You are an expert on the Middle East and the Arab world. Will you and I ever live to see the day when these regions are not in turmoil?
Certainly not. Incidentally, all those declaring themselves experts on the Arab world have proven they actually know very little. We are merely students of these worlds.
So when will peace and tranquillity finally arrive? In 100 years?
Such an end never arrives in the Middle East. One hundred years is certainly not enough. Imagine this is merely the sixth chapter in some epic novel. And the events of this chapter begin in the year 1916. Back then the UK and France guaranteed the Arabs that if they stood up to their fellow Muslim Ottoman Turks they would gain one large Arab state in return. The result was something the Arabs refer to as being akin to their “Munich Agreement”. No such state emerged. And instead the Arab world was divided up into numerous artificial nation states, with inhabitants feeling little sense of national identity. For example, if you are a Jordanian, which in essence means being a Palestinian, and you live somewhere called “Region C” subject to controls by Israel, then you try defining to which nation you feel you belong.
Similarly to your boss President Zeman, you are among those sceptical of welcoming migrants into Europe. What measures would you take to reduce the flow of such people?
I would first admit that it is a problem that will take several decades to fix. That ultimately we are talking about numbers which may mean the difference between migration and invasion. And that it is a problem which in the past centuries Europe was able to manage. However, that relied on resources which today we have deliberately made impossible to utilise. We must now revive such resources. What would I do first? Six months ago I would have sent a diplomatic mission to meet with the president of Eritrea [Isaias Afwerki], which is an African country with six million people. At one point, the citizens of this country comprised up to 15 percent of the migrants arriving in southern Italy. But I would have sent this mission out on a gunboat, as was done in the 19th century. President Afwerki is a man who understands simple logic. And he would be given a choice of whether to continue down this path, or “reaching an agreement”. Of course that is not the total solution, but it would represent a crucial step. But it would represent an immediate reaction to the fact that the number of Eritreans has tripled in the space of a year. And many other people considering fleeing would take note. After all, if a hole exists then the laws of physics mean people are immediately drawn through.
So you mean taking a tough line? You recently said that the cure for the infection of radical Islam is a radical form of therapy. So you would be prepared to fire shots from those diplomatic gunboats?
That is always the last possible option. And one always needs to know at whom they are shooting. For example, migrants on dinghies are victims, after all. Including being victims of people smugglers, who deserve facing the same kind of radical solutions that we successfully unleashed on Somali pirates. A pirate has little expectation of dying quietly in their bed. But what matters is the speed and degree of such an intervention. If some countries’ internal policies are leading to a mass exodus of its citizens – and it even benefits from that – then Europe essentially becomes a cash machine for such states. But if we react to such “monetary withdrawals” with a conference in which intellectuals conclude that this systemic abuse is taking place because they had difficult childhoods, and discuss whether it is immoral to defend ourselves, then such people will only laugh and return again to the cash machine. Then the dinghies arrive. I am simplifying things, of course, but only in the interests of grasping how these things really work or do not work in such countries.
And the same could be done, for example, in Syria and Afghanistan?
Each country has its own factors. In Afghanistan, what has always mattered is the degree to which one’s expectations are realistic, and the degree to which a person is prepared to make sacrifices to achieve that. The theory suggests that a successful occupation requires a 40:1 citizen to soldier ratio. Factor this into a cost of USD 750,000 per single soldier, and then you can see what we might have achieved with the USD 3 trillion spent so far. Certainly not turning the Pashtuns into the Swiss overnight. And if you use simple common sense in Syria, then you realise that, similarly to Eritrea, progress will require reaching some kind of deal with the president of the country, namely Bashar al-Assad.
But such a deal would enable Assad, with the help of the Russians, to “eliminate” any semblance of opposition to his regime...
What is the other alternative? To use money to retrain fundamentalists from the Al-Nusra Front to become “democrats”? We have already seen once where that leads with regards to the Afghani Mujahideen – the end result was the Taliban. To create an opposition comprised of Western-backed Arab politicians? We have already seen that in today’s very Shia Iraq, Saddam must be laughing in his grave. So long as Assad has the support of [some] Syrians, then he is a player. The sooner we realise that, the fewer dead and fewer migrants there will be.
So you believe that gunboats will help us reach an agreement with Eritrea, and that the Russians can help to keep Assad in power... But until such a time, migrants will continue to reach Europe’s shores. What to do with them?
Some extreme voices would seek to sink the dinghies, without even telling us what is supposed to happen to the people inside. Of course you can’t let the people die, but at the same time we do not want to motivate further migrants to also try to cross. The dilemma can only be solved by preventing those dinghies from even setting sail. Most come from a stretch of Libyan coastline not even 60 kilometres long. And we do have the resources to prevent this. But instead we tie our own hands because such solutions are at odds with our modern interpretation of international law.
What exactly would you do?
Such law suggests we cannot enter sovereign Libyan waters without the agreement of the country’s government. But there are three governments there at the moment, so such approval is impossible to get. So migration cannot be prevented without breaching international law. You have to choose which is more important. For me a human life has the supreme value, and so I would personally approve of a one-off breach of international law and us entering Libyan waters. And if a quarter million people are really on the beaches, luggage packed, wanting to head for Italy, then the time for such an intervention is now. I personally don’t understand why Italian politicians are not demanding such solutions from Brussels to New York, because this is a very serious issue. But the migration flows in numerous directions. It cannot be completely halted.
President Zeman has said that there should be no migrants permitted into the Czech Republic...
Hold on, that’s not what he said. That doesn’t cover immigrants from Ukraine. And he has a very cordial relationship with the Czech Vietnamese community and so on. As Europeans we have a moral duty to help people in need. Who are such people? Those who for verifiable reasons crossed over into the first – and I emphasise first – neighbouring safe country. But at the point that they leave this first country for another, then they become economic migrants. And it is important to understand where such hotspots emerge – for example in Libya. Not Greece. That’s not a hotspot, but rather a Reisebüro [German for travel agency].
Many of those listening to the president understand Zeman’s words to actually apply to migrants from the Muslim world. You yourself have said that integrating Ukrainians into the Czech Republic takes three days; a doctor from Syria three years; and a boy from Eritrea with hardly any education takes 30 years – if at all.
I cannot speak for how people interpret the president’s words. But I know how I interpret them. For me, the ethnic or religious backgrounds of immigrants is not of paramount importance. Rather the question is whether they can even be integrated into Europe at all. And if such a person is to live among us, then irrespective of whether they are yellow or purple, or believe in Islam or Scientology, what matters is that they accept our principles of gender equality, tolerance of different faiths and the separation of church and state. And if someone cannot be made to respect these three pillars, then they have no business here, and their presence will only bring conflict – both for them and us. Yes, I will concede that, say an orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood might also not pass such a test the same way as an Islamic fundamentalist would not.
Might not a reverse approach be best – namely that the West completely withdraws from engaging in the Middle East?
If we are really seeking to separate ourselves from the problems of the Middle East then that is the only solution. But you are looking at it using cold apolitical logic. Arab fundamentalists also believe that such states – and therefore conflicts with them – are mere creations of the white man supporting non-Sharia-type politicians in power only thanks to Western military backing. Their ratio there is twice as high today as existed during the Crusades. That is the de facto rhetoric of Islamic State. So your question is entirely logical, although [IS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would probably pose the same question.
Well, thanks... We spoke at the start about predicting the overall duration of this era of Middle Eastern conflict. Will the wave of terrorist attacks in Europe continue so long as the former exists?
In a sense waves of terrorism are a kind of “fashion” of the times. Just as we had the IRA, The Jackal and the Palestinians in the 1970s, so now we are seeing this latest incarnation. Nonetheless it will continue to repeatedly manifest itself because the Middle East faces some very deeply entrenched issues. I believe that IS would not gain such support among Arabs if it could not draw upon regular Arab nationalism as part of its propaganda appeal. Their narrative is: “They attack you; they divide your lands; they steal your homes – now it is time to defend ourselves as we are under attack from Bosnia to Beirut.” The apocalyptic and highly extremist theology of Islamic State is too complicated to convince most people to give their lives for it. But nationalism is an easy, emotive and highly potent poison.
What to do about European Muslims who are attracted to Arab nationalism?
We should have a far smaller presence in the Middle East and a far greater one among the Arab communities here. For me the most shocking story of recent months was to learn of the post-attack fate of [one of the] Paris terrorists, who was a wanted man across all of Europe. He spent six months being sheltered in the Brussels district of Molenbeek. Well, “sheltered” – I mean he wasn’t sitting at home for six months. But he spoke to friends, went out for pizza, all while living in one of Europe’s biggest cities. And not one of the people in his orbit felt themselves to be enough of a European, rather than Arab Muslim, to report him to the authorities. Our culture totally lost there. Which is why we have to accept that there are certain cultural stereotypes which we cannot accept as our neighbours. Because one side is openly hostile to the other.
So what would you do with those cultural stereotypes which we deem as being destructive to us? Deport them?
There is no simple solution. One mustn’t generalise. It should be a case-by-case matter. But those who do not want to be Europeans – while being perfectly willing to reap the rewards of living here – should not be welcome. After all, the most at risk states have already begun deportations in individual cases. But we have been allowing this problem to build for several generations now. Which is why we won’t be able to solve it in three hours or even two years. We believed, on the basis of an idealistic assumption, that people are fundamentally good, decent, can be educated, and that such education turns people into better human beings. But suddenly we discovered that in essence, for thousands of years we have been and continue to be meat-eating apes, which, when under pressure, can occasionally revert to primitive behaviour. And that some humans get on better than others. It is a return from the idealism of the 21st century to a sense of realism.
What is “21st-century idealism”?
To give primacy to a culture of political correctness. Bland viewpoints have become the ideal; inoffensive to everyone, but totally devoid of meaning. I believe that this is a kind of cancer which has weakened our immunity to the point of us committing a form of suicide. I understand how, after the “political incorrectness” of the Second World War and the Holocaust, we ended up down this path. But today it is like treating flu with penicillin. The pathogens simply become more and more resistant, and the penicillin ceases to be effective. Then you end up taking 60 pills and die. And we are now in the phase of swallowing our 47th pill of political correctness – we need to go back to a more natural form of treatment.
Turkey has been a subject much on the minds of EU politicians of late – in particular that country’s desire for visa-free travel for its citizens in exchange for helping keep migrants from coming to Europe. Why is President Erdoğan so insistent on this?
It is a combination of two things. Firstly, he needs a policy prescription as a rallying cry – albeit one that is unattainable. Even if Turkey met the EU’s 72 requirements for this to happen – and one of these is biometric passports – then only 10 percent of the population even have passports anyway. But Erdoğan is a brilliant strategist. He has chosen the only easily comprehensible advantage of close EU ties, while knowing full well that it is unattainable. And if someone longs for something that they cannot have, nor can the other side grant, then you usually end up offering money [as the next best thing].
Angela Merkel has become a symbol of Europe being accommodating towards migrants. You’ve met her. How would you describe the German chancellor?
Pleasant, smart, scientific, unbelievably hardworking. She is nowhere near as dry as people think; not like the common Czech stereotype of Germans. And let us admit that we found ourselves in the current situation because Angela Merkel was left to try to tackle all the unsolved issues that Europe had piled up over the last decade. A friend of mine commented that when people are confronted with some international issue they have two options: either you go and consult Berlin and Angela fixes it, or we snitch to the appropriate authorities and they are killed in a drone strike. That’s obviously hyperbolic, but it isn’t so far from reality. We have gotten used to the powerful, super-just Germany will solve all attitude. And so it is doing. It’s way. But when the always cerebral Germany starts thinking with its heart instead, then Slavs panic.
Let us again return to your role as a foreign policy advisor to President Zeman. How different are you in your views?
Not much. But he is a politician and I am a diplomat. Which says it all. I will give one example of what I would not have done in his place. I would not be trying to use quotes from the Koran to comment on day-to-day events. I realise that I would open up a Pandora’s Box, because for billions the Koran is the direct word of God. Quoting God directly has a different dimension to quoting the Bible.
If you roughly share the same views, then criticism with regards to President’s Zeman’s embrace of warmer ties with Russia and China from numerous quarters must also be directed at you. Do you advise him to advocate such policies?
I will tell you what I advise: today, China is the greatest market in the world, which in this “Asian” 21st century has, in essence, already assumed the role of the world’s chief economic power. Distancing Euro-Atlantic civilisation politically from Asia until such a time as it becomes sufficiently “European” is, I believe counterproductive. A blunt example: when a Chinese person becomes head of the company for which you work, instead of an American, then that doesn’t mean they are going to force you into an 18-hour working day. But this is simply the Chinese century! Our Czech-centric society still continues to reject such conclusions.
And is this also a “Russian 21st century”? Why is Miloš Zeman so accommodating towards Vladimir Putin, even calling for sanctions to be lifted?
More important is the mental direction of that country going forward. After all, it is the country that stands in-between us and the new, powerful Asia. If Russia is European, then we are central Europe. If it is Asian, then we find ourselves really at the eastern edge of Europe. We are safer in central Europe than on the border. And so it is in the interests of our own security for Russia to maintain pro-European interests and orientations. The sanctions? The president is against any kind of sanctions because he is an economist.
So we are pursuing economic interests, with human rights issues cast aside?
We are pursuing a voice of reason. Human rights continue to be a part of the agenda. But it isn’t always a mandatory priority number one in every negotiation. Often, one must first sell someone some turbines, as an example, and then they might be more amenable to handing over so-and-so dissident. In practice, one goes hand-in-hand with the other.
If the president is taking lessons from China about “how to stabilise societies”, then does he also make an effort to aid persecuted dissidents?
That is a deliberately provocative question. If instability erupted in China today, you would see how the world would break out in collective tears. It is expected that human rights will form part of our agenda. But I do have a rule: when you speak loudly about human rights, then you are tending to speak to a section of the Czech electorate and are just helping yourself. Never the [persecuted] dissident. In my life I have helped to secure the release from prison of a number of people around the world. And usually it was never printed in any newspapers. If it was then no dictator would deal with me again. The Czech Republic continues to do things which larger states could not afford to do. But it is not in the style of the current team to have itself locked up in a cage in Old Town Square and then claim that that somehow helped some Cuban dissidents.
Could you reveal the identities of the people released as a result of your efforts?
I cannot, because I would cause that which I have just criticised. Instead of political capital, however, I do have a small green beetle named after me, running around in the forests of northern China. Officially it is called “Kmoníčka’s květokras” [Anthaxia Eschscholtz], and is a present from people whom we helped have released from prison.
You have spoken of the weakening of Europe’s political and economic power. What will happen after the Brexit? Will the EU fragment or unite?
We should not permit either further European fragmentation, nor increased Brussels centralisation. Europe is always in a process of either uniting or fragmenting. Historically, we began with, for example, Venice and Genoa being competing states for centuries. Now you can go from the Czech Republic to Italy without barely noticing a border. And we don’t want to end up needing a passport to get from Prague to Pardubice.
If we meet again in 30 years, will their still be an EU?
Yes, in some form. In this Asian century Europe has no other choice. After all, we do not want to end up as some small relic peninsula, which at the far other end contains the more important China. Because that is exactly how we look on Chinese maps, which are printed with the Chinese “empire” in the middle. It’s different than what we are used to, seeing central Europe in the middle.
As a diplomat, you have worked in places including the UN, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Before that you were still making a living as a guitar player performing in concerts. I understand your hobbies include ethnic music. But where did your passion for spicy sauces come from?
Thanks to cooking. That is an ideal hobby for a diplomat. It teaches humility and patience. While cooking it makes no difference how long you spend in this pursuit, nor does it matter if what you made was any good. In the end it all gets flushed anyway! And 90 percent of diplomatic efforts end up the same way. To cook spicy things is simply an obsession of mine, and my tolerance continues to grow. I have several hundred super-spicy sauce bottles. For the strongest ones I have to search as far afield as Costa Rica and Malawi.
Ending on a lighter note – can you offer readers a culinary-diplomatic recipe?
Certainly. Try to create a balance between the Czech very greasy but delicious roast duck and the perhaps too over-dry Peking duck. Take a can of Costa Rican palm hearts, which look like small turnip-rooted celeries, and put them into a classic roast duck as a stuffing. As it roasts, the hearts absorb most of the fat, but they are also an excellent side dish. When you are then basting the duck, use a little quality red wine, as they do in the Caribbean, and also add a few drops of spicy sauce – I recommend the yellow version of the Malawian Bushman’s Fire. You will end up with something that is both crunchy like a Peking duck, moist like a Czech duck, whilst also not destroying your gall bladder with all that fat. And so on the baking tray, all these cultures can coexist harmoniously. You just have to know what goes with what. Let’s hope our future is that way too...
I have a small green beetle named after me – the “Kmoníčka’s květokras”
A diplomat’s ideal. Kmoníček’s current partner Indira Gumarová is an American who grew up in New York and has Tatar-Bashkortostan roots. Kmoníček, who has been married several times before, says that: “Asian women are seriously the most resilient, but are also entirely comfortable as travelling nomads, which is perfect for a diplomat.”
Hynek Kmoníček and US ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew Schapiro and their spouses
It is better in diplomacy when guns are merely used to decorate walls. “Náprstkovo Museum [in Prague] is already salivating at the prospect of my donating several of my rarest Oriental pieces,” says the collector Kmoníček, who has also turned the anteroom to his Prague Castle office into a kind of museum
CV: Hynek Kmoníček (53)
A Czech diplomat who serves as a foreign policy and political advisor to President Miloš Zeman. Head of the Foreign Policy Section of the Office of the Czech President, and very likely the next Czech ambassador to the United States. Member of the Social Democratic party. Serves as the permanent Czech representative to the UN and has also served as the ambassador to India and Australia. Up to 1991, was a classical guitar player performing in concerts. Studied at Charles University, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and has given lectures and speeches across the world. Since 1995, an employee of the Czech foreign ministry, serving as an expert on Arab and Islamic culture. Speaks English, Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. The father of four children, and will soon be a grandfather for the third time.