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<b>Live Webcast</b>--6th Annual Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture Series: Czech and American Relations in the Beginning of the New Millennium

Martin Palous,Czech Ambassador to the United Nations

Date & Time

Nov. 17, 2005
11:00am – 12:00pm ET


Czech – U.S. Relationship at the Beginning of the 21st Century

First, I would like to thank the American Friends of Slovakia, The American Friends of the Czech Republic, and, of course, the Wilson Center, for inviting me to deliver this year's Czech and Slovak Freedom Lecture. It is, indeed, a distinct honor for me, and a great challenge I will add, to be offered an opportunity to participate at this important event, after such distinguished personalities having spoken here before me: Michael Novak in 2000, Madeleine Albright in 2001, Adam Michnik in 2002, Vaclav Klaus in 2003 and Timothy Garton Ash in 2004.

Today we celebrate the 16th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which removed from power the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, but it is also one of the last days of my tour of duty as the Czech Ambassador to the United States. So allow me to use this opportunity to offer to you a couple of thoughts concerning the nature and current state of the Czech – U.S. relationship.

The world finally opened before us in November of 1989, after the bipolar political architecture that had divided Europe for more than four decades collapsed. The basic goal of our new foreign policies became clear and simple. We wanted – as did Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and all other inhabitants of our region, suddenly liberated from the captivity implied by their previous status within the Eastern "zone of the Soviet influence" – to rejoin the West and to return to mainstream European civilization where we culturally and historically belonged. Such a goal required us not only to design and succesfully implement all of the steps and tasks necessary for our own democratic transition, but also to redefine the relationships with all our major international partners in Europe and in the world. We had to reintegrate Czechoslovakia (and after the peaceful separation of both the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as soon as possible into the international institutions and arrangements capable of providing us with the necessary security guarantees, and enabling us to protect our newly regained freedom against all possible future threats. We needed to define and pursue our own "national interests" not with a kind of parochial, self-defensive point of view driven by the endemic inferiority complex of a small nation, but with a broad, generous and worldly perspective that can be shared with all other freedom-loving peoples.

The renewed relationship with the United States was for obvious reasons one of our highest priorities. If freedom was what we wanted, the United States was expected to resume, alongside the democratic countries of Europe, the role of our major strategic ally. There was plenty of historical evidence justifying the need for such a strategic partnership, and on our side, also a bitter experience with the loss of freedom in the ideologically divided world. The American presence in Europe was crucial at the moment of our liberation from the Soviet yoke. Throughout the whole 20th century, it was the United States who stood for the defense of the very idea of freedom and open society. It stood against its enemies attempting to usurp power in the old continent, to press its population under the control of totalitarian governments and, once and for all, to "re-evaluate" all the values constituting the very essence of our European/Western civilization.

It was the United States whose military intervention in the last stage of the First World War tipped the balance in the duel between European democracies and theocracies for the benefit of the former and which helped secure the victory of democratic Allies over the theocratic Central Powers. It was the United States that supported the principle of self-determination of nations and helped decisively with the creation of a democratic Czechoslovakia as a part of the "New World Order" which emerged after 1918. It was the United States that played the crucial role in the defeat of German nazism in the Second World War in 1945. And again, it was the United States that helped Europeans start the process of European integration in the aftermath of the war, that stretched a "nuclear umbrella" over the Western part of the continent in order to save its freedom, and "contain" communism - another most likely even more dangerous and more deadly variety of the plague threatening the European civilization - in the "zone of Soviet influence."

I still remember vividly the first trip of President Vaclav Havel to Washington and New York in February of 1990. That trip sent a clear message regarding the very nature of this new relationship and laid the firm foundations for the manifold forms of future Czech-U.S. cooperation. The Masarykian and Wilsonian legacies came to life again and were rightly evoked on this occassion by both sides. The assurances of American government that we would be given all possible support to overcome all the challenges and obstacles lying on the unexplored and unknown road from a closed to open society, were borne at home by us as a vital sign of hope. It was an invaluable boost to our political ambitions and expectations.

Reviewing the years of our transition and celebrating today the 16th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, one thing can barely be denied: The United States indeed has honored fully its commitments to helping us return to the family of European democracies. The U.S. played an indispensable role in spreading and securing the idea of freedom in our part of the European continent, supporting unequivocally the desire of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to finally obtain the necessary security guarantees making their region at least for the time being "safe for democracy." It is hardly imaginable that without the political will and determination of the United States, NATO would have started to expand to the East and to accept the new members. It is also true that without the new transatlantic agenda set and pushed for by the U.S. government – whose ultimate goal is to make Europe finally "whole and free" – the current European politics focused on the future of European integration would miss an important element without which we might be seeing quite a different political architecture replacing the collapsed bipolar model: a multipolar international system much more fragile and unpredictable; an international system certainly less friendly especially to smaller democratic countries finding themselves too often "sandwiched" between bigger powers trying to impose their will on them and determine their history; a world order less capable of protecting freedom in moments where the global community of democracies is confronted with international terrorism and other "new threats" emerging in the beginning of the 21st century.

There is no doubt that the relationship between the Czech Republic - a NATO member since 1999 and a member state of the EU since 2004 - and the United States is stronger than ever before. It is evident by the figures indicating the trends in bilateral economic cooperation and ties between our armed forces. The same can be proven if we focus on culture, education, tourism, and if we highlight the cooperation between our cities and regions or comment on the unprecedented level of informal communications between the ordinary citizens of our countries. The relationship is certainly flourishing. Nevertheless, it would be entirely inappropriate to its nature to idealize or even ideologize it. We would pay poor service to ourselves if we wanted to see it through rose-colored glasses and ignore the fact that it is evolving in real time and in an actual historical context. First of all, we must not disregard the fundamental reality that this relationship is asymmetrical. We have to be aware and to take into consideration that the American and Czech perspectives are, and must be by definition different; that the "democracy in America" which Tocqueville found so fascinating and analyzed with still unmatched insight and clarity, and "democracy in the Czech Republic" are two different varieties of one and the same species. The "national interests" of the only remaining global superpower and of a small Central European state simply cannot be identical. Keeping the Czech American relationship strong in the future presupposes for sure not only remembering all the things we have in common but also understanding the sources, be they historical, cultural or political, of our eventual differences. These differences have shaped our relationship throughout its duration, but the way they have resurfaced in our current situation in the beginning of the 21st century requires our serious attention. Through these differences we are provided with a unique opportunity to rediscover and to restate its most important dimensions.

Therefore, let us consider in this context the dramatic shift in our own perception of the political reality between 1989, when we set out on our current journey, and now - when we are proudly celebrating the 16th anniversary of this remarkable event. Sixteen years ago, we were for very good reasons fully focused on ourselves, on our own situation which was making headlines in the world media and which dramatically changed at that time the agenda of all important political meetings and negotiations. We asked for and expected the support of world democracies, and we were grateful for the meaningful advice and assistance.

Now, in the fall of 2005, we know pretty well that our own story, our return home from "Babylonian captivity," was just a beginning of a much bigger and far-reaching historical turn; that there was no Europe to return to, as one of the favorite slogans of 1990 was pronounced. The world of the 21st century as a whole was going to be a different place from the previous era. The fall of communism in Europe certainly did not bring Europe's history to its "end," as some enthusiastic apostles of modern European liberalism seemed to have believed. Our revolution of 1989 was rather an event announcing the arrival of a new and still unknown era, an event that did not resolve once and for all our "Czech question" by making us free again, but has revealed at the same time the depth of crisis that has stricken with the twilight of the modern age the whole European and Western civilization. Not only the new democracies, but as well the European political architecture are now at stake. The whole world is changing, and also the role of the United States which is being tested and reconsidered in our current turbulent times. Being asked where the whole of mankind is heading, confronted with so many challenges of globalization, exposed to all sorts of new, unexpected and unprecedented threats, the only honest answer we can offer is that we do not know.

The question today is not as it was sixteen years ago, whether and how successfully we were able to apply all the "old and well tested ideas" Ralf Dahrendorf was talking about in his seminal "Reflections On Revolutions in Europe" published in the spring of 1990, the ideas constituting the spiritual basis of an open society safely embedded in the past world of European modernity. The question is not whether we are able to build and sustain all the institutions in which and through which such a society is capable of existing. The answer to this question is a clear yes. We made it and we are now a part of the West. The questions that now need to be considered are: What is our role in the changing world of today? How we can efficiently protect the freedom we have miraculously regained sixteen years ago, side by side with our new allies? What are our "national interests" in this new situation and what means should we choose for their realization?

Speaking about the United States - not only our key strategic ally on our current journey to democracy, but a partner to whom we owe more than anyone else for our current freedom - the questions that must be addressed are: What are our stakes in the test that the American leadership in the world is currently undergoing? Is there any role for us to play? What would be for us this test's best outcome? Vaclav Havel said in his speech before the joint session of the U.S. Congress in February of 1990 that there was only one thing that we could offer for all the support and assistance: our experience with the totalitarian enslavement and eventually the knowledge that has come out of it. Has not the time arrived to finally pay back? Nonetheless, if it is the case, what is this knowledge, to which president Havel was referring? Is it related exclusively to our past, or is there something in this knowledge, which can help bridge that gap discussed so powerfully by Hannah Arendt, existing between the past and the future?

I came here less than three weeks after September 11 of 2001, and my four years in Washington was indeed a period demonstrating the depth and seriousness of our contemporary crisis. The short period of consensus, both within our societies on both sides of the Atlantic and in the context of our transatlantic partnership, when the solidarity with the victims of barbarous attacks against the United States became the dominant factor in the realm of politics – America stood united and we all declared ourselves Americans in these days – has been followed by a much longer and still continuing period of serious disputes and controversies. Both here in the United States and in most European countries, the public discourse has been dominated ever since by all sorts of explosive, value-charged questions having power to divide the population into the antagonistic camps whose inhabitants are fighting fiercely against each other, incapable of leading a dialogue and just defending their preconceived positions, locked into the territories, if I am allowed to use the American metaphor, of their own either red or blue states. It is not surprising that the far most explosive issue of this kind has turned out to be the U.S. led invasion into Iraq, with all its domestic and international consequences and questions it has raised, not only adding fuel to the heat of on-going political debates within our own national communities, but triggering an unprecedented controversy between Europe and the United States, testing the strength and viability of the transatlantic bond forged throughout the 20th century.

I am not willing to go now into the heart of the Iraq controversy or of any other controversial issue dominating today's political discourse. Instead, allow me to make just two general remarks or observations concerning our current dilemmas and debates. First, I would recommend to all those who feel strongly about belonging to one or another antagonistic camp, to try to enlarge the horizon of their argument and begin to see our situation today in a broader historical context. Has not the whole history of relations between Europe and America - we can just take the American Revolution as the most evident example of this kind - been driven by all sorts of conflicts and disagreements? But has it not, at the same time, been always true that "the old continent" of Europe and "the new world" of America are tied with powerful bonds, that make them even in the moment of their disagreement two parts of one and the same Western civilization? Is not the mutual solidarity between Americans and Europeans, their ability to understand each other and to resolve in the end all the disputed issues, what must be seen as the very nature of this civilization? And, if we decided to further examine its deeper roots, would not we discover that from its very beginnings in antiquity, it has never been a static formation just maintaining the status quo and defending its sacred "values" and unchangeable order, but rather a community of free nations ready to test their own ideas and values in the open space of human history, ready to meet all the challenges coming from the unknown future, ready to risk the possibility of failure or being wrong in their actions, ready to stake their reputation and knowledge and continue correcting their often tragic mistakes in the light of experience? Does not the readiness to seek the unity with ourselves, to seek the common good in the open field of human history and to care, as the old Socrates would put it, about the "soul," still belong to the essence of our freedom? Is that not exactly what we Europeans, Americans and all other heirs of the West still have in common? Is not the anti-Americanism so fashionable today in many parts of Europe, or the contempt and indifference for anything European here in the United States, just a symptom of resignation for our common responsibility, a mark of our spiritual laziness and of our inability or even unwillingness to think and to act as true heirs of our Western civilization? Is not such an attitude just a cheap replacement of real political thought with sophistry and populist rhetoric that may be applauded by the crowds but betrays the best of our common democratic traditions?

Let me be more concrete in my second remark, and turn our attention from the high philosophical issues to the practical political questions concerning the current relationship between the Czech Republic and the United States. Looking back to our modern history, not only to all our achievements, but in the first place to all our failures - having in mind the Munich conference of 1938, the Communist coup d'etat in 1948 or the Prague Spring terminated by the Soviet invasion in 1968 - the endemic problem of our Czech politics seems to be connected at one time with the lack or at another time with the excess of political realism within our decision-making processes. The current state of Czech-U.S. relationship is offering us an opportunity, in my view, to correct this weakness and to secure our "national interests" in a way which would correspond to Masaryk's maxim to "conceive the Czech question in wordly terms" and respect at the same time the realistic advices of common sense. It is our Masarykian/Wilsonian idealism that makes us an active player in the today's world struggle for democracy and against all, new or old, enemies of our Western freedom. This is why the Czech Republic, remindful of her own past, activelly supports the dissidents and the human rights activists in Burma, Belarus, China, Cuba and anywhere else in the world. This is why we are trying to actively disseminate the ideals of our Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the "know how" of our transition from state socialism to democracy, and by doing so to challenge the dictators. But this is also why we are highly skeptical in this context of utopias of any kind and do not believe that just words and declarations of solidarity can make a difference. In order to assist effectively those who still have to struggle for their freedom, for democracy and the respect for human rights in their countries, we seek to forge and strenghten all possible democratic partnerships and coalitions, which is barely possible without an active participation of the United States.

We are advised by our experience and by our common sense that we need the United States to be strong and successful in the world's leadership, and that our place in the world is and will be in the future in the U.S.- led "coalition of the willing." We simply cannot afford to be given a choice to side with Europe or with America. We need them to work together to defend freedom against all the threats, old or new, emerging in our increasingly and more globalized world. We need a pro-American Europe, and a pro-European United States. We need both of them as close allies. We need both to be aware of our common roots in one European/Western civilization, both being in the position of its equal heirs in the beginning of a new era coming in the 21st century, the heirs understanding and capable of protecting by their words and concerted actions its legacies. In a nutshell, this is in my view the basic objective in which the "New Europe" of postcommunist countries liberated sixteen years ago must speak up and stand for today. This is, in my view the core of that knowledge Vaclav Havel had in mind in his speech here in Washington in February of 1990, the knowledge that has come out of our experience of loss of freedom in all our encounters with totalitarianism during the "short" 20th century.


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