A Clash of Selective Empathies: Human Rights and the West in Czech Foreign Policy

A recent proposal by the Czech government that shifts more attention to socio-economic rights in the country’s foreign policy has whipped up a lot of emotions. Most foreign policy pundits dismissed it as too ideological and naïve. The controversy is fueled by essential disagreements on which ‘human rights’ matter, what ‘the West’ stands for, and more importantly, what really shaped the Czech post-89 past.

When the Central Europeans joined the European Union a decade ago, they made human rights support abroad one of their foreign policy trademarks. For Czechs especially, aiding dissidents under authoritarian regimes became a way to contribute to the spread of highly vaunted ‘Western values’ – a blend of political and economic freedoms commonly utilized as the essential blueprint for ‘universal’ values, because they are considered somehow naturally superior. Yet this whole talk of ‘Western values’ is so full of paradoxes. Some believe to have acquired these ‘freedoms’ simply by birth. Even those who acknowledge that freedoms can be learned and institutionalized – as it happened during the post-89 transition and EU accession – are sometimes reluctant to admit that ‘others’ living in distant lands can have similar aspirations and can undergo the same process. In the post-Arab Spring Czech café one would often hear the likes of ‘Arabs are not ready for democracy’.

In a way, the current Czech debate about human rights in foreign policy does not dramatically differ from the one in New York or Istanbul. Cosmopolitans believing in universal equality of human beings walk the streets of all corners of the world, as I do national, religious and race supremacists. Some advocate military campaigns in support of democracy, others oppose them, and still many others could not care less.

Yes, there are nuances. In Istanbul, you’d have to search with a magnifying glass to find those who believe that the West – especially the European Union – is currently contributing much to human rights in Turkey. It’s because way too many EU-pean politicians have clearly said that no matter how many reforms the country would undergo, Turks would never be ‘like them’. New Yorkers felt on their skin the rage of a few frustrated fanatics who claimed to act in the interests of the non-West. They also felt on their skin what it means to be taken hostage for your government’s flawed policy. Not just on 9/11 – also when travelling abroad and simply showing an American passport and having to plead innocent: ‘No, I did not vote for Bush’ and more recently ‘Yes, Obama failed on his promises’.

Prague has a different kind of uniqueness. After implosion of the Soviet system – it became smoothly and somehow effortlessly European (and Western) again. While in the early 90s the Czechs might have been looked down upon by West Europeans as poor cousins wearing old-fashioned clothes, they acclimated quite quickly and their ‘Western’ entitlement was never really questioned. At the same time, as ‘new Westerners’ they never experienced the type of backlash that post-colonial West Europeans or the US did. This uniqueness might be a solid ground for empathy with the non-West, yet it has not really translated into Czech foreign policy. In light of Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine it does not come as a surprise that there is an instinctive clinging to ‘Western-ness’ in Prague intellectual circles. However, identity pledges might not be enough to defend the free world in which the Czechs – just like other Central Europeans – and just like most other humans for that matter – would like to live in. The West is coming under attack, and it is not just the fanatics or ‘freedom-haters’ that challenge its policies and point to inconsistencies in what it says and what it does. The Czechs, instead of isolating themselves and wishing issues away, need to find a way to navigate these paradoxes and inconsistencies – defend the good that ‚the West‘ stands for while also listening to the complaints of ‘the Rest‘. There is nothing leftwing or rightwing about this – it is a matter of choosing between hope and resignation. Hope entails approaching the problem and seeking solutions, resignation stands for fatalism.

Left-turn in Prague

The new foreign policy outlook announced by the foreign minister Lubomir Zaoralek and his deputy, a respected academic Petr Drulák, earlier this year ([here] and [here]) called for a number of breaks with policies of previous governments, which they feel have made the country “irrelevant” in the past years. A primary objective has been once again a ‘return to Europe’ – responding to a number of instances where the previous centre-right government went against the EU mainstream.While a number of new proposals have received some criticism, the real storm came when Drulák and Zaoralek started talking about reevaluating the human rights policy.

This article was originally published at Visegrad Revue. Continue reading here.

Fotocredit:Foto: Minnesota Historical Society CC BY-ND 2.0

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