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A Playwright’s Prescience: Celebrating Vaclav Havel’s 1990 Speech to the U.S. Congress

When Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel spoke before a joint session of the United States Congress on February 21, 1990, there was none of the opposition that we see today about a similar speech planned for next week by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

No, in 1990 there was no debate at all.  Instead, Washington saw the leading public intellectual of a country of 15 million people, and arguably of Europe as a whole.  And a packed American legislature was fully engrossed in a playwright’s story of his rise to the presidency and the fall of communism that was taking place around them all.

It was a remarkable moment that deserves to be remembered – all the more so because it says so much about the situation today in Europe. 

Less than four months before the date of the speech, Havel noted, he had been arrested by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia for what turned out to be the last time.   “Today,” he noted, “I’m speaking to you as the representative of a country that has set out on the road to democracy, a country where there is complete freedom of speech, which is getting ready for free elections and which wants to create a prosperous market economy and its own foreign policy.”

Havel said that the changes underway in his part of Europe were “extraordinary.”  And indeed they were.  The nations on the Soviet Union’s periphery in Central and Southeastern Europe had already begun their journeys toward representative democracy, with Havel himself having become president on December 29, 1989.  “The totalitarian system in the Soviet Union and in most of its satellites,” he said, “is breaking down, and our nations are looking for a way to democracy and independence.”

The result of these changes, Havel argued, was what he called a “historically irreversible process” in which Europe would no longer need to call upon the United States – as it had done in World War I, World War II and the Cold War – to save it from itself, a sacrifice that was proven “in hundreds of thousands of your young citizens who gave their lives for the liberation of Europe and the graves of American airmen and soldiers on Czechoslovak soil.”  In the new era, the United States would not be called upon again to have its “boys…stand on guard for freedom in Europe or come to our rescue, because Europe will at last be able to stand guard over itself.”

This idea today seems incredibly naïve, and is sometimes used against Havel to paint a picture of him as a hopeless utopian.  But there reality is that it was not naïve at all.  Why?  Because above all, this vision was completely conditioned upon the achievement of Havel’s further call for the United States to engage in supporting the Soviet Union on its “immensely complicated road to democracy,” a road that would be “far more complicated than the road open to its former European satellites.”  Even as the Soviet system was just beginning to come unstuck, Havel knew that “the sooner, the more quickly, and the more peacefully the Soviet Union begins to move along the road toward genuine political pluralism, respect for the rights of the nations to their own integrity and to a working–that is, a market economy, the better it will be not just for Czechs and Slovaks but for the whole world.”  Conversely, of course, if Moscow’s path ended up diverting from democracy, the result would be worse most directly for the Czechs and Slovaks, but for the world, as well.

In other words, if all the nations at the Soviet Union’s Western periphery were democratic and government in Moscow were undemocratic, the result could have nothing but negative impact on the sanctity of the rights of the nations in the region, the stability of Europe and, ultimately, the security of the United States.  

And although he could not have predicted exactly what form this negative impact would take in 2015, Havel’s paradigm has, sadly, obtained.  Today an undemocratic Russian Federation has become precisely what Havel said of the Soviet Union in his speech:  a “country that rightly gave people nightmares, because no one knew what would occur to its rulers next and what country they would decide to conquer and drag into its sphere of influence, as it is called in political language.”  

Since Havel spoke on the floor of the House in 1990, there have been many attempts to ensure that the territory governed by democracies in Europe has increased.  From the Baltic States in the north, through Visegrad and down to the Balkans, democracy has made impressive progress.  As far east as Georgia reformers have helped build the foundations of democratic governance.  I’m proud to say that my organization has made some small contribution to this process.

But what Havel said 25 years ago remains as true now as it was then: if a massive continental power on the territory of what was the Soviet Union remains undemocratic, then its neighbors must surely beware, and the United States must take notice.  This is what is at stake today in Ukraine most evidently, but was just as much so in the taking of Ossetia and Abkhazia before that.  It’s why elections and democratic governance matter so much in Moldova, and why Russian meddling in the Balkans and the Baltic States is so dangerous.  And it’s why the United States must rise to the challenge of counteracting when and wherever possible those attempting to undermine democracy in Europe.   

Vaclav Havel knew from his own personal experience that if such challenges are not met early on and forcefully, the small nations of the region would suffer horribly and the United States would once again be called upon to protect freedom and democracy in Europe at an immense cost.

The Congress and the Administration listened intently to Vaclav Havel in February of 1990.  I hope and pray they’re listening just as closely today.

Posted by

Jan Surotchak

Senior Director, Transatlantic Strategy