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Czech PM Sobotka in WSJ: Václav Havel’s Blueprint for Operating in a Dangerous World

The Czech Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka‘ s article was published in the Wall Street Journal on November 14, 2014.

On Nov. 17, a bust of Václav Havel, writer, Communist-era dissident and president of the Czech Republic, will be unveiled in the U.S. Capitol. On that day nearly 25 years ago, students took to the streets of Prague, triggering mass demonstrations that brought down the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, as the Czech Republic was then known.

Havel, who died in December 2011, was a modest man. He might have gotten a laugh out of such a pompous event. When bidding farewell as president in February 2003, he had this to say: “It all happened so suddenly that I did not even have time to properly consider whether or not I was up to the task.” And yet he oversaw epochal events both at home and abroad and in many ways he was an active participant.

No sooner was he sworn in on Dec. 29, 1989, than President Havel had his foreign-policy mettle tested as he coped with the far-reaching repercussions of the Iron Curtain coming down. The former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe were mired in domestic political and economic woes. They also found themselves in a geopolitical void as the Soviet Union fragmented, and simmering ethnic tensions in the Balkans cast another shadow over the future.

Havel was acutely aware of the ills and wrongs of the world. While to some he may have seemed a naive idealist, he was convinced that noble ideals should guide his country’s foreign policy to help it stay on a righteous path.

Drawing on his own experience of living under and relentlessly fighting against a suffocating Communist regime, President Havel had a powerful story with which to capture the world’s imagination. He represented the power of ideas and personal courage to stand for what one believes is right and just despite seemingly insurmountable odds. He went on to demonstrate that such ideals have a proper place in international politics and diplomacy.

Shortly after his election, Havel appeared before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Feb. 21, 1990, to deliver an analysis of developments in Czechoslovakia and neighboring countries. Despite many challenges and difficulties consuming the governments of states formerly in the Soviet sphere to put their Communist past behind them, Havel stressed that these countries would have to become less inward looking.

He spoke bluntly to Congress: “For many years, Czechoslovakia as someone’s meaningless satellite has refused to face up honestly to its co-responsibility for the world. It has a lot to make up for. If I dwell on this and so many important things here, it is only because I feel, along with my fellow citizens, a sense of culpability for our former reprehensible passivity—and a rather ordinary sense of indebtedness.”

Having thus demonstrated a commitment to building a more responsible world politics—not through sheer idealism but with practical steps like owning up to one’s responsibility—Havel set out to advance his cause by taking those steps. He was an effective advocate for the Czech Republic in its quest to join NATO and the European Union, which the Czech Republic joined in 1999 and 2004, respectively. He saw both organizations as pillars of international stability. He saw them as means to guarantee the Czech Republic’s return to a community of Western democracies, where it had belonged before the advent of Communist totalitarianism.

Yet Havel also recognized the responsibilities and commitments stemming from his country’s membership. While not all has been achieved as hoped for after the fall of communism, the Czech Republic under his presidency made immense strides, not least in a foreign policy that actively promotes human rights and offers assistance to countries undergoing political transitions. The republic became fully integrated in NATO and the EU. Our country has been a strong proponent of international law and the U.N. system. Czech soldiers serve alongside their allies in international operations around the world, be it in Afghanistan, the Balkans or Mali. But what’s more important is that the Czech Republic has achieved Havel’s vision of it as a normal country, a member of the international community ready to shoulder its share of responsibility.

Today’s Europe is more prosperous and united than ever before, in no small measure thanks to people like Havel. Yet the world in many ways remains dangerous and unpredictable. Militant separatism and the spread of violent extremism present daunting challenges. For instance, Russia’s actions to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty constitute an unprecedented breach of one of the key principles of international law. Such challenges must be met with an international effort.

One can choose to ignore dangerous trends in the world by believing that someone else will deal with them—but this is shortsighted and never pays off. Today’s interconnected world more than ever puts a special premium on international cooperation. Europe must step outside of its post-Cold War shadow and raise its profile on the world stage in order to become more active in promoting development, preventing conflicts and stimulating prosperity. Borrowing from Václav Havel’s principled foreign policy must become our shared responsibility for upholding our values and principles.