Assistant Secretary Mitchell’s Remarks at The Prague European Summit (June 20)

Assistant Secretary Mitchell’s Remarks at The Prague European Summit (June 20)


I can’t tell you how delighted I am to be in Prague.  Prague really holds a special place in my heart.  I have built a lot of friendships here over the years.  I see several friendly faces in the audience, people that I’ve come to know through government and things and seen here over the years. And it really is a highlight for me on this particular trip to Europe to be here, to have an opportunity to speak at the Prague European Summit, which I have been delighted to see cultivated, grow up in prominence over the last couple of years.  I also want to say at the top of my remarks how grateful I am to GLOBESEC for giving me a second chance to speak.  It was partially under their banner I had originally intended to give this speech (or something like this speech) at GLOBSEC about a month ago and utterly failed in the attempt to do that and I was derailed in my plans literally at the very last minute.  And I can now say what we were working on, which was the Greece-Macedonia names negotiations, which we can talk a little bit more now that we’re moving in a very good direction.  So I hope my absence was worth it for what we were working on.  But in any event, what I want to say here – what I would have said there – which is how much I appreciate the work of the Slovak Atlantic Commission and GLOBSEC and of course the work of the Prague European Summit and groups like Europeum and the Institute of International Relations Prague – I have friends in both of those institutions.  I really appreciate the work that they’re doing strengthening transatlantic relations, but I would say Atlanticism, as a set of ideas across relationships in turbulent times.

As Jakub mentioned a minute ago, we are at the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, and it is also the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Czech and Slovak Republics.  I think most of you know here that the United States has been part, a very important part, of these two nations’ stories from the beginning.  It may come as a surprise to some of you to know that the creation of Czechoslovakia did not take place in Prague or Bratislava but it actually happened in Pittsburgh.  A hundred years ago last month Tomas Masaryk and leaders from the Czech and Slovak diasporas met in Pittsburgh to sign a declaration attesting to their desire for statehood.  I think it’s worth re-reading Article Four of that declaration, which read, “The Czechoslovak state will be a republic, its Constitution will be democratic.”

America’s connection with Central Europe, and really with Europe in general, has never just been about geopolitics; we are bound together by a very long history of shared culture and friendship.  Tomas Masaryk and Milan Stefanik, his Slovak friend, counted Americans amongst their closest associates.  Masaryk married an American woman and developed many of the ideas for his country’s political future during train trips across the United States and in meetings with Czech and Slovak diaspora groups in Philadelphia and Chicago.

Really Atlanticism, as we know it, had its origins in groups of Czech and American friends in the interwar period and a lot of that legacy – much of which is just forgotten – but all that legacy is kept alive in the networks and ideas and personal relationships that we see in gatherings like this.

The United States played the role of what you might call a midwife at the birth of the independent nation-states of Central Europe after the First World War.  If you lived in this region before 1918, and you were a Czech, or a Slovak, or a Pole, or Romanian, or Croat, or Slovene or Hungarian, you were a citizen of the Austrian, German or Russian Empires.  The new countries that we helped to create after 1918 were something altogether different.  They were independent polities, organized on the national principle.  They were powerful expressions of freedom and self-determination, two principles that are the foundation of the American republic and therefore part of the foundation of our foreign policy.

As we mark the centennial of these countries’ birth, we celebrate Czech and Slovak freedom and the contribution that both of these countries have made to Europe and to the West.  But we would also do well to remember lessons from their history.

One of those lessons, I think, is that maintaining freedom requires strength.  After aiding in the creation of Czechoslovakia, America and its Western allies turned inward, turned away from them, to policies of isolation and pacifism.  That turned out to be a catastrophic mistake.  Our weakness was provocative.  The small states that we had helped to create in Central Europe, were militarily indefensible without alliances.  German observers in the 1930s had a word for these little states that America helped to create.  They called them “Saisonstaats”—seasonal states.  When the season of geopolitics shifted, and Germany and Russia turned predatory, all those little states vanished.  Except, of course, those who aligned themselves with Germans or Russians.

Today, in our time, unfortunately, I think the season of geopolitics is again shifting.  We face very real competitors for influence in Central Europe.  There is, of course, Russia, which uses energy monopolies, and dirty money and military and hybrid threats to cow its neighbors into a kind of vassalage.  Russia has invaded two of its neighbors and grabbed their territory.  China is here in Central Europe too – a little more every year.  It uses debt book diplomacy to create dependencies that will constitute very real leverage over Central European governments and societies in the future.  And though they seem far away from Central Europe, Iran and radical extremism present very real threats to Europe and the West.  They create misery and death for people in the Middle East. They spark mass migration on a scale not seen in recent history that radiates instability into the very heart of Western societies and politics, straining European cohesion, budgets, and social systems.

A central message of the U.S. National Security Strategy is that the West must recognize the pressures bearing down upon us and take them seriously.  That begins by taking defense seriously. In recent months, the United States has reversed years of cuts to the U.S. military and begun to recapitalize the American nuclear arsenal.  We have reaffirmed Article 5 of the NATO charter, put forward more than $11 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative, and provided defensive aid to Ukraine and Georgia.  Here in Central Europe, more than 4,800 U.S. troops—the largest contingent of any state in NATO—are either stationed or on rotation.

Europe must do its part as well, and increasingly it is.  Since January 2017, every member of the NATO Alliance except one has increased defense spending.  In that time, the number of members committed to spending 2 percent on defense by 2024 has tripled, and the number of members spending 20 percent on major equipment has nearly doubled.  But ten NATO members still have not submitted the credible spending plans that we all agreed to at the Wales Summit.  And several European allies continue to either publicly support or refuse to oppose projects like Nord Stream 2 and Turk Stream that will serve to increase rather than decrease Europe’s dependency on Russian energy monopolies.

We urge those allies who are not already doing so to take greater responsibility for our common security.  We urge them to carry their fair share in defense, to oppose energy initiatives that increase theirs and their neighbors’ bondage to Russian gas, to support fairer transatlantic trade, and to confront Iranian aggression.  Being strong today is the best guarantee against insecurity tomorrow.

In both the East and the South, the United States has been clear that we will defend the West against its opponents.  In the past six months we have brought sanctions against 205 Russian entities and individuals.  We have taken steps to deny Iran the resources to fuel regional aggression and we have achieved decisive battlefield defeats of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

In parallel, we are working with partners across southern Europe to strengthen cooperation in confronting the challenges of mass migration.  At the upcoming NATO Summit, we will bring the Alliance more squarely into the business of counter-terrorism, with new initiatives to project stability in North Africa and the Middle East, and to strengthen Western societies’ defenses against catastrophic attacks at home.

With both Russia and Iran, we are open to dialogue.  We do not seek confrontation.  As we have shown in this month’s historic outreach to North Korea, we believe in active diplomacy.  As Secretary Pompeo said recently, “we wouldn’t have had this opportunity with North Korea without the diplomatic work that was done by our European allies.”  Like many of our allies, we also want to see diplomacy succeed in Russia.  We want to see a Russia that does not invade its neighbors and that respects the yearning for liberty and prosperity of its own people.  Russia’s future does not lie in the East, in league with a China that covets Russian resources and offers a false model of political stability.  Likewise, we are willing to work with Iran to achieve a peaceful, prosperous future without nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.  On both Iran and Russia, we have been clear that we will not compromise our principles or our allies.  As Secretary Pompeo has said, the years of soft policy that enabled our rivals’ aggression is over.  No more cost-free expansion.

A key lesson from Central Europe’s history is that we must be serious about competing for strategic influence or expect to lose ground to determined rivals.  In the interwar period, we told ourselves that strategic competition had ended in Central Europe simply because the shooting had ended.  While the West slept, our opponents were steady at work, sharpening their ideologies, building up their arsenals and waging campaigns from within to undermine the regimes of Central Europe.

Competing for positive influence begins by giving our allies viable alternatives to Russian and Chinese options.  We are increasing regional diversification through projects like Krk Island and the BRUA pipeline.  We are working to realize the full potential of America’s vast energy reserves.  America today is the world’s top producer of petroleum and natural gas.  In the years ahead these resources will give America’s allies all over the world alternatives to Russian gas.  In the economic sphere, we are working with allies to give real content and impetus to projects like the Three Seas Initiative that hold the promise of providing Western alternatives to Chinese financing and infrastructure.  Such projects are not formulated as a competitor to the European Union; to the contrary, we invite greater participation from all Western states in this and other regional projects.  We should all be working harder to address the lack of north-south linkages that fuel insecurity in this region by all means possible.

But competing for influence is not only or even mainly a material undertaking.  It is also about the battle for hearts and minds.  Even the best military preparations will be insufficient if we are not clear about who we are and what it is that we are fighting for:  we are fighting for the West.  As President Trump said in Warsaw, there is nothing like the Western community of nations.  The world has never known anything like it.  And we must have the courage and desire to preserve it in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it.

The West is a community—a group of nations bound together by history and heritage and cultures, by shared sacrifice, and a common commitment to the cause of freedom that since antiquity has been the foremost gift of Western civilization to the world.  China, Russia and Iran each in their own way are would-be ideological competitors to the West.  China and Russia represent a coherent model—stability founded on authoritarianism and brute force, harnessed to certain aspects of market competition and co-mingled with state-run politicization of the economy.  Iran and ISIS are also authoritarian, and stand for political Islam in its ugliest form:  muscular, repressive and dogmatic.

What all of these have in common is a negation of the individual and the inherent dignity of the human person.  A building up of central authority, whether secular or theocratic, over the liberties of the individual.  An eagerness to repress and punish anything that challenges the state.  An embrace of kleptocracy and corruption to enrich those who rule the state.

All of these things are antithetical to the political traditions of the West, which above all were built on the idea that each individual is worth protecting and that the individual is to be defended from the abuses of state power. Nowhere are these dangers of authoritarianism better understood than here in Central Europe.  Your greatest poets, composers, leaders and philosophers are those who aspired to be a voice of freedom for their people, who rejected the idea that “might makes right,” and who had the courage to stand up for the individual, to defend the weak against the strong.  Central Europe is the very negation of geopolitics—an expression of hope against brutality.

Central Europeans know all too well from their history what happens when despotism triumphs over liberty.  You remember the gulags and deportations, the torture chambers and the secret police, the soulless collectivism and persecution of the church, the government run economy and networks of corruption that let the politburo grow rich while the people faced shortages and breadlines.

The ideas of the autocratic East must never take native root in Central Europe.  The idea of a leader for life like the Chinese President, or of extra-judicial killings of journalists and persecution of civil society like we find in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is and must always be hateful to all free Central Europeans.

Central Europe is Western by history, culture, and origin but it’s also Western by choice. Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Croats and Slovenes made a political, economic and strategic choice to embrace a Western future when they emerged as free nations from Communism and joined NATO and the European Union.  You chose a future defined by the democracy which you had been brutally denied through the long night of Communism—a future of ordered liberty, separation of powers, and individual freedom over the old path of corruption and authoritarianism.

The path you chose is spelled out clearly in the Washington Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which commits its members to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”  Notice that this preamble talks both about our heritage and our rights. The two are inseparable; they are our common patrimony.  Through them we keep alive those precious institutions that protect the individual.  The most basic of these is the democratic nation-state. It is the guarantor of our freedoms and the purveyor of all that we hold most dear:  to a Czech, it is the chords of Smetana’s Ma Vlast, to a Slovak, the music of Suchon.  It is the nation that gives us law and forms the foundations of popular democracy.  As the great Hungarian statesman Istvan Sechenyi said, “liberty is the highest good, therefore it is certain that liberty cannot truly belong to those who are lawless.”  America’s greatest contribution to Central Europe after World War One was to give voice to the aspirations of its nations.  It is the joy of being Czech or Slovak that leads us to celebrate this year’s anniversaries.

Within the nation we find those institutions that give us a sense of community—what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons,” which, as he said, are “the first principle of our public affections and the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of country, and to mankind.”  Home and family, church, local community, civic association, civil society and NGOs.  The West nurtures and cherishes these little platoons.  If they perish, democracy cannot remain healthy for long.

Above the nation stand the many leagues and alliances of the West.  The very concept of alliances is deeply Western:  the Athenians had their leagues of free city-states where the Persians knew only centralizing empire. Today, the nations of the West form the most extensive and strongest set of alliances in human history.  Our rivals do not have or understand alliances. Russia seeks vassals to dominate; China looks for tributary states.

If the nation is the vehicle by which we safeguard our liberties, then the alliances, leagues and institutions that exist above the nation are the means by which we secure the nation.  Regionally, around Central Europe, in your neighborhood, there is the Visegrad Group, the Three Seas Initiative, the Bucharest Nine, the Nordic-Baltic Eight, NORDEFCO, ePINE, the Adriatic Charter.  Above them are the great institutions of the post-World War II era:  NATO and the European Union.  Our grandparents built NATO and the EU to ensure a free and prosperous West.  We expanded those institutions after the Cold War, both because Central Europe is historically the heart of Europe and because doing so sealed off the old crush zone between east and west that was the birthplace of the 20th Century’s wars.

Together, these institutions form a bulwark to the old chaos of war and geopolitics.  Whatever their imperfections, they are infinitely preferable to the “firetrap,” as it was called, of militarized nationalism and cyclical war that the generation of our grandparents knew.  Preserving, strengthening and reforming these institutions for future generations must be our shared goal.

At all of these levels—civil society, the nation, regional groupings, and alliances and institutions, our task is strategic renovation and preservation.  We cannot depend upon an idea of an “end of history” or an “arc of history” to do our job for us. We must be active participants in history.  We must not repeat the mistake of the interwar period of failing to take strategic competition from rivals seriously.  We must husband and strengthen the West and all that it stands for, so that we are able to secure ourselves and our values in competition with determined rivals.

Where we disagree, we do so as part of a family.  Whatever seems to divide the West right now pales in comparison to what unites us.  That is evident in this week’s meeting of the U.S.-Czech Strategic Dialogue, and U.S.-Romanian Strategic Dialogue that I just came from in Bucharest.  In the scale of preparations that is currently underway in the United States and European Allies for shared initiatives in the lead-up to the NATO Summit. In the joint patrols and missions that the U.S. and European pilots, sailors and aircrews are undertaking every day in the Baltics, Mediterranean, and Afghanistan and in countless other places around the world. In the joint challenges that the United States and European Union are managing together in the Balkans, Syria, North Korea, Ukraine, in counterterrorism, law enforcement and intelligence and countless other fronts.

The West is a powerful, creative force that has shown resilience through history’s darkest chapters.  Our job today is to strengthen it; to strengthen ourselves from within, as nations, as Europeans and Americans, and as a Western alliance, so that our children may know the great blessings of peace and prosperity in their lifetimes that we have known in ours.

Let us go forward together in that united task.