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Tomáš Petříček: In the case of European policy it is necessary to perceive that it is based on different cultural and historical traditions

14. 9. 2021

Dear listeners, you’ve tuned in into De Facto, a podcast of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University. This episode will be about our successful graduate, namely Tomáš Petříček, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs from October 2018 to April this year. He started his studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2001 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations and subsequently studied for a master’s degree, as well as a doctoral degree in international relations. During his studies, he also visited universities abroad and is returning to the Faculty of Social Sciences to teach next academic year. Doctor Petříček, welcome to Hollar.


Having you here as a former foreign minister, I can’t help asking you about the current situation in Afghanistan. So, allow me to ask right off the bat… In your opinion, could the rapid occupation of the country by the Taliban have been avoided?

It is clear that we made some mistakes in Afghanistan and we will certainly need to analyze that, to know in the future what not to do, what to do better because after twenty years we really did not expect that the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces would actually collapse so quickly, we had supported them for so long, which not only cost a lot of money, but also, unfortunately, a lot of lives of coalition soldiers, including Czech soldiers. But I would also like to keep in mind the reason why we actually went to Afghanistan in 2001, at a time when I was actually starting my studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences and I still remember the moment I heard about the attacks in New York and Washington on 9 September… I was on the train, returning from Prague from the Faculty of Social Sciences to Rokycany – my friend called me to ask me if I knew what had happened and that it was terrible, and actually everything else drew on that, and the reason we went to Afghanistan was to stop such attacks from happening again, so that Afghanistan would not be a country, from where international terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, nowadays perhaps the Islamic State and other dangerous organizations of this type operate, and for twenty years this objective was successfully followed and, in fact, the agreement that the United States made with the Taliban was mainly aimed at preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism.

And is that agreement credible?

In the case of any agreement, it is based on some elementary trust between the two parties and I would just like to point out that the negotiations with the Taliban were certainly not easy, they went on for many years, it was not as if some agreement that was negotiated in Doha suddenly came out of the blue, those efforts to actually communicate with the Taliban go back to previous administrations, not just to the Donald Trump administration. And, of course, there is a certain risk that the Taliban will not keep their word, that they will not actually combat the Islamic State and other extremist organizations that are present in Afghanistan, we know that they are, we met them there. But then it is also up to some coordination of a possible response, whether by NATO, the European Union, or by the wider international community, as to what to do when the Taliban do not keep their word.

So, you would say that from the perspective of what we know now the invasion 20 years ago had a purpose, which was therefore fulfilled regardless of what has happened now.

In the case of the first and main reason why we were in Afghanistan, I believe that to a large extent it was. It’s impossible to say that we failed completely. But it’s important to admit that we also defined a second objective, and that was to stabilize Afghanistan. But that second objective was perhaps not defined clearly enough, it was not said exactly what it meant that Afghanistan would be stabilized, in what situation we could leave and have a clear conscience that we had actually achieved that objective, and it is perhaps the fact that that second objective actually turned out to be much more distant than we ourselves believed that is actually what today’s critics are pointing to.

Another point that we have to discuss is your career. Can you tell our listeners the recipe for becoming a foreign minister as a graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences?

There’s certainly no recipe for that, and in my case it was a coincidence, I was probably at the right place at the right time and well prepared, but I was interested in politics from the beginning of my studies, I was a member of the youth organization of the Social Democrats, I took part in a number of political debates, actually I was kind of moving around politics all the time, although at the same time I always wanted to be involved in foreign policy, European affairs, energy, which I was also very interested in. So it was more like a coincidence that happened at a time when I was maybe well prepared for it.

So, you didn’t have such ambitions from your studies?

I admit that while studying at the Faculty of Social Sciences, I was more tempted by diplomacy, and I also admit that later I got over diplomacy as a career of a professional diplomat. And I focused more on politics, on things around politics, and that actually led to me becoming a member of the Social Democrats and then eventually a minister.

And what discouraged you from diplomacy if I may ask.

Suddenly, the wind just blows you somewhere else, and you don’t even realize that what you originally thought might be your career might change from day to day. Well, it was probably not from day to day, but gradually and through considerations and different options I was offered, including the fact that the Faculty of Social Sciences offered me the opportunity to go abroad to study, I could actually get acquainted for the first time with European politics during my internship in the European Parliament, and so my steps were a little more directed at the European institutions, at that time.

Now we’ve actually touched base on a lot of topics that I’d like to address, but I’d like to go back to your ministerial position. What do you think were your main assets why you got into this position, what do you think was why you were appointed?

I have been involved in foreign policy for a long time, as I said, also with the Social Democrats and I contributed professionally to the party’s program discussion through our foreign commission, participated in a number of political discussions on this topic and last but not least I had the experience, with European structures, but also with the Czech politics. This combination might have actually led to the situation where the choice was made in those discussions that I would represent ČSSD in the government in this position.

You mentioned the European policy, you had the opportunity to get the feel of it, so what is the difference between the European policy, when you work in it, and ours – the domestic one. I mean, for example, in terms of some political culture, I understand that the content of the policy is different, but something that you yourself felt was different.

So European politics is a much bigger pond than Czech politics, but on the other hand, the way politics is made, what politics is, so it’s the same in the Czech Republic, in Brussels, in France, in Germany, it is a question of how to make a compromise out of often conflicting interests, come up with a proposal that will simply be acceptable to most citizens, whether those from the Czech Republic or the European Union, through their elected representatives, so the policy dynamics may be a little different, but what remains the same is the point for which we’re talking about politics. In the case of European policy, it is – of course – necessary to perceive that it is a policy that is based on different cultural, historical traditions. You have representatives of countries such as Cyprus, small states in the south, in the centre, in the north of Europe, countries that have gone through a different historical development, and this can to some extent influence how they approach certain topics. It is actually a very interesting mishmash, but it has its own interesting trends, dynamics and it is a sort of a political culture that may just be emerging.

You also mentioned that you were on Erasmus while at FSV, can you tell us where? In short, how, what was it like?

It will sound pretty boring because I was on Erasmus in Brussels.

I would say that it fits exactly into that picture.

And in fact, it somehow came together that at the time when I had the opportunity to go on Erasmus, I was also able to face some practical experience with the European institutions for the first time. Also, I briefly did an internship there at our embassy in Belgium, and these were actually some practical steps as I began to look backstage of what we often see in newspapers or on television.

And what, for example, was the agenda of the internship? Can you mention a practical specific thing?

In the case of the European institutions, it was, for example, the opportunity to participate in some negotiations, where, for example, European Parliament resolutions were negotiated under the supervision of experienced administrators and I worked in a foreign committee, so I could actually watch the outputs, which we can then read on the website. I could see how negotiations were proceeding, for example, between political factions, but it was also about preparing materials for supervisors or mentors, but also some manual things, which were not so popular yet belong to internships, so I also shredded some documents.

Speaking of those negotiations, is there any negotiation during your political career that stands out in your mind in some way, either positive or negative? Either during your internship or in the last three or four years when you were a minister. I’ll leave it up to you. We can even divide it, you can also mention two. My idea is to hear about something that you really remember, that stands out in your memory.

I have to admit that it’s quite current. In the current context, not one or a specific one has come to my mind, but a visit to Kabul to meet Czech soldiers in Kabul, for example, because suddenly you find yourself somewhere in a completely different world and even though you know you are going to a culturally different area, you still cannot count on the society working there the way we are used to it working over here. And as far as specific negotiations are concerned, of course you will remember the first experiences, such as when I first attended the Council of Foreign Ministers, so it’s actually the moment when you go there with certain nervousness, because this is the first time. It’s a bit like you have to get the feel of how it actually works, and when you’re going for the second time you already know those people. In the end, it’s in the high politics like when coming to a new team, and in fact you suddenly appear among those ministers and try to establish some normal social contact. It’s easier with someone, you make contact with someone and form not necessarily friendship, but a certain trust. Someone is a little bit more reserved, so it’s harder to break the ice. As for the unpleasant negotiations, I do not want to mention any specific ones, but these are mainly negotiations when really a lot is at stake and both parties are in it to win. And you know that in the end you have to reach a compromise, which can be unpleasant for both of you, because the expectations can be higher than what can be agreed.

And when you mentioned the meeting, for example the meeting of foreign ministers, what does it look like? How should we imagine it? You come there as you came here today, say “good morning”, sit down, pour yourself some water. Consider us to be complete outsiders.

I had the advantage that I actually attended the first meeting as deputy minister, so I could see how the meeting itself was going, so it was not about sink or swim, but the team of our permanent representation brings you there and helps you prepare for the meeting according to the latest developments, as this is usually preceded by other meetings where some details are negotiated. Along the way, you must, of course, get acquainted with all the details of the content, of the meeting. The days before, national positions are defined, for example, the Czech position of what we are actually going to defend there, you are talking about it. The meeting itself is like the icing on the cake, which is preceded by really big preparations by a team of people, experts, whether from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or completely different departments, when it comes to the topics that have something to do with defence, security, or also the ministry of the interior. So, there is a huge amount of work already done, and in fact some things are to be fine-tuned at the meeting … The agreement is not complete, it’s supposed to be given the political weight, this is something that the ministers agree on. And as it goes from the human point of view, you suddenly come to a larger room where there are a lot of people, for the first time you actually get to know each other a bit, you introduce yourself to others.

In what language? In English?

The vast majority of those debates, especially the ones held in the corridors, take place in English, but it is good to use French, because, for example, some colleagues prefer being spoken to in French.

As for the language, how many languages do you actually speak?

My first foreign language is definitely English. I speak French, as my wife and I lived in Brussels for many years. I’m learning Spanish, but I admit, it’s sort of a Sisyphean job, there’s just not that much time left to learn foreign languages. And when it comes down to it, for example, we use a kind of a Polish-Czech lingo with Polish friends.

And where did you learn those languages?

I started learning German in elementary school, I’m from north-western Bohemia, so German was the first choice, but in high school I immediately switched to English and in fact for me it was already at school. My parents made me take some extra classes from time to time, but I have to admit that you make a big step forward in English when you suddenly meet your peers, when you go out for a beer with them. Also during student exchanges at university, one makes huge progress at once, from basic English you learned or at that time it was possible to learn in high school, if you understand, you can communicate. You reach this self-confident use of the language once you start using it practically.

I would like to touch base on the fact that you are now returning to FSV as a teacher. What led you to this?

I have taught externally at the faculty in the past at IES and IPS, it was a joint program with a lot of foreign students and I taught international political economics, which was also one of the study fields I studied abroad and basically the offer came if I did not want to share with students a little bit more practical, perhaps, view of Czech-foreign policy, Czech diplomacy and there was word for word and I am glad that from the new academic year I will teach Czech diplomacy, its genesis and main topics.

What kind of teachers did you like when you studied? What qualities, what approach of the teachers?

I’ve always enjoyed teachers who wanted some interactivity, when it wasn’t just a lecture, but instead space was given to students, and it was about the debate, that we could actually present our opinions in some way, and I believe that is something that is more and more common at Czech universities. Compared to the past, the way of teaching has changed over time, so I would also like – if I can provide a teaser – to direct the teaching the way to see what opinions students will have on the topic on the basis of reading and on the basis of discussion.

And are you preparing for it in any way? Or will you make some preparation before the beginning of the semester? Which is actually approaching …

Of course, I’m preparing for the course, but I also tried to spend some time with my family, so the ambitions were bigger and I believed that by now I would have everything done, but I still need to tie up some loose ends in the coming days and weeks.

And when you’ve mentioned it so nicely, you said earlier that you also met your wife at school, so could you give us a tip on where to meet someone at the Faculty of Social Sciences?

Well, I don’t know if the course is still taught, because it was an optional subject in Aristotelian philosophy, and it was taught by Professor Havlíček, unfortunately already deceased. So philosophy actually brought us together.

So that’s a beautiful conclusion, I think. Thank you very much for the time you have given us and good luck.

I also wish you all a nice academic year.