The Ups and Downs of Obama's Czech Visit
Reflections from Prague
President Barack Obama came to Prague, likely because the Czechs hold the current and rotating presidency of the European Union. It was a courtesy call and a chance to speak to the world on international policy. Certainly the draw was not the grim-jawed current president, Vaclav Klaus, George Bush’s political mirror-image. Nor was it to shore up the embarrassment of the Czech government having failed a vote of confidence to sustain their own government halfway through an EU presidency. Stuff happens.
But he came and began a courtship, both promising and not without its awkward moments.
The Czechs are a tough audience, courteous and at the same time watchful. Promises are rhetoric and they are not fond of rhetoric. A beer-drinking, pragmatic country, Czechs spent most of the last century paying the personal costs of Western abandonment.
So, when Barack beamed, saying ‘we are all in this together,’ the applause was minor, scattered and, if you looked closely enough, the president noticed.
Not that they don’t love him, they do. He is the universally loved American president, because he’s charming and honest, enthusiastic and straight. Who wouldn’t love that in a Czech pub, in Chicago or Prague?
But there’s history here and as Tip O’Neill famously told us, “all politics is local.” At the end of the First World War, Czechoslovakia was created and flourished as a free nation until the Brits traded it away twenty years later at Munich for ‘peace in our time.’ Czechoslovaks weren’t even at the table as their country was turned over to the Nazis. Peace finally came, but it was a short celebration as the Brits and Americans once again sold out Czechoslovakia, this time to the Soviets at Potsdam. Munich brought seven years of Nazi atrocities, Potsdam, forty years of gray and relentless communism.
Then the Soviets collapsed, Czechoslovaks shook off the euphoria of sudden freedom, Bill Clinton arrived to play sax jazz at Prague’s Reduta Jazz Club and everyone’s heart skipped a beat. Next, George Bush arrived unexpectedly and announced a ‘for us or against us’ policy to the world, leading it to war and finally into a financial abyss.
Sunday Barack told the crowd we’re ‘all in this together.’ All? Excuse the Czechs if the applause was not thunderous.
They like him. They poured out to see him in record numbers, all smiles and adoration on a sunny spring day in arguably the most stunningly beautiful of European cities. Ex-pat Americans (and there are thousands of us here in Prague) were finally proud to be Americans, after eight years envying our friends with Canadian passports.
But 70% of Czechs are against the American radar installation expected to be built here. Czechs had their fill of Nazi and communist weaponry. The radar has become the national symbol of Czech government ignoring Czech citizenry. Wrong message, Barack.
“For over a thousand years, Prague has set itself apart from any other city in any other place. You have known war and peace. You have seen empires rise and fall. You have led revolutions in the arts and science, in politics and poetry. Through it all, the people of Prague have insisted on pursuing their own path, and defining their own destiny.”
Umm, except for those 500 years when the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empire was running the show or, more recently, the above-mentioned Nazis and communists.
Obama finally cut to the chase nearly a thousand words into his speech and it might have improved chances for the love-affair if he’d done it a bit earlier. The Czechs are a tough audience.
“This marks the tenth year of NATO membership for the Czech Republic. I know that many times in the 20th century, decisions were made without you at the table. Great powers let you down, or determined your destiny without your voice being heard. I am here to say that the United States will never turn its back on the people of this nation. We are bound by shared values, shared history, and the enduring promise of our alliance. NATO's Article 5 states it clearly: an attack on one is an attack on all. That is a promise for our time, and for all time.”
They liked that, not so much for the promise, but the recognition that the West was not always there. Of ‘shared values and shared history’ they are not so sure. So far, their immediate evidence is a tsunami of Western capital, bringing with it an impossible housing bubble (truly shared) and a financial virus hatched in the Petri-dishes of Wall Street. A virus that’s halved the value of their currency, cut tourism by a third and pretty much destroyed exports to the West.
Another hunk of the speech with an unattended applause-line was;
“The people of the Czech Republic kept that promise after America was attacked, thousands were killed on our soil, and NATO responded. NATO's mission in Afghanistan is fundamental to the safety of people on both sides of the Atlantic. We are targeting the same al Qaeda terrorists who have struck from New York to London, and helping the Afghan people take responsibility for their future. We are demonstrating that free nations can make common cause on behalf of our common security. And I want you to know that we Americans honor the sacrifices of the Czech people in this endeavor, and mourn the loss of those you have lost.”
Czechs valued inclusion in NATO more than EU membership. NATO was finally and truly there to protect. But they understood that protection as against attack from the outside, rather than committing Czech troops to the “Bring ‘em on” pre-emptive strike policy of the United States. Who suspected that aggression would come from inside the alliance? They wonder if a bomb went off in central Prague, killing a couple thousand, if America (or indeed NATO) would follow their flag and their drum to an essentially unilateral mission of revenge.
From the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’ until 2003, Vaclav Havel (the poet, playwright and imprisoned dissident) was the first president of independent Czech Republic. Havel told Obama in private conversation that enormous hopes have been pinned on him, as if that pressure wasn’t already building back home. With people expecting the quick birth of a better world, disappointment might turn them against him, Vaclav warned. Obama reportedly smiled, thanked Havel and said he has begun to notice such changes himself.
But they loved him just outside the gates of Prague Castle, make no mistake. There was much to cheer in the speech and they cheered, though sometimes less than American audiences. Europe has been circumspect and cautious in their response and the Czechs are the toughest audience so far.
But Europe and the Czechs seem ready to love Americans again and that’s a major breakthrough.