Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State

The following is the address given by President Václav Havel to the Canadian Senate and the House of Commons in Ottawa on April 29. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was then in its sixth week. The Czech Republic, along with Poland and Hungary, had recently become members of the alliance, but in Prague, the bombing was not popular: according to recent polls, only 35 percent of the population supported it. The Czech prime minister, Miloš Zeman, compared the conflict to “cavemen throwing rocks” and asked whether the Czech Republic had joined NATO to protect itself from Yugoslavia. Moreover, the Czech government was vacillating on sending ground troops to the Balkans. Havel publicly called his government’s lack of commitment “an embarrassment.”

In his address to the Canadian parliament, retranslated here, Havel offers a reasoned explanation for his support of NATO. But it is more than that. While Havel’s remarks reflect his own thinking, they also draw on discussions over the past several months within the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (the current minister, Jan Kavan, and his deputy minister, Martin Palouš, are both veterans of the struggle for democracy in Czechoslovakia) on how to turn the lessons of their country’s experience with totalitarianism into a moral force in the post-cold war world. These discussions make a clear distinction between “national interests” and the higher principle of human rights. When support for human rights is seen instrumentally—that is, merely as a device to be used in the pursuit of a country’s broader national interest—it leads at best to inconsistent and often ineffective application. For Havel, the war in Yugoslavia is a landmark in international relations: the first time that the human rights of a people—the Kosovo Albanians—have unequivocally come first.

—Paul Wilson

There is every indication that the glory of the nation-state as the culmination of every national community’s history, and its highest earthly value—the only one, in fact, in the name of which it is permissible to kill, or for which people have been expected to die—has already passed its peak.

It would seem that the enlightened efforts of generations of democrats, the terrible experience of two world wars—which contributed so much to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and the evolution of civilization have finally brought humanity to the recognition that human beings are more important than the state.

In this new world, people—regardless of borders—are connected in millions of different ways: through trade, finance, property, and information. Such relationships bring with them a wide variety of values and cultural models that have a universal validity. It is a world, moreover, in which a threat to some has an immediate impact on everyone, in which for many reasons, chiefly the enormous advances in science and technology, our individual destinies are merging into a single destiny, in which all of us—whether we like it or not—must begin to bear responsibility for everything that occurs. In such a world, the idol of state sovereignty must inevitably dissolve.


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