By Markéta Šonková
A shared appreciation of democratic ideals and human rights stood for one of the cornerstones of the foreign policies of the former Czechoslovakia and the U.S. as well as an ideological link between the two countries. At least this is what we learn when tracing the steps of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and Woodrow Wilson that lead to the creation of the First Czechoslovak Republic. Those very ideals were brought back to the forefront after the Velvet Revolution when Václav Havel took the helm of the once again free Czechoslovak state. By the early 1990s, the geopolitical situation had, however, changed and it was necessary for the young post-Soviet state to become part of larger Western structures, such as NATO. Being part of NATO is still one of the cornerstones of Czech defense and foreign policy, even though under the first term of Miloš Zeman’s presidency, presidential diplomacy tried to move us more towards the East, and the U.S. under Donald Trump has turned more isolationist in its foreign policy approach. When re-examining the centenary of the Czech-American relationship, it is important to discuss the post-1989 era in which the Czech Republic, at least politically, entered in the West and forged an alliance that has changed its security outlook.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was originally founded as a post-World War II tool aimed at providing collective security for the Western Bloc against the Soviet Union, preventing a revival of European nationalist militarism through the American presence in Europe, and also at helping the European political integration (“A short history of NATO”). Naturally, the U.S., as one of the founding members, played a key role in the formation of this organization. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, where the U.S. emerged victorious, the bipolar tension and strive for power in world politics ended. However, new questions arose: what to do with the new states that emerged out of the Soviet ashes, how to redefine NATO’s purpose, and how to execute the transformation? For security reasons, NATO expansion together with implementation of further structural changes was one of the options.
The Czech Republic (CZ) was one of the first of these new post-Soviet states to join NATO and quickly became an appreciated ally. It showed its military skills already during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Although its military was far from matching its Western counterparts, it proved its resolve to stand by its Western allies. Also, after the events of 9/11, the U.S. started playing even more global role, and thus the question of active participation under the NATO auspices arose once again, with the CZ providing for a significant aid during the U.S.-led campaigns. Even though NATO is not a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the CZ, the cooperation between these two states under the NATO umbrella has provided for further bilateral cooperation opportunities.
Even though NATO is not a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the CZ, the cooperation between these two states under the NATO umbrella has provided for further bilateral cooperation opportunities.
The main purpose of NATO is the protection of security and freedom of all its members through military as well as political, technical, technological, and other means, in compliance with The Charter of the United Nations, while preserving sovereignty and independence of each of the states (“NATO – hlavní funkce”). It is a product of the aftermath of WWII as well as of the outbreak of the Cold War. After the end of WWII, the U.S. became amajor player in the Alliance and also a major financial contributor (Bender), providing the nuclear umbrella protection to its fellow allies (Talbott 94). The U.S. was aware that Europe had been decimated by the war and the countries needed help in order to restore their economic systems and to be able to resist the communist expansion. At the same time, Soviet Russia kept growing and the situation in the post-WWII Europe remained unsettled (“NATO – vznik”). This pushed the U.S. to pass several programs with an aim to help Europe. The resulting policies – the Truman’s Doctrine of 1947 and the Marshall Plan of 1948 – not only “facilitated European economic integration but [also] promoted the idea of shared interests and cooperation between the United States and Europe” (“Milestones”), and later became a bridge for the NATO foundation. At the same time, democratic countries in the West of Europe started building their own economic and defense projects such as Western Union of 1948 which, in 1954, became Western European Union. However, they realized that only a truly transatlantic project could properly deter the Soviet threat (“A short history of NATO”). Nonetheless, the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 prevented the Czechs from participating in any of these programs and thus delayed such cooperation by some 50 years.
The North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, with the most basic doctrine being anchored in the Article 5 in which the countries agreed that, among other, “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” (“Collective Defence – Article 5). It is also important to note that NATO was the “first peacetime military alliance the United States entered into outside of the Western Hemisphere” (“Milestones”) and although it was formed mostly as a response to the Cold War outbreak, it did not end with the dissolution of the USSR. On the contrary, it kept on growing (Baylis 197), with some of the former USSR member countries soon becoming NATO members, the CZ being one such example.
The fall of the Soviet Bloc transformed the world’s strategic landscape. It also raised the question of whether there is any further need for NATO, let alone, for its expansion (Talbott 92). Although one of the three cornerstones – the existence of the Soviet Bloc that NATO, with the U.S. in the lead as the main Soviet adversary, was supposed to defend the Western alliance from – disappeared, the remaining two mandates stayed. Moreover, the end of the Cold War, for the first time since NATO was founded, seemed to have produced a milieu that finally enabled the ultimate goals of the alliance to be met: the creation of a just and lasting peace in Europe, which would be based on common values such as democracy, human rights, and sovereign legal states (“NATO – hlavní funkce”). The changing aspect, though, was that the understanding of what Europe is grew more eastwards.
In this newly emerging world order, it was thought that only NATO with its “tested leadership structure, functioning logistics and an effective arsenal” was able to play a decisive role in securing democracy (Asmus, Kugler, and Larrabee 31). Hence, NATO had to adapt to the new challenges of growing beyond its originally delineated borders and stated strategic goals, with the East-Central Europe’s nascent democracies equally realizing the importance of belonging to “a secure European and Western political, economic and military community” – represented by the assurances stemming from the Article 5, U.S. nuclear deterrent, and possibility to build modern armed forces based on the NATO model through participation in its structures – in order to secure their own peace and safety (Asmus, Kugler, and Larrabee 30). Therefore, NATO delineated a way for the new states to first become Partners (1) and later to join the ranks, provided they meet set criteria, with the first three formerly communist countries – the CZ, Poland, and Hungary – joining as full members during the 1999 Washington Summit (“A short history of NATO”).
Obviously, “including the Visegrad countries in NATO [was] also in the American interest [as] the political leaders of these countries [were] pro-American” which meant further strengthening of the American cause (Asmus, Kugler, and Larrabee 35). Yet, it would be unfair to accuse the U.S. of blatant preying on the situation – already in the early 1990s, due to the changes and its dominant position, it needed to share “the burdens and responsibilities with its [newly acquired] allies” (Asmus, Kugler, and Larrabee 32-33). In fact, from the military point of view, most senior officers in the U.S. military were not too enthusiastic about the enlargement at the beginning (2) (Talbott 98). Nonetheless, the new Central European political elites, including the Czechs, shared the conviction that it was in Europe’s interest for the Americans to remain engaged in the transition of the security structures and that the Transatlantic bond should be strengthened – they considered the U.S. as a power who “never had … hegemonic ambitions in Europe” and therefore deemed it safe and strategic to perform the changes under the American and NATO’s lead (Schneider 10-11).Thus, the CZ, represented by Václav Havel, together with the presidents of Hungary and Poland, approached Bill Clinton with a request for admission in 1993 (Talbott 93). The CZ was the first state out of all the former Warsaw Pact members to successfully pass the first round of the assessing process in 1997 and later that year, it was offered to join NATO, becoming a full member on March 12, 1999 together with Hungary and Poland (“Česká republika a NATO”).
The new Central European political elites, including the Czechs, shared the conviction that it was in Europe’s interest for the Americans to remain engaged in the transition of the security structures and that the Transatlantic bond should be strengthened.
Nowadays, the CZ enjoys all the benefits stemming from the NATO membership, albeit, it is bound to follow the rules, too: among others to participate in the NATO programs and missions, to have foreign policy consistent with NATO goals, to work on and develop defense mechanisms, to participate financially, and to have defense expenses equal to 2% of the GDP (“Factbox 3/2012”) – something, where the CZ is still not meeting the set criteria. To be precise, in 2017, the CZ defense expenses were of 1.05% GDP, with the plan to reach 1.4% by 2020 (ČTK). Yet, the official CZ agenda reads that CZ aims at being an active member of NATO, supporting its goals and missions: supporting the policy of defense and deterrence, actively participating in armed conflicts, actively supporting and implementing the obligations stemming from the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration, and so on and so forth (“Priority České republiky v NATO”).
Within NATO, the CZ-U.S. relationship is not symmetrical. Moreover, not all forms of current CZ-U.S. military, defense, and security cooperation exist under the NATO seal, but it is largely thanks to the Czech membership in NATO and thanks to the entry process that the two countries started cooperating. Yet, the euphoria and possibilities of the early 1990s are no longer topical and although the CZ keeps emphasizing “the importance of close military and economic ties with the United States” (Jackson 18), it has been failing to develop permanent “bilateral projects of strategic relevance” (Schneider 16). Alexandr Vondra, former Minister of Defence and of Foreign Affairs, confirms that the situation has indeed changed: “Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Central and Eastern European countries are no longer at the heart of American foreign policy” (in Jackson 25). Thus, in order to develop a strong bilateral partnership, the Czech side should fight to establish itself as a regional leader, try to make the impression that it is “competing for every position in Euro-Atlantic institutions” (Jackson 26-27), and, since the conventional military power is not too strong, to build on its niche capabilities such as the CBRN experts (3).
Concretely speaking, the CZ-U.S. cooperation under the NATO seal penetrates most areas in the Czech armed forces, ranging from training to arsenal, material, and technology modernization, as well as to allied participation in military operations. Some Czech officers and sergeant majors also serve at various command levels at headquarters in the U.S. (“Podíl ČR na činnosti NATO”). However, the Czechs not only participate under or together with the U.S. forces, but they also enjoy the U.S. security assistance programs. These programs seek to “strengthen Czech capabilities, enhance interoperability with U.S. and NATO forces, and provide opportunities for professional and technical education of military officers and noncommissioned officers, civilian leaders, and other specialists” (“U.S. Relations With the Czech Republic”). On the other hand, the Czechs also provide training to members of the U.S. forces and train in joint operations. The Czech are appreciated as a U.S. ally and over the years, five Czech soldiers have also been awarded one of the highest military awards – the Bronze Star Medal – given by the Pentagon for exceptional services and bravery in battle (“Čeští vojáci v Afghánistánu…). Nonetheless, the “prevailing mode of US-Czech cooperation within the Alliance [remains to be] rather event-driven” (Schneider 11), which further testifies for the already mentioned lack of permanent bilateral partnership of strategic importance.
On a purely military level, the CZ has contributed by sending its chemical units, CBRN defense specialists, and battlefield medical units to NATO operations; although, combat-trained soldiers are also sent. This obviously applies also to the U.S.-led operations (“Češi a Slováci v Íráku” and “Čeští vojáci v Afghánistánu…”). When the Czech military personnel are deployed under the NATO’s auspices, it is NATO who leads the military operations, but, for obvious reasons, the coalitions have lately also been led by the U.S. armed forces. Additionally, there are also instances of the CZ-U.S. military cooperation that were either not under the NATO seal or happened before Czech membership, such as the Operation Desert Storm and part of the conflicts at the Balkans (Bém). The Czech participation in these missions played “an important role in the US Senate debate about our accession to NATO in late 90s” (Schneider 11). Nonetheless, Czech immigrants had already fought in the American Civil War, mostly on behalf of the North, and Czechoslovak soldiers fought, for example, as members of the WWII Pacific U.S. troops (Vlha, Kabrhelová). It is also important to mention that Czech soldiers participated in other NATO operations, too – such as AFOR in Albania, IFOR & SFOR in Bosnia – but they were either not under U.S. command or the CZ-U.S. cooperation was not direct or too close (Bém).
Czech immigrants had already fought in the American Civil War, mostly on behalf of the North, and Czechoslovak soldiers fought, for example, as members of the WWII Pacific U.S. troops.
Outside of war participation and missions, there are joint trainings, like the training in Náměšť nad Oslavou in April 2015 in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve which was a part of the CZ-U.S. air forces cooperation (“U.S., Czech Republic train in …”). The Czech side cooperates with the U.S. in the area of helicopter pilots’ training and in helicopter transportation where the Czechs lead the international initiative (“Americké protiraketové středisko…”). In this sense, the Czech Ministry of Defence suggested “regular exercises to be conducted in Czech Military areas with participation of the US rotational force in Europe (e.g. joint exercises of the Czech Air Force with the US Air Detachment)” (Schneider 15). The Czech side also offered Americans certain triangular projects concerning a proposal to build helicopter capacity of the Afghan National Army; however, these offers were not responded to (Schneider 14). Additionally, the Czech Ministry of Defence awarded “a CZK2.07 billion (USD82.0 million) contract to Tatra Defence Vehicle for the procurement of 20 specialised versions of the Steyr Pandur II 8×8 armoured vehicle for the Army of the Czech Republic” in January 2018. The “exclusive assembly and marketing rights” that Tatra obtained for the Pandur from the U.S.-owned General Dynamics European Land Systems in 2015 counts towards a significant industrial cooperation between CZ and U.S (“Czech Republic orders…”). Also, the Czechs have a working relationship with National Texas Guard, with which they have a bilateral partnership under the State Partnership Program, and also with Nebraska National Guard (“Texas National Guard…”). Moreover, there is an EUCOM’s (4) Office of Defense Cooperation located at the American Embassy in Prague, whose task is, among others, to “[assist] the Armed Forces of the Czech Republic with bilateral programs to help modernize systems and improve interoperability with NATO” and to coordinate “security assistance programs and defense cooperation activities with the Czech Armed Forces” (“Office of Defense Cooperation”). Science and technology research cooperation is further strengthened by the U.S. Office of Naval Research Global located also at the U.S. Embassy in Prague (“Office of Naval Research”) which pursued research in the area of IT, though, a permanent bond is said not to have developed there (Schneider 14-15). More recently, the Czechs have also been participating at NATO Response Force / Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), including joint exercises, and in the Baltic on the NATO’s “eastern flank” (“Síly velmi rychlé reakce (VJTF)” and “Securing the Nordic-Baltic region”).
Although the CZ has not (yet) managed to build its position and partnership with the U.S. as strongly as for example our Polish neighbor did, there is an ongoing military cooperation between the two countries.
Recently, there were also two big debates that shed some new and not necessarily positive light on public perception of the CZ-U.S. military NATO cooperation: “the radar” talks of the late 2000s and the convoy crossing of 2015. Although the Czech government has been trying to start a “specific bilateral security-defense project with the U.S.”, when the U.S. approached the Czech side to become a part of the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) project – the so-called “radar” – nothing that was being proposed materialized in the end (Schneider 13). The talks officially started in July 2006, but were shut down due to changes in strategic development in September 2009 and the project was reshaped without any specific role for the CZ (“Americké protiraketové středisko…” & Schneider 14). The talks were accompanied by massive public protests on the Czech side. The CZ was later offered to host Shared Early Warning centers at the Czech military bases, however, they refused the offer and any talks related to possible Czech participation in the U.S. missile defense systems were terminated by June 2011 (“Americké protiraketové středisko…” & Schneider 14).
The second example of Czech public and media upheaval was the crossing of the U.S. Dragoon Ride Military convoy through the CZ on its way from Hungary to its base in Germany in September and October 2015. The crossing was designed “to reassure NATO Allies that the United States military is ready if needed [as well as] it will … allow the troops to interact regularly with locals they meet on their way across Central Europe” (“Secretary General visits…”). The training was part of the allied Exercise Trident Juncture 2015 and was “NATO’s largest exercise in over a decade,” where over 30 nations participated in (“Trident Juncture shows…”). Although allowing the crossing was meant as a token of CZ-U.S. solidarity, Czech society seemed divided. In the end, though, people who cheered the convoy actually outnumbered those who opposed it, which was also appreciated by then U.S. Ambassador to the CZ Andrew Schapiro in his “239th Independence Day Remarks” (Pohanka & Schapiro).
With the changes of geopolitical and strategic landscape in the early 1990s, NATO had to redefine its purpose and the U.S. had to review its position in the political arena, too, which the CZ responded to.
All in all, although the CZ has not (yet) managed to build its position and partnership with the U.S. as strongly as for example our Polish neighbor did, there is an ongoing military cooperation between the two countries. This cooperation would not be here had the Iron Curtain not fallen and it would most likely not be here if the CZ was not a NATO member. Thus, “efforts to join NATO were [the] key elements of our quest for a post-Cold War Security system in Europe” (Schneider 11). With the changes of geopolitical and strategic landscape in the early 1990s, NATO had to redefine its purpose and the U.S. had to review its position in the political arena, too, which the CZ responded to. The fact that Václav Havel approached Bill Clinton when requesting to join NATO and not the Secretary General of NATO also further confirms the importance of the U.S. within the Alliance. Nowadays, despite the current administration and its isolationist politics, the U.S. remains the most powerful player in the NATO ranks, while the CZ has been losing the strategic importance it had in the early 1990s, also due to its inability to meet Alliance’s requirements. Still, the CZ-U.S. cooperation penetrates most areas of the Czech security and defense industry and in some areas the CZ still has an advantage with its niche experts. It yet remains to be seen how the cooperation shall evolve and whether the CZ will manage to build permanent bilateral ties of strategic importance, the more in the light of the recent public and media upheavals.
The article builds on author’s earlier essay written at Masaryk University and was written before she assumed her current position at the European Commission.
1 Through the North Atlantic Cooperation Council which was established in 1991 and later through Partnership for Peace, established in 1994 (“Česká republika a NATO”).
2 The main reason was that “the Central European armed forces were burdened with old equipment, as well as doctrines and command structures incompatible with the West’s, hence nowhere near ready to mesh with those of NATO” and there was also a worry on the American side over possible necessity to engage the U.S. troops extensively in new European conflicts (Talbott 98).
3 There also is a NATO Centre of Excellence specializing in CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) in Vyškov u Brna called JCBRN Defence COE.
4 EUCOM is an abbreviation for the United States European Command – a Department of Defense (DoD) division in charge of the European area.
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