“The state of our society has been a pleasant surprise”
General Petr Pavel is a soldier by profession, who gradually worked his way up to become Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces. He subsequently became Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, as the very first representative of a country in the former Warsaw Pact to reach the highest military role within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. During this pandemic, he has set up the “Spolu silnější” (Stronger Together) initiative, which raises funds for those helping on the front line. His name is also currently being discussed in regard to a possible candidacy for President of the Czech Republic in 2023. My interview with the General took place at a time of still restricted contact, at home in my garden. One of my first questions to him was about his possible candidacy for the presidency. This was followed by questions about the role of the army during the pandemic, and our interview went on to look at strategic geopolitical areas: the relationship between the Czech Republic and NATO, and the EU and defence. We finally moved on to leadership, but there was again a parallel with global politics. What mistake has General Pavel openly admitted to? And what has most pleased him? More in the following interview, which I consider to be one of the most comprehensive and informative that I have done in recent times.
General, my first question will be somewhat unorthodox. With whom am I currently doing this interview? I know you are a former general, current leader of the Spolu silnější initiative, and perhaps you are a future candidate for President of the Czech Republic.
I am currently a pensioner. I’ll leave open your question regarding candidacy. A few conditions need to be met before I feel motivated to run. My health and family situation are the most important. A lot will depend on political developments here. If the leading candidates in the presidential election are mainly decent people whom I myself would vote for, then there will be no reason for me to get involved. But if that is not the situation and those with a good chance of election are people I would not like to see heading this office, then I will do all that I can. On the one hand because of my own conscience, but also because many people have encouraged me to take this step.
Have you got a specific date by which you will make your decision? I don’t expect you to announce your decision right here in my garden, although as a journalist it would be a dream come true. Two candidates from previous elections and two entrepreneurs have already announced their decision to run. Political scientists are also calling on potential candidates to place their cards on the table so the public can keep an eye on future candidates and weigh them up.
I follow what political scientists say, and I do respect them because as experts they know what they’re talking about. But my objective isn’t to run in the presidential election at any cost. So I don’t feel any pressure to announce my candidacy. I do what makes sense to me, and that includes acting within public consciousness. Once I feel I have reached a crossroads and I need to choose my path, I will do so. Once this coronavirus crisis is over, I’m looking forward to going back to giving talks on security, integrating the Czech Republic into NATO and the European Union, and international relations, because that’s something I enjoy and which fulfils me.
Moving on to your current Spolu silnější initiative, which helps people on what’s termed “the front line”. What have you found out about Czech society during this pandemic?
The state of Czech society has been a pleasant surprise to me during this pandemic. Many of us had been somewhat sceptical. Even at public discussions I had held, there were often expressions of frustration at the state of Czech society. According to one public opinion survey done by Czech Radio for the 30th anniversary of November 1989, some of the traits of Czech society did not sound very positive. However, we can see that when we are put under pressure, and it affects us all similarly because the virus does not differentiate between political allegiances, then we can come together, we can help each other, we can disregard what divides us and we can be inventive. In any case, we’ve always been inventive and we should work on developing that skill, as well as our creativity and flexibility. As always, a few negative traits have also expressed themselves, but there have been more positive traits, and it would be good if we could build on these and not let them slip away.
How did you come up with the idea of setting up the Spolu silnější initiative?
The impetus came from a number of sources. From the beginning of the crisis, I’d felt certain withdrawal symptoms from not doing anything, because I’ve always been used to being active in crises and focusing my efforts on particular goals and problem- solving. Suddenly there was a crisis and I was sitting at home because I couldn’t travel anywhere, not even to my public discussions. I came up with many different activities I could do, but I wanted my contribution to have the greatest possible impact. After donating to the production of face-masks and to charities, I thought I needed to help those who are already providing help now. I gathered people around me who may not have been skilful enough to produce respirators, or who may not have had the professional skills to provide quality social care, but who were able to secure the resources needed so that the professionals could perform their essential activities for as long as they could, without having to worry about funds. Last autumn, I set up Spolek pro bezpečnou budoucnost (the Society for a Secure Future), so I, my colleagues from this society and others founded the Spolu silnější initiative. We’ve been operating for two months, and I can feel that our initiative is going in the right direction. I must confess that the opportunity to see the activities of non-governmental organisations and charities up close has been a great lesson for me. Until now, I had little awareness of all the things they do, and how much personal effort and courage they put into their work. (Author’s note: As of the end of May, 624 people had supported the Spolu silnější collection, raising a total of almost 1.4 million CZK, divided up amongst 38 projects).
Speaking of resources, let’s look at one resource which seems to me to be little used during this crisis, specifically the army of yours, and its deployment or non- deployment during this pandemic.
Let me just correct you a little: it’s actually our army. Deployment of the army is about division of roles. The army’s role is primarily to secure external security. Therefore any actions of the army within the state must be clearly defined by laws and rules. Under the previous regime, there was a risk the army would be used against its own people, so army deployment has always been a sensitive issue and has been strictly defined. Within the emergency services system which was gradually built up, the roles of key responders to a crisis were assigned and the army was defined as providing support. It has considerable capacity, but will only be deployed when internal security components no longer suffice. During the floods, the fire services were operating at almost full capacity, since the large area impacted meant fire-fighters were everywhere, while the army sat in garrisons waiting. When I was Chief of the General Staff, mayors of villages where there were garrisons based and ready to help turned to me. It was hard at that time to explain to people that I was unable to give the order for deployment, because the Central Crisis Staff had not given the instruction for army deployment. I learnt from the situation, and the decision was made that deployment would depend on the specific options available at specific times and specific places. This pandemic is seen as a health and internal crisis. Ministry of Health and Ministry of the Interior components have been activated, and the army has taken on a support role, deployed in resolving logistics tasks, transporting materials and unloading aircraft. So the army has been deployed, it’s just that not much has been said about it. Soldiers using military equipment have transported the same amount of material as the fire services have. They have used hundreds of vehicles and pieces of transportation equipment, and not just in loading but also in transporting and unloading. So I personally do not perceive the army’s deployment during this pandemic as being merely supplementary. Remember that special chemical and biological teams have also been deployed in specific cases.
Now let us look at international issues. During this pandemic, we haven’t had the opportunity to properly celebrate the anniversaries of our joining NATO (12 March 1999) or the European Union (1 May 2004). And since most news reports have focused on statistics around the Covid-19 disease, these important milestones have not been widely publicised.
I think they were noted, and it is good that we aren’t holding any grandiose events; we don’t need to arrange massive parades or rallies. It’s true that I would have expected both these events to be spoken of by our leaders as clear positives. I would also have expected brief statements on the anniversaries from the President or Prime Minister. Although this crisis has overshadowed these events, many people have talked of how beneficial membership of both these organisations is for the Czech Republic. Even in terms of the current crisis. If we hadn’t been members of the European Union, the government would certainly not have had the funds available to it to support entrepreneurs which the European Union has released.
Newspapers are currently full of information on fighting this invisible virus, but you are referring to the broader geopolitical context and the need to secure internal and external security, including appropriate expenditures on our army. During this pandemic, the need for security has not diminished, and the coronavirus has not reduced the security risks that exist in the world. The government should continue to ensure modernisation of the army in order to complete the tasks arising from our involvement in securing our collective defence. It is important to realise that there are no borders between us and NATO, or us and the EU. We still haven’t got used to the fact that we are NATO, and we are the EU. Safeguarding our security within a system of collective security is the cheapest and most effective method available to us. We don’t have to invest that much in security, but we do have to play our part. If we don’t do that, and other states behave similarly, then we cannot expect our collective defence to be effective, because it will be underfunded. In this regard, we should be extremely cautious about cuts in army budgets. Investments in modernising the army are not investments in “toys for soldiers”, but rather investments in the security of us all.
Confidence in the army is high in the Czech Republic, and it has been one of the most trusted institutions here for many years. But mere trust and popularity are not enough.
Confidence not just in the army, but also in the police, is higher here than in other NATO and EU countries. On the other hand, if you ask people how many of them would take an active part in defending the state personally, the percentage falls to about a third to a quarter, because defence is seen as a matter for the army. Yet security is a matter for all of us. We’ve entrusted safeguarding security to soldiers. But we should all be providing material support, resources and moral support. Many people enjoy taking part in army outreach events, such as NATO Days, Cihelna and Tank Days in Lešany, and open days at various garrisons. Tens of thousands of people visit these events. But if NATO asks us whether we’re allocating sufficient funds, all you need is a single populist declaration from a top politician, and suddenly we’re willing to get rid of the army altogether, or let it get by with 40-year-old technology. And if that army with its old technology is deployed somewhere and a failure occurs, who is responsible? The army and its command. If we are to be proud of our army, it must be capable of defending us, and it will only be able to do so if it has the resources it needs in order to be modern, effective, well-trained and ready.
This interview is for Czech and Slovak Leaders Magazine. What is your concept of leadership?
Leadership is a very popular topic today; just look at the number of links the Google search engine will find. And my colleagues who have left top positions in NATO or in the American army are also setting up various think-tanks focused on modern or strategic leadership. I don’t think you need to make too much of how to lead people. Leadership is about integrity, clarity and transparency. And to those characteristics I would add civility, that is to say a human, ordinary approach. If a leader is not just to lead, but also to be followed, then they must be understandable and credible in order to persuade others. Consistency of opinions does not exclude development of opinions, but you cannot turn about-face in a matter of days. Leadership doesn’t require detailed specialist knowledge; a successful leader is able to delegate. When someone pretends to understand everything, this is mere pretence and lies. When a leader tries to do everything him or herself, tries micromanagement and is always seen and heard, then they aren’t giving others space or initiative. And initiative offers great potential which it is good to make use of.
Leadership also involves making mistakes and being able to admit to them. What is the greatest mistake you admit to?
I have made many mistakes. With hindsight, I’ve come to realise that I could have done some things better. Talking about a mistake which I perceive as a failure, then that would be joining the Communist Party under the last regime. I was too young to see things as they were, and I joined with the hope that the party could be changed for the better. I still feel bad about doing so today. Many people at the time had a similar lack of knowledge and objective cognisance. I myself was the product of a military education from the age of 14, and my opinions then had been shaped and controlled. Basically I had had no access to alternative ideas.
Being open and fair in admitting to mistakes is what takes us forwards. In my leadership roles at many levels, I have seen that it isn’t just giving space to the people I am leading that works, but also admitting that something has failed because I gave a bad assessment of the situation. The ability to acknowledge a mistake and take a constructive approach to ensure it does not happen again is an expression not of weakness, but rather of strength. We should not fear it. We do not have to achieve declared success in everything merely in order not to display weakness. In the end, this approach can be exploited by critics of the West, specifically Russia and China, who use it in their disinformation campaigns. One of the ways we can defend ourselves against these campaigns is to be more open and fair in regard to ourselves. If we sometimes admit to making a mistake, not only are we taking the wind out of the sails of those carrying out the disinformation campaign, because they won’t have the space to come up with speculation, but we are also showing our own people that we are able to admit mistakes and learn from them. Unfortunately, we don’t always do this. And there have been a large number of examples of times when we didn’t want to back down and admit we had made a mistake. Such as Libya.
By Linda Štucbartová