The Impact of NATO Membership in the Czech Republic

The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1999, in the alliance's first round of post-Cold War enlargement. Their accession represents a milestone in their integration into the trans-Atlantic community and a recognition by long-standing NATO members that they had made a successful transition in establishing democratic political systems and market economies. Nevertheless, the Czech Republic's first two years of membership in NATO have had more than their share of problems.

Just like Poland and Hungary, the Czech Republic has had trouble fulfilling its obligations towards the alliance and has faced daunting problems in restructuring its Cold War legacy military into an organization compatible with the alliance framework. But, differentiating the Czechs from Hungarians and Poles, some foreign and security policies of the Czech Republic have seemed at times to dissent from NATO and have introduced doubts within NATO about the country's reliability as an alliance member.

In order to probe the deeper causes of the seeming Czech ambivalence about NATO and to assess the impact of NATO membership on Czech perceptions of security, Ivan Gabal, Lenka Helsusova, and RAND analyst Thomas Szayna conducted a survey-based study to examine the extent to which the Czech public identifies with its responsibilities as an alliance member. As NATO considers expanding membership to other post-Communist countries, this study provides some lessons regarding the impending next round of enlargement.

The study found that Czechs value and support the security that NATO membership offers. Two-thirds of the public recognizes that effective membership in NATO requires a well-performing Czech military, fully integrated in NATO. The Czech public has a good understanding of the military's problems and is ready to support fundamental military reform, if there are reasonable assurances that the funds for reform will not be squandered through corruption or poorly thought-out strategy of modernization.

They also found that, even though Czechs are highly critical of the current state of the Czech military, they retain a high level of trust in the armed forces. On the other hand, Czechs show a high level of dissatisfaction with the performance of Czech political and constitutional bodies and are skeptical of their effectiveness in times of crisis.

Strong Czech support for NATO is linked to an awareness of shared responsibility and a commitment to assist allies in time of need. However, the Czechs have not fully internalized the meaning of non-Article 5 alliance operations (Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty states that an attack on one member shall be considered an attack on all and provides for appropriate responses, including the possible use of force.). Without a clear knowledge of the connection between NATO's peace operations and European security, and absent public debate on these issues, most Czechs interpreted Operation Allied Force, NATO's action against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, as a relapse into Cold War patterns of behavior and an aggression by a military alliance against a sovereign country.

The study found that the main source of Czech hesitation towards NATO is a perception of a low level of influence that the public has on decision-making in security issues. This lack of transparency and public debate in the Czech decision to join NATO, exemplified by the lack of a referendum on the issue, is the main source of the problem. When taxpayers are neither consulted about their views on accession nor informed properly about the costs of accession, as happened in the Czech Republic, both the quality of the new member's membership is damaged, and NATO has to deal with embarrassments that are potentially damaging to its operations. In other words, shortcomings in the democratic process in the Czech Republic continue to affect Czech attitudes and behavior toward NATO. This is the most pertinent lesson regarding the anticipated next round of enlargement and one that the alliance should not re-learn.

The study's final report, The Impact of NATO Membership in the Czech Republic: Changing Czech Views of Security, Military, and Defence, was published by the Conflict Studies Research Center. For more details about the study, order the RAND reprint of this report.