29 years ago, Alexandr Vondra (ODS) was in prison; a few months later, he became an advisor to the president. He went on to be an ambassador and a two-time minister. Although he hasn´t been active in politics for six years, he has been following it closely. When you talk to him, you realise that he views it in precise context, which is quite rare.
Are you happy without politics?
Politics is a bit addictive. Although I am not involved at the top level, I have dedicated most of my productive life to it, so I keep following it. On the other hand, my life is now calmer, more enjoyable, better and stress free. When you work with young people, students, you get feedback and some sort of acknowledgement. Contrary to politics where no one gives you acknowledgement and, in this country, every politician ends up being howled down towards the end. In other words, I cannot say I miss it in this regard or that I could not exist without. However, I am still interested in what is going on and I am concerned about this country because it’s dear to me. I have always been working hard for my country, whether it was after bolshevism or later, when we were looking to anchor in the free system of international relations. Should I be sought after, I cannot rule out that I´ll be seen again. I am healthy and not throwing in the towel, although far from tossing and turning just because I am not "at the top" any more.
You were described in 2009 as the strongest ally of the USA on the Czech political scene. It is still true?
As a matter of fact, yes. In the last hundred years, it was the Americans on three occasions who had to save the bacon for European sins – in 1918, 1945 and, at the end of the day, even in 1989. It was always literally a question of being or not being, of the national existence. Americans have never threatened us with anything; they had no claims in the space between Germany and Russia. I believe we should be good allies, because we need Americans more than they need us. And that goes for the whole of Europe, not just Czechia. Even America is changing, of course, and at the moment we are seeing an avalanche of progressivist leftist ideologies spreading from over there, which doesn’t make me happy at all. Those were my reservations against Barack Obama. To my mind, Donald Trump, whatever his shortcomings, is a natural response to these unfortunate tendencies
The former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, Ben Hodges, recently said that war between the United States and China was very likely within 15 years. Putin, on the other hand, stated in reaction to Trump´s speech about withdrawing from the INF Treaty on nuclear weapons restriction that "Europe would be at risk of Russian retaliation if it agrees to host U.S. nuclear missiles". Should we be worried?
With regard to the mutual relationship of these powers – that is USA, China and Russia, I don´t think we need to be afraid of some large-scale conflict that would destroy mankind. Rationality and competitiveness prevail. It is evident that China´s growth will make the country the main rival of the U.S. The question is, where in the game will Russia´s position be, as it is far less strong than China and its influence compared to China´s will be diminishing even further. This is the development we should be focusing on. But I don´t think we should worry about them flexing muscles. Americans need to fix the trade imbalance between themselves and China and also between themselves and Germany. They have been paying for the rest of the world for 75 years without asking questions. Recently they´ve started asking them and rightfully so. Europe should start negotiating with them and establish some balance. If it fails to do so, I am afraid that not only instability between Europe and the USA will occur, but also within Europe itself. Here is where I see the problem: it´s not the strength of the others but our own and Europe´s weakness. The all-encompassing European pacifism and the conviction that this is going to be a paradise on earth and we have nothing to be afraid of, that´s what I see as the major risk.
Britain is about to leave the EU, Italy balances at the verge of bankruptcy, Spain, France or Belgium are not doing great either. Do you believe Europe is at the brink of disintegration?
The Union is brilliant as a platform for cooperation within the freedom of movement, entrepreneurship, capital and services… The opportunity to travel, work and study basically anywhere is a wonderful thing and it would be a terrible shame to lose it. This could happen, however, if we stretch the bonds of integration beyond the limits that the individual members are willing to take. The problem is that the area using Euro is so inhomogeneous, that countries with lower economic efficiency, lower labour productivity and, after all, warmer climate, are unable to ventilate the tension. Had they had their own currency, they could devalue it and off they go. The Eurozone is operational when all goes well, and the economies are growing, but the reality is that they are going up and down. When the next economic crisis comes, the countries you just mentioned will be in a real pickle. This is a good enough reason not to rush into the Eurozone and wait and see whether it´s going to survive the next crisis.
And what about Brexit?
We have been stretching the bonds of deepening integration beyond what an average Englishman was willing to take. Shame that Europe is about to lose a country with the largest military potential out of all member states, functioning finance sector and an example economy in many regards. And also, a country that has given us the language that enables us to communicate with each other across Europe despite all our differences.
When the war against the Islamic state started, you gave a strong warning that Europe would be swarmed by migrants, unless hard action was taken, and it happened. Is this problem resolvable at all within the EU context?
There has always been and will be migration – it just needs to be under control and within limits. What happened two or three years ago, when Germany decided to invite practically everyone and let them in at the same time, is unacceptable.
Could there be any link with the possibility that Germany still feels guilt for the war?
I would name two reasons. Yes, there is the intention to do good whatever the circumstances, but as the saying has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The ethics of the consciousness brutally outweighs the element of responsibility and the consequences are not seen until years later. It is also a question of scale. Professor Paul Collier from the University of Oxford, who studies migration, has a good simile – immigration in small doses is like seasoning; it can add spice, it can be beneficial. But when you put a whole pot of it into your meal, it won´t be edible. This is what has been happening in the recent years and it´s not good. Europe is committing suicide without realising it.
And the other reason?
A major problem of the entire western world and Europe´s in particular is the fact that we are resigning on our own reproduction. Not enough babies are born, we are dying out. We have the tendency to outsource everything – the manufacturing of our shoes, trousers, shirts, because it´s cheaper in China. That´s ok, but now we incline to outsource even our reproduction. We won´t "produce" children, we won´t hold our families together. Someone will do the hard work for us. This suicidal idea is maintained by some western Europeans. They see migration as a way of securing our reproduction and our survival in the times when everyone tries to maximise their personal happiness. But such a society doesn’t deserve the right to exist. It can function throughout one or two generations, but then becomes extinct as a civilisation; and that is what we simply cannot allow to happen.
We are also talking very different cultures…
The strength of the West lied in the fact that it had been built on the Christian-classical tradition that had a universal appeal. Nowadays, however, political correctness has made us afraid to name things, let alone to defend them or even actively enforce them. Our world has gone through a significant change in this regard. The result being our enervation, our weakness. When this space is joined by the Islamic culture, that has not renounced its universal claim, we are in trouble. I can metaphorically say, that it is an invasion of people coming from countries full of mosques to the countries full of empty churches.
Speaking of churches, rumour has it that you were baptised last year. Why so late?
I was preparing for baptism already in the 80s, but it was interrupted by an increased dissident activity, the Revolution and affairs of state. I was unable to concentrate on it. My life is calmer now, I´ve got more time to read and reflect. Yes, I am a Catholic. I didn´t want to postpone it any longer until my deathbed. I still want to give it a little bit of work.
At the start you mentioned young people in your lectures. What are they like?
If I should judge according to my children, then fantastic. They would probably feel offended that I refer to them as children, they are grown up and I am already a grandfather. I often have a special lesson with my students at the end of the term when we just chat and I tell them: "Don´t forget to have children because when I look back, I think it´s brilliant to see how I helped the Velvet Revolution, the Czech-German Declaration and NATO; but the greatest satisfaction is when you look at your offspring who are much better equipped for life than we were." So, based on my offspring, I conclude that young people are fantastic and based on what I can observe amongst the students, I´d say they are also fairly decent human beings. Some of them are slightly leftist oriented, especially those in humanities. But I am sure they will grow wiser as they become older!
Alexandr Vondra (born 17th August 1961 in Prague) is Charter 77 signatory, former Ambassador to the USA, former Senator, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Defence.
He teaches International Relations and Security at Jan Evangelista Purkyně University in v Ústí nad Labem and at the CEVRO Institute in Prague. He is also Director of the Prague Centre for Transatlantic Relations CEVRO Institute, Honorary President of the Czech Euro-Atlantic Council, board member of the Council of the Czech-German Discussion Forum and member of the Programme Council of Forum 2000.
He studied geography at the Faculty of Science at the Charles University in Prague and earned a doctorate in natural science. He worked as a manager of the Naprstek Museum´s Asian collection at the Libechov castle. He was also a manager of the underground rock band Národní třída and a co-publisher of an underground magazine Revolver revue, alongside Jáchym Topol and Ivan Lamper. In 1989 he was the spokesman for Charter 77 and the co-author ofA few sentencespetition. Vondra was imprisoned for his anti-regime activity. He was one of the founding members of the Civic Forum in November 1989.
In 1990−1992, Vondra worked as a foreign policy advisor to President Václav Havel. He served for five years as the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and in 1997 he was appointed the Ambassador to the USA for four years. He left top politics for a few years and returned in 2006, when he became the Minister of Foreign Affairs for a year. He also served a Senator between 2006 and 2012, and as the Minister of Defence in 2010−2012. He joined the Civic Democratic party in 2006 and held a post of its vice-chairman.
He is married and has three children with his wife Martina: Vojtěch (27), Anna (25) and Marie (22).
From prison the Castle
Saša Vondra went to prison in September 1989 for breach of probation, which he got during "palachiáda“. A few months later he became an advisor to the President Václav Havel. Was he surprised by the speed of the events? "It was evident that the regime was slowly collapsing, and as it was getting weaker, it was kicking back, trying to demonstrate power. We all know what happened back then in Beijing where blood was shed in the Tiananmen Square. People here knew neither the day nor the hour, but we were certainly not expecting that the changes would happen so fast. I am extremely glad that I had the opportunity to enjoy this carnival as a performing dancer in his prime. What could be possibly better for a young person than being chased by the cops, knowing that right is on your side and eventually ending up winning? Our parents and grandparents were hit by the worst - from Hitler and Stalin to Brezhnev. My generation had a lucky escape. What matters now is that our children don´t end up in the same trouble like our fathers and grandfathers.
About the ODS
Saša Vondra has been a member of the Civic Democratic party for 12 years and has been through its ups and downs. "According to an old Arabic proverb, you need to fall to the very bottom of a well, to be able to see the stars. I believe we are not at the bottom any more, but still quite a few steps away from the stars. In any case, we are paying for our own mistakes; affiliation with certain business interests was so profound that people got angry. Our voters have always been the more active, more educated ones, those who pay taxes, and of course they resented when we compromised some of our principles. Nevertheless, I believe that the ODS is back on track and reaching for the stars."