- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2007

Last week, the Czech Parliament voted to install a new center-right Cabinet, bringing to an end a seven-month crisis, during which the small Central European country lacked a functioning government.

Within hours of the vote, U.S. officials submitted a long-awaited request to host U.S. anti-missile radar bases (intended to counter possible rocket attacks from Iran or North Korea) on Czech soil. Though it remains to be seen how the Czechs will respond, one positive byproduct of the momentary reprieve from political infighting is that Prague is now able, for the first time since June, to turn its attention to the business of foreign policy. For Washington, this return of a more outward-looking Czech ally may bring some surprising benefits in the months to come — not only on missile defense, but on other issues closer to home.

From a U.S. perspective, perhaps the best thing about the new Czech leadership is the crop of individuals it brings into office. Though incoming Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg’s affiliation with the anti-NATO Czech Green Party initially raised some eyebrows in Washington, the 69-year-old nobleman’s independent status enables him to chart a more pragmatic, pro-U.S. policy course than that favored by his party backers. Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra — a former independent who, as one Czech analyst put it, is “very attentive to the role of the United States in European politics” — enjoys an “honest broker” status in Czech politics that provides a comfortable distance from right-wing hard-liners in the ruling coalition.

What Messrs. Schwarzenberg and Vondra share is a balanced policy style that avoids both extremes of the Czech political spectrum. That Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek placed these centrists in key posts (and gave the senior foreign and defense portfolios to junior parties in his coalition) gives him better odds of passing measures in the evenly-split legislature than if they were held by party insiders.

So what does all of this mean for the United States? On missile defense, the fact the U.S. proposal carries the stamp of the lesser parties and centrists like Messrs. Schwarzenberg and Vondra may make it more palatable to the opposition Social Democrats than if it were perceived as having originated solely from Mr. Topolanek

But missile defense is not the only issue on which Washington may benefit from the new state of affairs in Prague. One byproduct of parliamentary gridlock may be a channeling of energy — as occurred in the government of Germany’s Angela Merkel — into foreign affairs. This may bring a diplomatic windfall for Washington in some unexpected areas. One of these is Cuba.

For years, the Czechs have acted as the international community’s watchdog on human-rights abuses in the island nation. In contrast to most European capitals, Prague sees eye-to-eye with U.S. policy, and may prove a critical ally in the rapidly-approaching post-Castro era. As one high-ranking U.S. official said, the Czechs “have certain assets in dealing with Cuba that we don’t.”

Other possible areas of cooperation include Kosovo (an issue on which Mr. Schwarzenberg’s views may overlap with those of U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden) and energy security (where Mr. Vondra’s support for a coherent EU-wide policy emphasizing supply diversification is in lockstep with U.S. policy).

In each of these areas, Washington stands to benefit from the end of Prague’s seven-month political introspection. However, with the increased Czech interest in foreign affairs will also come renewed scrutiny on a sore spot in the relationship with Washington: visas. The Czechs took at face value President Bush’s recent promise to extend the Visa Waiver Program to include Central European supporters of the Iraq war. The task of fulfilling this promise falls mainly to Congress, whose two-year term matches exactly the period Mr. Vondra has told the Czech people to expect before they are able to travel to America without visas.

But Washington should do more than just tie up loose ends on visas. The time has come to move our relationship with the Czechs — and other “New” European allies — beyond the current focus on short-term horse-trading (like “visas for missiles”) and toward a more expansive vision of the role that small- and medium-sized allies play in U.S. global strategy. Washington should be careful — in carrying out Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s plan for a restructuring of U.S. diplomatic resources — not to reduce the U.S. footprint in Central Europe to such an extent that America is perceived to be disengaging from the region.

In sum, the United States must begin to think more seriously about its relationship with lesser powers like the Czech Republic and avoid the tendency to engage them issue-by-issue. Doing so will go a long way toward retaining their future support and may make the task of pro-U.S. politicians in these countries easier the next time Washington comes knocking for a favor.

Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a policy institute devoted to the study of Central Europe. CEPA is an affiliate of the NCPA.

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