Ivan Korčok is the Slovak Ambassador to the US
Earlier this month, 70 years passed since NATO was first founded. I’m glad that Slovakia was in Washington, along with its fellow member states, to commemorate this anniversary along with another landmark: our accession in 2004.
Fifteen years might not seem much compared to seven decades, but judging from what we hear about security, NATO and alliances these days, it appears like too much time has passed since then. We do need to repeat again and again what it was like back then, and what it is about today.
I also feel like I should have my say, also because I had the honour to lead the NATO accession talks on Slovakia’s behalf.
There is no middle ground
Instead of embarking on a journey down history, I would like to share an episode that I often return to these days. It was in March 1999, when I took part in the ceremony in Brussels, where the flags of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary were raised to indicate that our three neighbours had just become NATO members.
After the Czech national anthem was played, there was silence. For my generation, which had been used to hearing the Slovak anthem right after the Czech one from the times of the Czecho-Slovak Federation, this meant one thing: after 1989, Slovakia had missed its first chance to become a member of an alliance of democratic countries.
There we were, at a crossroads, excluded from central Europe integrating into Western structures, and it was our own fault. Perhaps some of us still remember how we were told, despite everything, that nothing really happened, because “if they don’t want us in the West, we’ll head East”.
Fortunately, and again on our own merits, we got another chance and our flag was raised at NATO headquarters on April 2, 2004. It will forever remain my personal satisfaction that I was there, hearing our anthem, but also because Slovakia resisted the temptation to remain somewhere in between.
In our case, that “in between” would have meant a definite eastward direction, not so much in geographical terms. We would be subjected to different ways of governance than what we saw in our neighbouring countries.
Everything has been said about that time and the circumstances that reigned back then, and I admit that I have grown tired of having to repeat the indisputably valid arguments in favour of our NATO membership. I’m rather awestruck how, within a short span of 15 years, some people forget those circumstances, and how they succumb to other, alternative arguments that have gradually populated our political space. I cannot shake the impression that today we have reached a stage when it has become sensitive to praise NATO and our membership therein as a good thing for Slovakia. Quite often, the positive statements sound very formal, lacking conviction. We increasingly talk about commitments and duties than about decisions we have deliberately made. As if we were doing things for Brussels, for our allies, for Americans, rather than for ourselves. What is more, a banal statement about NATO being a good thing for Slovakia never lacks assurances that despite (!) that, we still want to have a good relationship with Russia.
There was no way to avoid sanctions
There is no need for such assurances, because they sound like an apology, and place our NATO membership as an antithesis to our relations with other states. In this spirit, we learned from one presidential candidate during the recent election campaign that “we will not be dragged into a war against Russia for the sake of Ukraine and western interests”. On other occasions, we hear serious debates about whether Crimea is Russian or Ukrainian, omitting what is substantial: that Russia flagrantly violated Ukraine’s sovereignty. The “argumentation” that follows, that Russians only took back what was theirs for centuries, should then not come as a surprise.
When I read or hear such talk, it occurs to me that it is the Slovak defenders of “Russian” Crimea who are surely ready to defend the sovereignty of Slovakia next year, when in 2020 we mark 100 years since the Trianon Treaty and no doubt we will hear from some in Hungary about the wrongdoing that was done when Slovakia, for centuries part of the Hungarian state, was taken away.
When it comes to Ukraine, however, the bigger problem is that some people create the impression that with our attitude to Ukraine, our alliance with the US and the western countries, we are only unnecessarily provoking Russia.
Apparently, they are counting on the short memory of the people who might have forgotten what triggered the conflict in Ukraine: its citizens wanted to sign an EU association treaty. In other words, freely decide their own destiny. From Russia’s perspective, they crossed red lines and had to pay for it by losing their sovereignty.
Today, there are attempts to formulate the problem differently: the problem is not what actually happened, the problem is the sanctions against Russia that, we are told, “do not solve anything”. Sure, the sanctions did not force Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. But if we let aggression pass without any response, it would be an invitation to change other borders as well.
There was no way to not apply sanctions in this case, unless we want to only idly watch how the fundamental principles Europe is built on are dismantled.
The “to some extent” logic
In this context, it should also be noted that Slovakia’s own security strategy wasn’t passed mainly because of what it says about Crimea: that the annexation was a violation of international law by Russia and as such is a security threat for Slovakia.
It really is a peculiar phenomenon: to reject such an important document because it offers an indisputable description of reality. There is only one possible piece of logic to explain this mystery – that it wasn’t the real reason why the security strategy was rejected, and that the real problem some people have with it is that it is linked to other parts of the document. Such as those that clearly state where Slovakia belongs, who its allies are, and that those who reject them failed to understand that naming our interest is not an act of hostility toward any other state. The dispute about Russia and whether or not it is a threat, is based on the problem that we, in fact, are not leading a rational debate about Russia and its place in our foreign policy. Most often that debate is based on emotions that are linked with this country. That causes arguments to be turned upside down: as if our alliance with the US and our western allies was a problem, rather than the fact that Russia still cannot digest it.
I did not think back in 2004 that at the 15th anniversary of our NATO membership we would be engaged in this debate about our foreign policy. I also did not imagine, that an agreement with an ally about funds they want to invest into our military infrastructure with the approval of our ruling cabinet and parliament, would be described as a threat to our sovereignty.
Whatever some people might say about it, the fact is that not even a superpower like the US can force an agreement on us, even if it comes with 100 million dollars. They will spend the money elsewhere, in Hungary for instance, a country that does not seem to be negligent about its own sovereignty.
The fundamental question of our foreign and security policy is whether it is in Slovakia’s interest to have another operational cooperation with the US than Hungary, our southern neighbour, has, and to again exclude ourselves from within the V4 on this issue.
Fifteen years after our accession, it turns out that being a NATO member and an ally of the US to some people means “yes, but only to some extent”. Those who defend Slovak sovereignty do not seem to grasp that they are giving our allies a good reason to consider their security guarantees for us with the same “to some extent” logic. Is this in the interest of Slovakia?
Who prevented us?
As we mark our 15 years in NATO, we should give a serious and poignant answer to the noise concerning loss of sovereignty, which we are hearing more often not just in connection with NATO but also the EU.
There is no reason to go on the defensive. Our counter-questions should be: Where have we ever deployed Slovak troops without the clear approval of the sovereign national parliament? Who prevented us from withdrawing our troops from Iraq or from scrapping compulsory military service? How do NATO and EU limit our sovereignty and free will if Slovakia did not recognise Kosovo’s independence and our allies respected it?
How did we lose our sovereignty in foreign policy when we made a different decision to most our allies, who expelled Russian diplomats over the Skripal case? Or when we, unlike most NATO and EU members, recently decided not to recognise Juan Guaido as a legitimate representative of Venezuela? And, make no mistake, this is not about the substance of the decision, which, obviously, is relevant, but it is about the fact that we have had nobody reproach us from the outside.
By the way, to refresh the memory of those who are so determined in their “less Brussels and more V4 talk” at home, I only note that on the latter two issues, Slovakia made its sovereign decision going against the unity of the V4.
We should also remember that NATO has not even forced us to meet our own promises, like our commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence. Here, we also do not observe any loss of sovereignty, because Slovakia’s defence budget will always depend only on Slovakia’s own decision.
Why is NATO being placed into these new contexts? One reason is that the alliance embodies everything that provokes emotions: anti-Americanism, militarism, nonsensical expenditure on defence instead of on health care and education, being dragged into conflicts, and so on. It is hardly an art to receive applause for such slogans. The art is to resist them instead…
Another problem in communication is that one cannot feed people with NATO guarantees. They are not the roads, water infrastructure or smiles of satisfied citizens when a new school, built from EU funds, opens. NATO “only” brings security and defence.
It is hard to explain so that everyone can understand that security and defence are interconnected, but that there is a fundamental difference between them. Security is when you rarely see soldiers in your daily life. Defence is when you suddenly see soldiers too often, because they are not in their barracks, but deployed on the streets, and you are not having a coffee out with your friends, but you’re sitting in an underground bunker.
We are not familiar with that kind of life, fortunately. But others, like our neighbours in Ukraine, would do anything not to have first-hand experience of what defence really means.
What will the next 15 years bring? It is hard to give a serious answer in today’s world. Let us learn from the past 15 years, and from what we can clearly prove. Among other things, that Slovakia’s sovereignty has in no way suffered from NATO membership. On the contrary, our defence and security is stronger, because even those who would be able to take care of their own defence, do share their sovereignty with us.
April 4 is a truly significant day for Slovakia. Of course, in our citizens’ memories, it mostly resonates as the day when Bratislava was liberated by the troops of the Soviet Army. Our NATO membership has not changed anything about that either. It is up to us how to remember this day, our free and sovereign choice. And, even though it is not connected to any of this, I admit that it is a special day for me personally too – my birthday.
This op-ed was originally published in Slovak in the Sme daily.