President Havel gave the following address in Washington on October 3, 1997, after receiving the Fulbright Prize. It has been edited and slightly abridged.
I still remember the interest with which almost thirty years ago I read the book The Arrogance of Power by Senator James William Fulbright. What struck me—a young man living under Communist rule but knowing his own mind—was the openness with which the book identified the fundamental dilemma of American foreign policy as it appeared then. According to Senator Fulbright the dilemma was this: Does America’s responsibility to the world, in order to be commensurate with its size, strength, and the advanced state of its civilization, have to take the form of imposing, in an arrogant, insensitive, and sometimes even coercive way, its values and interests on the rest of the world? Should America play the role of global policeman? Or should its responsibility be of a more modest kind, that of merely offering assistance where it is requested while respecting the “otherness” of others, and getting along as well as possible with them; and, in those cases in which nations seem inhuman to America, in effect humanizing them?
To my mind, Senator Fulbright touched upon a theme that reaches far beyond the question of what kind of foreign policy America should pursue. He touched upon the very question of American identity. To ask the questions posed by Senator Fulbright is to ask what America and its spirit are and what role they should play in the world today.
Coming as I do from a small country, I hope that it will not be seen as an expression of the “arrogance of power,” if I use this occasion, so closely connected with Senator Fulbright’s name, to try to answer Senator Fulbright’s question from a non-American, and thus more distant, perspective.
I believe that, for the rest of the world, contemporary America is an almost symbolic concentration of all the best and the worst of our civilization. On the one hand, there are its profound commitments to enhancing civil liberty and to maintaining the strength of its democratic institutions, and the fantastic developments in science and technology which have contributed so much to our well-being; on the other, there is the blind worship of perpetual economic growth and consumption, regardless of their destructive impact on the environment, or how subject they are to the dictates of materialism and consumerism, or how they, through the omnipresence of television and advertising, promote uniformity and banality instead of a respect for human uniqueness.
For these reasons, the way in which America will assume its responsibility for the world should embody those premises that have a chance of saving our global civilization: we can hope those premises will be imbued with a new spirituality, a new ethos, and a new ethics, values that should be adopted today by all cultures, all nations, as a condition of their very survival. Whatever happens anywhere may, in one way or another, have an immediate…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.