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 impact on the fate of the entire world—either positive, as when a new drug is discovered in a California laboratory, or negative, as when a nuclear reactor melts down in a Ukrainian village. We are living at a time when humankind can face whatever threatens it only if we, by which I mean each of us, manage to revive, with new energy and a new ethos, a sense of responsibility for the rest of the world.

What does this mean in concrete terms? It means a number of things. For example: it means a deep respect for everything that in today’s multipolar and multicultural world constitutes “otherness,” a respect acquired from understanding the positive values in other cultures. At the same time it means the courage to step away from powermongering and, in a nonviolent way, to defend truth and justice wherever they are violated, regardless of whether this could put profit at risk. It means trying to be on the side of good, without being motivated by considerations of power or economic interests, thus exposing their hypocrisy. It means promoting tolerance and understanding among nations and religions, enhancing all forms of international cooperation and regional integration aimed at the general good. It means creating the space for a wise attitude toward Nature and the Earth, an attitude that sees human beings as an integral part of Nature, not as its masters, proprietors, or wanton exploiters.

As for security matters, I believe that the US, in extreme cases, cases that are absolutely clear and enjoy the support both of people who think independently and of peaceful democratic states, must have the strength to intervene with force—that is, by military means, against obvious evil. The US cannot and must not give up this obligation, which is a very specific and extreme manifestation of its responsibility for the world. In the course of the cold war America came to understand this, though historians may argue about the situations in which it tested its competence, or the means it employed.


However, that is not what matters now. What matters now is something that concerns a fundamental principle. It seems to me that after all the good and bad experiences America has had in the twentieth century it should eventually understand what its enlightened citizens have understood for a long time: that the most effective, most ethical, and in the end the least costly way of dealing with these challenges is by investing its intellectual potential and a significant share of its material strength in what I call “preventive security.” Of course, to predict conflicts and to avert them is usually more difficult than to engage in them and often even more difficult than to win them. However, it is a way that is a thousand times more meaningful—for the reasons I have indicated and that, as you may believe, I could enlarge upon for hours on end.

Let me cite just one example that is topical, and, as far as I know, a frequent subject of discussion in American political circles and the media: the enlargement of the North Atlantic alliance. I am told that there are many people in the US who maintain that expanding NATO makes no sense. Why, they say, should we enlarge our defense alliance—and what is more, by taking in countries that until recently were part of the Communist empire and therefore remain somewhat suspect—at a time when the West faces no serious threats? Furthermore, it is alleged, NATO enlargement might be resented by a certain large Euro-Asian state, which for some reason is afraid of the alliance. In addition it would cost taxpayers money that could otherwise be saved or better spent.

This way of thinking—after what we have gone through in the twentieth century, in the course of which more than 200 million people have died in wars and in concentration camps—is, in my opinion, extremely naive, short-sighted, and dangerous. Europe is a strange continent. Much of today’s civilization was born there but it also gave rise to two world wars. It is a continent that has always constituted and still constitutes a single entity—though it is culturally, ethnically, and economically immensely diverse. For the first time in its history, this entity has an opportunity to establish its internal order on the principle of cooperation and equality among the large and the small, the strong and the weak, on shared democratic values. This is also an opportunity to put an end, once and for all, to the export of coercion and wars.

Should Europe fail to grasp this opportunity, we could be heading for a new global catastrophe, a catastrophe far graver than previous ones. This time the forces of freedom would not face a single totalitarian enemy. They could well be drawn into a strange war of all against all, a war with no clear front, a war difficult to distinguish from terrorism, organized crime, and other forms of wrongdoing, a war in which indirect and hidden forces would engulf the whole world. I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but anyone with a modicum of imagination and some knowledge of what has—until recently—been going on, for example, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, must understand that this is not empty talk.

If, in the ongoing process of European integration, Europe were unable to enhance its overall security, if the process were to come to a standstill at the present gates of NATO, the only remaining functional defense alliance in Europe today, then, in my view, European integration would probably come to a halt. And I can assure all Americans who still remain skeptical that the unfortunate consequences of such a halt, regardless of what form they took, and regardless of whether they befell us in three years or in fifteen, could cost us all far more than the two world wars Europe has “endowed” us with in this century. After a long period of indecision, the West took a major step to avoid such a threat in Madrid not long ago, when it voted to include three Eastern European nations in NATO. This step will cost us all something. Any judicious person, however, must admit that the cost will be worth it. Has it not been established beyond doubt that even the most costly preventive security is cheaper than the cheapest war? Such an investment will hardly generate any returns in time to be of benefit in the next election, but it will be all the more appreciated by generations to come.

This brings me back to the beginning of my argument: Who today thinks about future generations? Who worries about what people will eat, drink, breathe a hundred years from now, or where the energy will come from as the world population doubles? We are told that only idealists and dreamers have such concerns, and that they are people out of touch with the modern world. Those dreamers, who are often at the margin of society though their books may be widely read, will find their way to where they belong, among the politicians, only if the very spirit of politics changes and moves toward a deeper sense of responsibility for the world.


This Issue

January 15, 1998