By Ondřej Plevák
Harald Müller is a professor emeritus of International Relations at Goethe University Frankfurt, former executive director and presently senior associate of Peace Research Insitute Frankfurt (PRIF), and a principal investigator in the Charles University Center for Excellence - Peace Research Center Prague. In his work he focuses on Arms Control, Nuclear weapons or Transatlantic relations.
Let us start with an “easy” question. Are we on the verge of a major global conflict?
I would not say “on the verge”, that is not on the threshold, but the World is entering a more dangerous era. A conflict, even between the great powers, becomes more and more possible. Once this new situation is fully unfolded, every small crisis will contain the risk of global escalation, including using nuclear weapons.
What do you think the future of the European defense cooperation will look like?
I think Europe will intensify the defense cooperation at any rates, even if Donald Trump will not be the next President of the United States. The progress still will be slow, because it is just not easy to pull together ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty-seven different armed forces, plus their civilian and industrial periphery. Many interests have to be taken into account, and that takes time – we know that from the historical development of Europe. Nevertheless, I think we will walk this way, and it might be in the form of more joint military formations of two, three, four or five European states. This is what the future European defense cooperation may look like.
The anti-EU forces are expected to get stronger after the upcoming European elections, which might mean “slowing down” the EU institutions. Do you think the slow defense integration, as you have mentioned, will be even more complicated now?
I expect the opposite. As the anti-European elements grow stronger, the pro-European elements see more urgency in moving forward. The prospect is polarization between the minority of anti-Europeans and the majority of pro-Europeans, in which the latter try to overcome the other by producing success. The risk for Europe as a whole on this scale is new, and I think it will serve as a new motivation that would drive the train forward.
Defense, security and the V4
What do you think the role of Visegrad countries will be in this future defense cooperation?
It depends very much on how these countries develop their own domestic systems. Right now, two of them, namely Hungary and Poland, are regressive in the terms of democracy development. We see very serious attempts to eliminate essential pillars of liberal democracy, specifically independent media and even more important independent juridical system, to move elections in the direction of pure exclamation of the executive power, and to impede the possibilities of the opposition, for example in election campaigns. All that, quite frankly, are attributes of the fascism of the thirties. In Hungary we have a man at the top who has openly declared his admiration for a previous fascist leader of his country Admiral Horthy, and also Mr. Kaczyński (leader of the Polish PiS party) explained his admiration for Marshal Piłsudski, a Polish leader in the thirties, also a fascist. In Hungary there is also a President expressing his sympathies for the leader who wants to destroy both Europe and democracy, namely Mr. Putin in Moscow. I had also learned the Czech President Zeman has sympathies for Vladimir Putin, which is hard to understand in the light of history I should say.
In the terms of the security of the Visegrad countries, these developments are very much concerning, because if democracy is undermined, what will happen to NATO and EU memberships? The question is what will be the security of the V4 countries if neither NATO, nor EU membership are safe.
I would like to ask you about the Czech Republic specifically. How would you characterize the Czech attitude towards defense and military?
It is almost impolite to say anything about that, as long as my own country is not doing its share for Alliance defense, which it should, and I know and regret this very much. I believe it would help the security of the Czech Republic, Poland or the Baltic states, if we did our share.
Having said that, it does not appear to me the Czech Republic does invest too much attention and importance in national or Alliance defense. It is apparently more focused on economic development and getting up to level with its Western neighbors, for which I have a lot of sympathies, but I think we all have to pull together our determination to recreate security for the European states. That means all of us have to do more in defense.
Is the Polish attitude somewhat contrasting with this? They are talking about investing a lot of money in their defense and security, and plan to cooperate even closer with the USA.
Yes, I think, except Baltic states, Poland is more defense-oriented than any other major EU member country, even France. The reason is quite easy, it is very close to the very troublesome neighbor. Unfortunately, Poland is counteracting this potentially positive role, first through the developments inside, which I have talked about earlier, and secondly through a tendency you have indicated – to move from Alliance defense to bilateral union with the US. This rather destroys possibilities for ever closer European cooperation for the sake of a completely one-sided dependency on one major ally. I think this rather disturbs and weakens the Alliance defense as a whole instead of strengthening us, and I do not believe it is a net gain for the security of Poland either.
What do you think about the idea of building an American military base called “Fort Trump” in Poland?
Well, Mr. Kaczyński has a great predilection in symbolism, and this is of course a symbolic act. Whether it will attract sympathy of the next US president I have my doubts.
The Germans want stable and reliable Eastern neighbors
We have talked about your view of the political development in V4 states, but what about the German people? Do they worry about what is going on here?
Yes. I have not seen public opinion polls recently, but measured by the media reaction, the concern about the domestic development in Visegrad countries is high. It was also interesting to see the “chorus of applause” for the recent presidential election in Slovakia, which was a countertrend. For us in Germany this is of course our Eastern neighborhood, and we wish these countries strong, blossoming, determined, democratic, stable, reliable and good allies. The risk of personal leadership rather than democratic leadership is growing. It is a great worry, and not only in political and moral sense, but also in the sense of security, because this means instability and the return to the thirties. We do not want the return to the thirties, and I think our Eastern neighbors should wish this even less.
Can we expect a significant change in the German approach towards V4 countries after Angela Merkel retires?
I would expect we see a stronger approach by the leadership of the European union, including France and Germany, towards these “heading away from democracy” trends, and rather tough action against the worst phenomenon in order to create some kind of deterrence. Mrs. Merkel was a great believer in soft power and consensus in building democracy. I can imagine her successor in chancellery would be more determined, more willing to act together with France, and also in favor of European Commission’s proceedings with Hungary and Poland, even ending in sanctions.