Havel’s Challenge

Published April 1, 1994

The thrashings in the policy community and the rise of a new isolationism notwithstanding, some people, at least, still think of the United States as the world’s premier power, and believe it has a special obligation at this fluid moment in world history to take the lead in determining at least the major outlines of the post-Cold War world order. One of those people is Václav Havel, president of the Czech Republic. And in his elegant way, President Havel took America to the proverbial woodshed in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

Havel began by wondering why countries like his remained “post-Communist countries” and “former members of the Warsaw Pact” in the eyes of the West. After all, Havel wrote, “we did not go through the trouble of getting rid of Communism only to have it remain—even with a prefix—forever sewn to our coats. Nor did we go through the trouble of liquidating the Warsaw Pact only to bear forever the stigma of our former membership in it.” Would the United States appreciate being referred to as a “former British colony”? No.

But this nomenclature is not, according to Havel, simply a problem of good manners. Rather, its ubiquity strikes him as revealing both a Western “need to categorize” the new democracies of east central Europe and a Western “inability to find a key to understanding us other than the old familiar one.” To be sure, the new democracies could be troublesome, each having its own distinctive package of historical memories (and grievances). And it was certainly simpler for the West to deal with a homogeneous entity, the “Soviet Bloc,” than it is to learn the relevant historical, ethnic, and religious distinctions that give east central European politics their distinctive texture. Thus it is understandable that the West has exhibited what Havel describes as a certain reticence toward the new democracies.2

But that reticence, Havel argues, is “extremely shortsighted” and may, over time, “become quite dangerous.” Why? Because Western reticence about the new democracies of east central Europe is not “a sign merely of sober judgment alone but also of an inability to comprehend the essence of the new situation, and a lack of imagination and courage in the search for new solutions commensurate with the new circumstances.”

For if the West does not take the lead in shaping a “new order in European and Euro-Asian affairs” that is an improvement over the old bipolarity, then “someone else might well begin to do the job, and the order thus created could well be far worse than the one preceding it.” That “someone” might be, not a new Stalin (or a new Mao, or a new Ayatollah Khomeini), but an even more fearsome warlord: Chaos.

Were Chaos to reign, it would demonstrate that “the democratic West has lost its ability realistically to foster and cultivate the values it has always proclaimed and undertaken to safeguard, and to which end it has built its arsenal of weapons.” And thus, even were the West to avoid the worst of the bloodletting within its own traditional Cold War sphere of influence, the crisis of chaos, were it to be unleashed, would nonetheless be “a crisis of the West, a crisis of democracy, a crisis of Euro-American civilization itself.” For “the inability of Europe and the United States to intervene effectively in defense of the basic values of civilization” would tell us “something about the democratic world as well.”

Why has the West behaved so reticently toward the new democracies? Not least, Havel argues, because the West has persistently ignored one of the great lessons of the Revolution of 1989: namely, that it engaged great moral questions and issues, and not merely a craving, in the old “Warsaw Pact countries,” for the Good Life as defined by conspicuous consumption. Thus the new democracies’ worries about the funk they perceive in the West today are more than a matter of self-concern and more than a fear of chaos:



If we in these “postcommunist” countries call for a new order, if we appeal to the West not to close itself off to us, and if we demand a radical reevaluation of the new situation, then this is not because we are concerned about our own security and stability, and not only because we feel that the security of the West itself is at stake. The reason is far deeper than that. We are concerned about the destiny of the values and principles that communism denied, and in whose name we resisted communism and ultimately brought it down [emphasis added].

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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