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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

The FP Interview: Vaclav Havel

December 28, 2009

The playwright, dissident, and former Czech president speaks about the
fall of the Berlin Wall, Barack Obama, and the hidden costs of moral
compromise.

Interview by SUSAN GLASSER | DECEMBER 9, 2009

Nearly 20 years to the day after the Velvet Revolution saw him rise from
dissident to president in a few weeks' time, the former Czech leader sat
down in Prague with FP's executive editor, Susan Glasser. Havel, still
wearing the trademark corduroy jacket of his playwright days, chided
U.S. President Barack Obama about the perils of compromising human
rights, worried that America has missed its moment in Afghanistan, and
warned of Russia's "new type of dictatorship." Below, their edited
conversation.

Foreign Policy: This year marks the anniversary of the fall of the
Berlin Wall. Do you think the spirit of those times is still reflected
in Czech and Eastern European society today?

Vaclav Havel: I think that the basic ideals of that time -- free
elections, the democratic program, freedom of the press, and so on --
are being fulfilled. We have not abandoned that road, nor did we betray
it. Nevertheless, everything has been much more difficult than we might
have thought at that time. Everything is taking much more time, and the
road is much more thorny than somebody might have thought in those times
of passion.



FP: This week President Obama is coming to Europe to accept a Nobel
Peace Prize, just days after he announced that he will be sending 30,000
more troops to Afghanistan. Do you think that the use of military force
is sometimes necessary to advance the interests of peace?

Havel: Well, I think if some monstrous injustice is taking place
somewhere, then a responsible person cannot be only an onlooker, cannot
be indifferent to it. Sometimes, it is necessary to intervene to save
thousands of lives. Each time, however, it must be weighed very
thoroughly, very seriously, and very responsibly. America can't just
say, "Here there is no freedom, so we will barge in." One has to seek
wide international consensus, and the case must be unambiguous. And
those thousands of people who feed on these decisions in government
ministries should anticipate the unintended consequences of taking
action. In the case of Iraq, for instance, this did not take place at all.

Of course, if something can be done in a "velvet" fashion, that is
better. But there are situations where this is impossible. As far as
Afghanistan is concerned, I cannot really judge that. However, from a
distance, it seems to me that the right time has been missed and the
massive attack against the Taliban should have been made years ago.

Out of a kind of reluctance, the Taliban has been allowed to flourish
and take root, and now it will be much more troublesome. To a certain
extent, in my opinion, Obama is harvesting the fruits of the works of
the previous presidents. Neither clearing out of there nor sending a
million soldiers in there is a good solution anymore.

FP: What do you think of Russia's role in Eastern Europe today? How
concerned are you about the possibility of Russia causing further
problems, and has America forgotten about its friends here in Eastern
Europe?

Havel: I think that America has not forgotten us, but it should still
take into account that the terrain here in Central Europe is somewhat
more explosive than other areas of conflict elsewhere in the world.
World wars start here, not in Iran or Korea or anywhere else.

But I have not yet observed that America is losing interest in us as
allies. If she has decided that she will replace one anti-ballistic
missile system with another, that is her expert decision and should not
be seen as American lack of interest in the region -- that would be a
somewhat rash and sentimental way of thinking.

But as far as Russia is concerned, many of my talks with Russian
personalities plus my visits to Moscow confirm to me that what is being
born there is a special new type of manipulative democracy, or some new
type of dictatorship that is far more sophisticated than communism.

You can see it in Russia's inconspicuous efforts to re-establish its
spheres of influence. Of course, no great Russian armies are being
raised for this purpose anymore, but it is being attempted by various
pressures, political and economic. Their large companies are slowly
buying our firms, and their economic might is growing and related to
that, their political influence.

We certainly don't need conflicts with Russia. We must deal with her
like with any other partner. But we definitely have to know how to say
what we think, but we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated. When
they tell us that they will not give us gas or oil, then we will have to
learn how to tell them, "you can keep it." It would be better to use
less light and less heat than to allow them to blackmail us.

FP: Do you think that China and the rise of Asia are threats to the
secure future that European nations, including the Czech Republic, are
trying to build?

Havel: It seems to me that China is not that dangerous. China does not
have any obvious expansionist intentions. China wants to control, in a
hard way, what she considers hers, like Tibet. Of course, there is the
open question of Taiwan, but otherwise, I do not know that she would
want to conquer the world or that she would want to rule over it. She
may sort of inconspicuously, through the use of economic mechanisms,
become the owner of a half of the globe over time. But I do not see
obvious expansive intentions behind it. Certainly nothing like the
Russian Orthodox faith that they are the ones who will save the whole
world, which characterizes the Russian regime today.

Buddhism does not have in itself that spellbinding Christian or Islamic
will to conquer or the belief that they are the heralds of the right
faith and those who do not share it are the adherents of the wrong faith
and need to be educated. Buddhism does not have in itself that messianic
drive, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that it seems to me that
China is not so dangerous.

FP: After President Obama's decision to postpone his meeting with the
Dalai Lama, you said something to the effect that these small gestures
seem harmless, but over time can have a powerful, cumulative effect. For
the hardhearted realists, can you explain that effect?

Havel: We know this from our modern history. When [French Prime Minister
Edouard] Daladier returned from the [1938] Munich conference, the whole
nation was applauding him for saving the peace. He made a miniscule
compromise in the interest of peace. But it was the beginning of a chain
of evil that subsequently brought about many millions of deaths. We
can't just say, "This is just a small compromise that can be overlooked.
First we will go to China and then perhaps talk with the Dalai Lama." It
all looks practical, pragmatic, logical, but it is necessary to think
about whether it is not the first small compromise that can be the
beginning of that long chain that is no good. In this case perhaps it
will not be, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.

FP: You make it sound so easy. But how, as president, do you decide when
these small compromises are worth it and when they might lead to
something more dangerous?

Havel: Politics, it means, every day making some compromises, and to
choose between one evil and another evil, and to decide which is bigger
and which is smaller. But sometimes, some of these compromises could be
very dangerous because it could be the beginning of the road of making a
lot of other compromises, which are results of the first one, and there
are very dangerous compromises. And it's necessary, I think, to have the
feeling which compromise is possible to do and which, could be, maybe,
after ten years, could be somehow very dangerous.

I will illustrate this with my own experience. Two days after I was
elected president, I invited the Dalai Lama to visit. I was the first
head of the state who invited him in this way, directly. And everybody
was saying that it was a terribly dangerous act and issued their
disapproving statements and expressions. But it was a ritual matter.
Later, the Chinese deputy prime minister and the foreign minister came
for a visit and brought me a pile of books about the Dalai Lama and some
governmental documents about what good care they have taken of Tibet,
and so on. They were propagandist, fabricated books, but he felt the
need to explain something to me.

I had a press conference with this minister of foreign affairs. And he
said, "It was wonderful, meeting, because we were speaking openly. Mr.
Havel gave me his opinion, and I explained the opinion of our
government. I gave him this book, and he thanked me for it."

This was unbelievable! Why did they feel the need to explain their point
of view to the leader of such a small nation? Because they respect it
when someone is standing his ground, when someone is not afraid of them.
When someone soils his pants prematurely, then they do not respect you
more for it.
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