Czechia’s U.S Challenge Is to Further Develop Ties while Minimizing Contentious Issues
Central and Eastern European Perspectives on the U.S. Election
Donald Trump’s presidency has brought turbulence and unpredictability to EU-U.S. and U.S.-Czech relations. His approach to the EU, NATO, and transatlantic relations has weakened the Euro-Atlantic bond and pushed European countries to try to become more autonomous: in international security, disarmament, protection of liberal-democratic world order, foreign policy, and international trade. The coronavirus pandemic has also been the first instance in which the United States has not been at the forefront of efforts to look for a common solution. All this been noted and perceived with skepticism in Czechia, a country with a strong tradition of transatlanticism.
The original hope of part of the elite in Czechia, foremost President Miloš Zeman, was that the country might gain privileged access to the White House as a result of Trump’s connection to the country through his earlier marriage. But this did not materialize due to the Zeman’s pro-Russian and pro-Chinese leanings as well as to the United States now having a strongly geopolitical approach to relations with allies, such as with regard to their relations with China or Russia. The United States also openly criticized the Czech government for insufficient investment in its security apparatus and not meeting the NATO 2 percent criteria for military expenditures. Nor did the Czech initiative to tax digital giants (most of them U.S. firms) win the country any points in Washington.
The United States had observed with skepticism Czechia’s restart of relations with China before Trump was elected, but the recent blocking of Huawei’s participation in the construction of the 5G network and the strong criticism of Chinese companies by the Czech security community helped bilateral relations. The cooperation of the Czech secret services with their U.S. counterparts, including in the capturing and extradition to the United States of the Russian hacker Yevgeniy Nikulin, underscored the strong ties between the two allies. Finally, Czechia and the United States intensified their cooperation in cybersecurity and resilience to cyber and other hybrid threats operations, such as when it hosted the 5G Security Conference and contributed to developing the Prague Proposals for the protection of networks.
The Czech elite’s perception of the Trump administration has been generally rather positive. The cabinet of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has invested a lot in keeping relations positive and developing. On the other hand, public opinion has reacted very differently. Trust in the United States during Trump´s time was at its lowest since 1991: when Czechs were last polled on this, in November 2019, it stood at 48 percent.
Looking into the future
The real challenge for U.S.-Czech relations—no matter who the next president is—will be not only to further develop ties, but also to minimize the escalation of contentious issues. A tariff war between the EU and the United States might hit the Czech economy hard, in particular if the country’s automotive industry, which is connected to Germany’s, is targeted. International security, NATO, and pressure on military spending will be prickly issues with either a Trump or Biden administration; for example, given that the government has announced would not achieve 2 percent in defense spending before 2024. Finally, there is the danger of reaction by the United States to the EU’s imposition of a tax on the digital services provided by Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The project for the Dukovany-II nuclear power plant will remain an issue, with the United States having repeatedly expressed an interest in having U.S. firms construct it and for having a fair and transparent tender process.
During a second Trump term, one issue for Czechia would certainly be how to strike a balance between Europe’s favored multilateral approach and his bilateralism. A key dilemma would lie in balancing security cooperation within NATO and the strategic autonomy of the EU. Czechia might be pushed to make some difficult choices in foreign policy; for example, on Israel and the two-state solution, Iran and nuclear disarmament, or China. While Czechia should look for niche areas in which it can add value to the bilateral relationship—especially with regard to cybersecurity, digital threats, and 5G networks—it should not bypass the EU.
In the case of a Biden victory, Europe would have an easier time on issues such as NATO, international security, and foreign policy. However, the going could be just as complex as with Trump in other areas, such as international trade, conflict resolution in Europe’s neighborhood, and a free trade agreement with the United States. A Biden administration would probably concentrate on the domestic agenda, and not dedicate too much attention to Europe and the wider world, especially in the case of small and medium-sized EU members without a strong conflict potential. This would represent a distinct challenge for the Czech government that emerges out from the 2021 election.
Ultimately, Czechia’s fundamental interest is to have a strong European Commission and a Common Foreign Security Policy that would protect and unite Europe, not least when dealing with the Trump’s or Biden’s United States. It could further develop simultaneously multilateral and bilateral approaches to the United States as well as the exchange of best experience, including of its National Cyber and Information Security Agency, its counter-disinformation and hybrid threats cell, its secret services or other channels dealing with issues of U.S. interest. A strong normative and value-driven Czech foreign policy on China, Russia, and other third actors, such as Iran, might open new opportunities and doors to whoever comes to the White House.
This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.