It’s time for the Czech Republic and European allies to stand up.
- By Bohuslav Sobotka<p> Bohuslav Sobotka is the prime minister of the Czech Republic. </p>
When the late Czech President Vaclav Havel received an invitation to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1997, he noted that the treaty did more than guarantee security. First and foremost, Havel said, NATO membership was an opportunity to assume our share of responsibility for peace on the European continent and to contribute to the defense of the values cherished by the alliance.
The crisis in Ukraine has been a true game changer for Europe. Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year, followed by the outbreak of fighting in what had been deemed a stable European country, has shaken the foundations of the continent. In a matter of days, the basic tenets of Europe’s security were dealt a serious blow. The inviolability of borders established with the Helsinki Final Act — the 1975 agreement between Europe’s countries, the United States, and Canada to respect sovereignty and refrain from use of force– was breached. So was the Budapest Agreement, the 1994 treaty that guarantees Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July sent further shock waves through European capitals. Armed conflict erupting on our doorstep has been a powerful reminder of our shared responsibility. We have learned that security in Europe cannot be taken for granted.
More than ever, Havel’s words on NATO ring true. The events in Ukraine have underscored the irreplaceable role of the transatlantic partnership in ensuring Europe’s peace and stability. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the armed clashes that ensued have ignited a vigorous public debate in Europe on defense issues, which normally enjoy only marginal attention among the wider public.
The Czech Republic has been and always will be an active and integral member of NATO. The alliance has always symbolized both "the return to Europe" and the transatlantic bond which we see as the foundation of our security policy. When the Czech Republic joined the alliance, we saw NATO as being primarily a military defensive organization that would help us ensure stability and territorial integrity. NATO membership has had a huge impact on the transformation of our armed forces. The aim was to develop a modern, mobile, and small-sized force, and to achieve an adequate level of interoperability with new allies and partners. It was also important to the Czech Republic that our neighbors, too, were striving for membership. That coordination and shared efforts have provided an incentive for regional stability and cooperation. Today, Central Europe is well anchored in the European and Euro-Atlantic security and defense architecture.
But 15 years since the Czech Republic joined NATO, the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine poses a serious test for the alliance as a collective defense organization. A creeping sense of insecurity hardly bodes well for a Europe, whole, free and at peace.
NATO’s immediate response to the current crisis was adequate. Allies have demonstrated a high level of unity and cohesion and the alliance has managed to adopt some countermeasures, such as deploying fighter jets to the Baltics, dispatching AWACS reconnaissance planes to fly along Ukraine’s borders, and has held regular talks to better coordinate diplomatic efforts.
NATO as a collective defense organization offers an ideal vehicle to assuage legitimate worries of countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The premium the alliance places on solidarity, an essential aspect of NATO’s credibility, proves as important as ever. Without escalating the situation, it is paramount that the alliance takes the necessary steps to reassure those NATO member states who feel their security might be at risk. In the long run, we should intensify joint exercises, contingency planning, and sea and air patrolling, to name but a few measures. A visible demonstration of NATO’s solidarity is important to reassure allies.
But it is important that NATO members see the alliance’s security guarantees as a two-way street, not only in bringing benefits in the form of extra security, but also responsibilities. This applies to each and every member state.
This fact has never been more in our minds than it is now, following the loss of five Czech soldiers in Afghanistan last month. Our troops are risking their lives every day on NATO missions around the world. They have earned the respect of their NATO peers and have established an impressive track record. Since the Czech Republic’s entry into NATO, we have been faced with a number of crisis response-type operations outside NATO’s territory. These operations — from the Balkans to Afghanistan — have seen Czech troops take on a range of tasks, including post-conflict reconstruction, training local forces, and providing humanitarian relief.
The Czech Republic’s constructive role in world affairs and security challenges around the globe has come despite a military budget has been creeping downwards for years. Until last year, it was only slightly over 1 percent of GDP. In the recent past, the defense budget has not been a priority for many European countries. The protracted economic crisis has perhaps done the worst damage as it forced governments to channel scarce funds to other areas. This applies not only the Czech Republic but to most NATO members who have slashed defense spending and seen the public’s interest in defense issues all but disappear.
The new Czech government is ready to start increasing defense spending beginning next year, even in this difficult economic climate. In order to build a modern armed forces and reverse previous defense cuts, the Czech military budget should gradually climb to 1.4 percent of GDP by 2020.
On March 12, 2014, the 15th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s NATO membership, the leaders of both government and opposition parties signed a joint declaration on defense. The document calls for prioritizing defense as well as securing funding for the defense budget.
But discussions of joint declarations and allocations for defense are inconsequential in the face of the recent death of five Czech soldiers. Our commitment cannot be measured only by the size of defense budgets, but by what real allies sacrifice for the common cause, the utmost price — human lives.
With regard to worrying developments closer to home, it is obvious that a more serious and long-term approach to security is needed. When it comes to NATO — and this is especially the case with its European members — we are reminded of the old adage that security comes with a price. And we all need to be ready to shoulder our share of responsibility.