraq. Some government deputies have expressed their doubts. KDU-ČSL Deputy Chairman Jan Kasal pointed out the fact that “the field hospital is part of the logistics departments of any army“. The inclusion of a field hospital means joining the war. President Vaclav Klaus proposed that the hospital should arrive in Iraq only after the end of the fighting. Kasal’s party colleague, Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, on the other hand, perceived it differently, because according to him it was understandable that the field hospital must be accompanied by a military unit in order to provide it with appropriate protection.

The Czech journalist Adam Drda described the division of government parties in the debates about the field hospital as "neither fish nor fowl". More important was the fact that the impression created by the Czech government’s attitude to the Iraq war could be described in a similar way. Shortly after the invasion began, Colin Powell placed the Czech Republic in a coalition of the willing states that supported American military action. No one from the Czech side protested, even though this did not correspond to the official position of the Czech government, let alone the Parliament.

Ambassador Hynek Kmoníček had a more complicated situation at the UN, because, unlike myself, he represented the Czech Republic. Ambassador Kmoníček was supposed to be the first speaker to open the debate in the Security Council. As soon as the ambassadors of other willing states learned this about Kmoníček, about twenty of them immediately place their names on the the same list. At the last moment, Kmoníček removed himself from the list as he fell ill and thus he did not come to the meeting. However, the other speakers spoke and gave the United States exactly the support that the Americans wanted. American diplomats were not angry with Kmoníček, because they understood that he had actually provided them with the speakers. Given the satisfaction of the Americans, Minister Svoboda was also satisfied, but Prime Minister Špidla was satisfied as well, as no one on behalf of the Czech Republic said anything, and so was President Klaus, as Kmoníček did not attend the meeting. A clever attempt to please everyone achieved by a Czech diplomat, celebrated success. And Kmoníček explained to American journalists that „the Czech Republic is not that much willing member of the coalition of the willing“. Bonmot worthy of one of our most experienced diplomats.

Limited possibilities of Czech foreign policy

Above all, Czech diplomats and politicians must be aware of our limited possibilities due to our size and also our geographical location in the middle of the European continent. Of course, this does not mean that they should give up their political convictions or belittle them in any way. This is not even possible, because it is the fundamental values ​​and perceptions of the world that have made them public actors (I do not have in mind professional civil servants). So, for example, I would expect any leftwing Foreign Minister to support the principles of solidarity and the rejection of unjust wars, aggression, annexation and occupation of foreign territory, or extremely nationalist or populist attitudes.

At the same time, however, it is necessary not to give up efforts to dull all the points of impending contradiction. Every political decision is potentially conflicting, but especially in foreign policy, conflicting positions should be resolved by mutual agreement. Finding an advantageous compromise should be the art of every diplomat. The priority of our foreign policy must be to integrate the state into structures that guarantee stability. In our case, it is undoubtedly the European Union. We should proceed pragmatically step by step towards "a united, democratic, socially just, prosperous and peaceful Europe without tension, a Europe of free citizens and cooperating regions" (from the Czech Republic’s Foreign Policy Concept of February 1999).

Within such a Europe, we must defend our own national interests, while respecting the limits of common values. Likewise, Europe should not lose sight of its own economic, political and security interests, albeit in transatlantic relations. This, of course, was acknowledged even by an atlanticist such as the brilliant expert Professor Otto Pick, who was never afraid to point out whenever he found US policies to be unacceptable. And it was my former Deputy Minister Prof. Pick, who stressed that "one of the first prerequisites for a successful foreign policy is to strengthen good relations with neighbors and in the region in general."

We would be ridiculous if we taught others what to do or even tried to force something on them. On the other hand, however, we will command respect if we do not give in unnecessarily to pressure or to some purposeful malice of the great powers.

I consider it correct to use our historical experience sensitively. In this way, we can not only help other states in their transformation to a more democratic organisation of society, but we can also, for example, contribute to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have helped both parties immensely at some stage in our past, and so, although for very different reasons, both sides could respect us as mediators in a dialogue. And mediated dialogue is needed because so much blood has been shed that mutual mistrust makes direct dialogue quite difficult.

If we are firmly entrenched in the European Union, I do not rule out that we could also use our experience and knowledge of Russia to mediate a better dialogue with Russia, because reducing tensions and improving relations is clearly in our interest. 

"Vrbětická kauza"/“Vrbeticka case“ – explosion in a private military ammunition depot in 2014; their investigation did not lead to any long-term conclusions, until in 2020 members of the Russian GRU intelligence service were identified as perpetrators by the intelligence services. This led to the start of a political and diplomatic rift with the Russian Federation. The case of the explosion has not yet been closed by the Czech authorities (indictment, publication of the final report of the investigation are still to be published,etc.). There are still too many ambiguities surrounding this case, leading to further domestic political conflicts and conflicting statements from politicians, experts and ordinary citizens.

Of course, I perceive that in the current "post-vrbeticka case" situation, such an idea may seem a bit absurd to many. But good diplomats could handle it. On the other hand, I recognize that it would help if there was at least a major reform of the EU that would significantly reduce the current huge power of the unelected elites, such as German banks, and shift more decision-making powers to the citizens, including the European Parliament. And this, in turn, would help to transform the thinking of Czech citizens, in understanding the meaning of "Europeanism" today.