The State of Czech-U.S. Relations Twenty-Five Years after the Velvet Revolution

Thursday, October 30, 2014, 6 PM
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Mirror Hall,
Loretánské nám. 5, Praha 1

As delivered

Dobrý večer (Good evening) to everyone!

I want to thank Daniel Lošťák for his introductory remarks; and I want to say great minds think alike, because I’m going to be echoing some of the themes that Daniel has identified. I also want to thank Vlaďka Votavová, AMO’s Director for organizing this event; and the entire Association for International Affairs for the opportunity to speak to you. I also want to thank the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for making this marvelous space available to us tonight. I can’t think of a better venue in which to have our conversation.

In a few weeks I will travel Washington to stand with representatives of your government — at the seat of my government — for a momentous occasion: the dedication of a bust of Vaclav Havel in the U.S. Capitol building. Havel will join a very exclusive club as one of a tiny number of non-Americans – among them, Winston Churchill – to be honored in this way. But we will not only be commemorating Vaclav Havel. We will in that ceremony be marking the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which inspired champions of freedom and democracy around the globe. And fundamentally, it will celebrate something else: the extraordinary bond between the Czech Republic and the United States.

That special bond is based at least as much on shared values as on pragmatic interests. Yet today, some on both sides of the Atlantic have asked whether that special bond is still useful and others have questioned whether support for human rights and democracy should have a role in foreign policy.

So tonight – 25 years after the Velvet Revolution; in this complicated second decade of the 21st century; at a time when the world seems to be on fire – tonight I want to talk to you about the strength and importance of our special relationship, and I want to speak in defense of idealism and principle as forces to guide national priorities.

At the threshold, I want to take stock of where we are today. And it is a good place, make no mistake. When Americans look at the Czech Republic, we see a country that — in a very short time — has vaulted into the top tier of Western allies. We see a vibrant democracy in the center of the center of Europe, with a strong, export-based economy, an active civil society and NGO community, and an energetic free press. We see a cultural heavyweight, making a lasting impact in literature, film, and music. We see an important NATO partner, contributing troops and expertise to critical missions in Mali, the Sinai and in Afghanistan – where recently a number of Czech soldiers have paid the ultimate price to protect others’ liberty.

But perhaps most importantly, when Americans and I would say most people around the world look at the Czech Republic we see a country that is a thought-leader on issues about which we care deeply: democracy and human rights. The Czech Republic is a country with which we share a particular view of the world – and it is a view of the world in which ideas matter, principles matter, and the best is always possible.

But now we find ourselves at a crossroads. For some, it has become fashionable to view American idealism cynically. That same impulse leads some to argue that a relatively small country in the center of Europe should not try to play an outsized role in promoting democracy and human rights. And some wonder about the value of a special relationship between our countries.

But I’m here to say that those who built that special bond understood its power well. Ninety-six years ago this week a democratic Czechoslovakia was born, based on the principles of freedom and self-determination, thanks to the work of Presidents Wilson and Masaryk. My own family flourished in the golden age of the First Republic. My grandparents spoke of that time and that partnership long after they had built a new life in the United States.

When darkness spread across Europe, the United States fought fascism, in defense of values and ideals, not territory. During the Cold War, the United States was a stalwart supporter of freedom and dissidents – not just for geopolitical reasons, but for moral ones. And the United States drew lines — using military power when necessary — to contain the Soviet Union. Why? Because its ideology was a threat to liberty and human dignity. The United States used its power to fight for principles.
During those difficult years, the Czechs inspired and taught us about the power of peaceful advocacy for democracy and basic rights. The Prague Spring, Charter 77, those were examples of remarkable courage, and both were beacons that played a greater role in undermining the Iron Curtain than many people today realize. And then, of course, came the Velvet Revolution, in which students, actors, poets and writers and then ordinary workers showed their strength and their moral authority, they shook their keys to say goodbye to a regime that had no legitimacy.

So the walls came down and iron curtains lifted, and our two nations built a strong partnership based on shared values and mutual interests. And your President Havel, whom we will honor next month, had an opportunity to put theory into practice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that I know as much about those years as do you, who lived them. But I have been reading President Havel’s speeches and statements about values in foreign policy in light of the discussions that have been going on recently about that topic. And Havel’s approach when he was in power should not be over-simplified and should not be caricatured. Havel was by no means a naïve purist – instead, he wrote that “a person who is sure of the values he believes in and struggles for … is usually able to recognize the degree of compromise permissible in the practical application of his ideals…” So it wasn’t a naïve purist who said we will never get our hands dirty. Nor did Havel automatically reject engaging with, or doing business with, nations or leaders who were less than perfect. But what was non-negotiable, and what I will argue today should remain non-negotiable, was the imperative to speak out — about political prisoners, about politics, and about progress when we see it.

So I will say to you today, do not underestimate the extent to which the Czech Republic is a powerful and natural proponent for democratic values. One reason is the moral authority – and the moral debt — conferred by the history that I just described. At least three times Czechoslovakia was helped from the outside – in its creation in 1918, in its liberation in 1945, and in support that was given to dissidents during the period prior to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. But on the other hand, some of the most tragic moments of Czech modern history occurred precisely when the world turned away — in Munich in 1938, to some extent at the Yalta conference in 1945, and in 1968 during the Warsaw Pact invasion.

These lessons are lessons that the Czech Republic can use to help others to avoid the same fate, and in fact by helping others, the Czech Republic helps itself. For only a stable international system, based on the rule of law and populated by strong democracies, only in a system such as that can the prosperity and peaceful development, and security of a small country like the Czech Republic be guaranteed.

The United States has long recognized that the Czech Republic can be particularly effective in supporting democracy and human rights because its smooth transition to democracy gives the Czech Republic expertise, credibility, and stature. Because of the unique history of the Czech Republic, countries in transition do not view it as a potential threat, but rather as a partner.

This reservoir of international respect and moral authority are valuable assets that never go out of style. The United States, too, while far from perfect, has always been guided by a moral compass which says – to paraphrase our Declaration of Independence — that all people are created equal; that all have fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that governments exist for the purpose of securing those rights and only gain their authority from the consent of those whom they govern.

I would say now even more given the complex geopolitical landscape that we face today, we need the clarity that our shared values provide. I believe that building on that foundation, our two countries are meeting serious challenges together, and must continue to do so going forward.
I want to talk briefly about a few of those challenges: Russia, the Middle East, commerce and trade, and good governance.

Let’s start with Russia. For the first time since the Cold War, we have a regime in Russia that directly challenges the core values of Western liberal democracy. On this issue I see the United States and the Czech Republic as strong partners at least on the key principles: borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun; might does not make right; and, appeasement does not pay.

Together, we are going to impose a cost on Russia for its aggression, and together we will counter falsehoods with truth. We also need to pay attention to the worrying trends inside Russia regarding the government’s crackdown on civil society, free speech, and dissent. We will speak out when dissidents are silenced, and we will provide support where we can.

Economic sanctions are an important part of the strategy — not as a policy in and of themselves, but as a tool to convince Russia to adhere to international law. And make no mistake, the sanctions are working. We can see direct and indirect impacts on Russia’s economy and its most prominent companies. Foreign investors already are increasingly staying away. Experts predict nearly $100 billion in capital will flee Russia this year and their projections of Russia’s economic growth have declined to almost zero. As a result, Russia’s central bank has raised interest rates three times to 8 percent to fight inflation at the expense of economic growth. The ruble has fallen around 20 percent against the dollar so far this year, and since early October the Russian Central Bank has spent over $13 billion in foreign reserves to support it. So, don’t let anyone tell you that sanctions are not having an impact. And don’t let anyone shrug and turn away if over the first weeks or month or two see immediate pain because it’s already being felt.

But even if the impact were not readily measurable, we must stand together on sanctions and we must stand firm. Of course, there is some pain associated with imposing sanctions. The United States understands that we cannot ask its allies to take losses for sanctions if we are not willing to do so ourselves. We have felt it in the U.S. and you have felt it as well.

But I was very heartened to see over the last few weeks Czech businesses and citizens, like their counterparts in America, are willing to accept some sacrifice in support of these greater principles. I read an October 16th poll conducted for the Czech News Agency that reported that almost 70 percent of Czech businesses consider sanctions against Russia as the right course of action in support of democracy. Another recent poll says that 65 percent of Czechs believe Russia to be a threat to their country in the future. This is an increase of 29 percent since last year and the first time in fifteen years that the percentage has risen above 50 percent.

So, those who make decisions about the course of the nation, I believe should feel heartened that they’re not getting ahead of their citizens and they’re not getting ahead of their business people. In fact it seems here to me that the citizens and business people might actually be in the vanguard, be ahead of the government.

Ultimately, we want to maintain Europe whole, free, and at peace – and that is something you helped to achieve in the Velvet Revolution, so we must remain steady and keep our nerve and I am convinced that together we will do so.

In the Middle East, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – ISIL — represents a challenge to our most basic core values and a clear and grave threat not just to the Middle East but to the entire world. A United Nations report in August documented the mounting abuses and gruesome violations committed by ISIL, including mass killings, rape, torture, and public executions. ISIL has demonstrated that it will target any group, violate any norm attacking even moderate Sunnis, who might disagree with its goals by committing atrocities, violations of international humanitarian law, human rights abuses, and horribly violent acts. ISIL has imposed brutal sentences such as stoning, lashing, and crucifixion. This is a movement that has proudly taken credit for the abduction, enslavement, rape, forced marriage, and sale of several thousand women and girls—some as young as 12 years old. These crimes transgress all definitions of human dignity. We cannot stand by and refuse to get involved now matter how complicated the politics or the military situation may appear.

Now on this issue, I am pleased to say that our cooperation with the Czech Republic is excellent. The Czech Republic’s recent contribution of ammunition to the Kurd Peshmerga Forces in northern Iraq demonstrated Czech resolve and willingness to stand with the U.S. against ISIL and we thank you and you should be proud. It is also clear that we are on the same page in terms of principles: we must work together against such atrocities; those responsible must be held accountable; and we all must resist unlawful aggression.

On a happier note – let’s talk about trade and commerce for a moment. Twenty five years ago, the Czech economy required the same drastic transformation as Czech political institutions. The process of moving to a market-based economy was not always smooth. But a tremendous transformation has taken place in a very short period of time.

In economic and business matters, our partnership is easy to see. Annual bilateral trade between the United States and the Czech Republic is over $6 billion, and has nearly doubled since 2009. The U.S. is the Czech Republic’s second-largest trading partner outside of the European Union. Most of this trade consists of products with high value-added content, including nuclear plant components, automobiles and parts, and high-precision equipment. The United States is also a very large investor in the Czech Republic; U.S. entities have invested over $5 billion since 1993.

I am also pleased to see that the Czech government is a strong supporter of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). TTIP offers the United States and the Czech Republic a tremendous opportunity to increase our bilateral trade by reducing tariffs and, more critically, by eliminating non-tariff barriers to trade. TTIP will improve intellectual property protections, ensure that regulations to protect health and safety are based on sound science, and, perhaps most critically, will essentially allow the U.S. and the EU to set the rules of global trade. A comprehensive free trade agreement could add billions of dollars to the GDP of both the United States and the EU, and reduce costs to E.U. consumers.

As we all know, corruption is an economic drain on societies wherever it occurs. But it’s more than that. If unchecked, corruption also undermines the institutions governments need to function well and to be responsive to the needs of all citizens. We have seen this in Ukraine, where corruption tore apart the very fabric of society and eroded trust in the government, including at the very top.

Fighting corruption remains a challenge both in the U.S. and in the Czech Republic. Government officials need to be held accountable for their wrongdoing and, if found guilty, they should be punished. Since 1970, approximately 25,000 elected officials in the U.S. have been convicted of corruption. So what this does say? On one hand we are in no position to preach and to say that we don’t have the same problems, but it’s also an issue that we have some experience wrestling with ourselves. And one of the things we’ve learned to successfully combat corruption, a nation must possess an independent judiciary free of any outside influence; independent prosecutors; and an effective police force. The U.S. is committed to working with Czech officials to strengthen these capacities through training and seminars for judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officers.

Also essential is transparent public procurement. We look forward to the final implementation of new laws on this and related issues, and we remain hopeful that they will achieve their intended purpose. These laws are not the only step needed in the fight against corruption, but without such a framework it is harder to combat corruption in general. So, we plan to redouble our collaboration with Czech NGOs to combat corruption, and promote rule of law and transparency. And to that end, early next year, I will announce a specific grant program, a competition aimed at supporting Czech civil society in this valuable and crucial work.

Now, allow me to return back to my initial thesis and my initial point that is the case for our extraordinary bond, or if you’re comfortable using the term our special relationship. I think it’s fair to say after the Velvet Revolution, there was a period of giddiness in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. In the early 90’s, hundreds of Americans showed up in Prague, from students to actors, they were in every café trying to write their novels, there were entrepreneurs or Peace Corps volunteers. And from the summer of 1990 until the mid-1990s there were tens of thousands of Americans living in the Czech Republic, mostly here in Prague. They shared some of their experiences, their knowledge, and their lives with the local residents. And Czechs from every walk of life inspired these Americans with their exuberant embrace of their newfound freedoms. It was as if a cork has been popped from the bottle of champagne and the pressure and the bubbles were pouring out. And those relationships helped to facilitate the nearly 10,000 Americans working, studying, and living in the Czech Republic today. Meanwhile, through programs such as Fulbright grants, we’ve had excellent experience in people to people diplomacy, also through the International Visitors’ Leadership Program and similar programs, in bringing Czechs to the United States to meet us, to work with us, to learn from us and also to teach us.

And if we cast our minds back now 25 years to just before the Velvet Revolution, I don’t know if any of us could have imagined the things that were to come?

Despite the fading perhaps initial burst of giddiness, look at where we are now today. Not only is the Czech Republic a strong NATO partner, but who would have imagined that a Czech General would be the Chairman of an important NATO Committee. That U.S.-Czech bilateral trade – which back at the time of the Velvet Revolution was virtually nonexistent – would now be worth more than $6 billion. And that the Czech market would be one of the fastest growing markets for U.S. investors. That we would move from virtually no movement of people between our countries to hundreds and thousands of educational and professional exchanges each years.

And when I cast my vision ahead, to the U.S.-Czech relationship 25 years from now, I see a powerful transatlantic alliance. I see a Czech Republic that is an anchor of democracy and stability in the center of the Center of Europe; and a strong contributor to NATO. And, yes, I see a Czech Republic that is a moral authority, taking courageous stands to speak out for the voiceless.

President Havel wrote in the early 1990s that “if Czechoslovakia enjoys the respect it does in the world, then it is due – among other things – to the kind of basic decency and humanity with which Communism was overthrown here, and the moral direction of our foreign policy.” While times have changed, the validity of that message has not.

I’ve realized that the young are not going to feel the strength of this special bond or the importance of speaking out on these issues just by reading history textbooks. And this doesn’t work that way. We have to show them, the people in this room have to show them and all of us who are leaders have to show them. And we’re fully capable doing that. The Czech Republic has well developed, internationally admired approaches for advancing human rights, supporting democracy, and assisting states in transition. It has very well qualified people both within the government and in civil society, with significant experience, and high levels of credibility. The hard-earned respect of the international community is a potent tool that the Czechs can continue to use to build a better, safer, and more stable world with us, and for all of us. I believe that the Czech Republic will do so, and that United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you in that endeavor.

Once again, I want to thank AMO and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I am very pleased to have had this opportunity to talk about the strong partnership between the United States and the Czech Republic and the importance of values and ideals shaping national priorities. I look forward to spending the rest of the tonight’s conversation, for which I will probably sit down, and to your questions and answers and discussing any of these topics as you wish.