The FP Interview: Vaclav Havel
The playwright, dissident, and former Czech president speaks about the fall of the Berlin Wall, Barack Obama, and the hidden costs of moral compromise.
Nearly 20 years to the day after the Velvet Revolution saw him rise from dissident to president in a few weeks’ time, the former Czech leader sat down in Prague with FP’s executive editor, Susan Glasser. Havel, still wearing the trademark corduroy jacket of his playwright days, chided U.S. President Barack Obama about the perils of compromising human rights, worried that America has missed its moment in Afghanistan, and warned of Russia’s "new type of dictatorship." Below, their edited conversation.
Foreign Policy: This year marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Do you think the spirit of those times is still reflected in Czech and Eastern European society today?
Vaclav Havel: I think that the basic ideals of that time — free elections, the democratic program, freedom of the press, and so on — are being fulfilled. We have not abandoned that road, nor did we betray it. Nevertheless, everything has been much more difficult than we might have thought at that time. Everything is taking much more time, and the road is much more thorny than somebody might have thought in those times of passion.
FP: This week President Obama is coming to Europe to accept a Nobel Peace Prize, just days after he announced that he will be sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Do you think that the use of military force is sometimes necessary to advance the interests of peace?
Havel: Well, I think if some monstrous injustice is taking place somewhere, then a responsible person cannot be only an onlooker, cannot be indifferent to it. Sometimes, it is necessary to intervene to save thousands of lives. Each time, however, it must be weighed very thoroughly, very seriously, and very responsibly. America can’t just say, "Here there is no freedom, so we will barge in." One has to seek wide international consensus, and the case must be unambiguous. And those thousands of people who feed on these decisions in government ministries should anticipate the unintended consequences of taking action. In the case of Iraq, for instance, this did not take place at all.
Of course, if something can be done in a "velvet" fashion, that is better. But there are situations where this is impossible. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, I cannot really judge that. However, from a distance, it seems to me that the right time has been missed and the massive attack against the Taliban should have been made years ago.
Out of a kind of reluctance, the Taliban has been allowed to flourish and take root, and now it will be much more troublesome. To a certain extent, in my opinion, Obama is harvesting the fruits of the works of the previous presidents. Neither clearing out of there nor sending a million soldiers in there is a good solution anymore.
FP: What do you think of Russia’s role in Eastern Europe today? How concerned are you about the possibility of Russia causing further problems, and has America forgotten about its friends here in Eastern Europe?
Havel: I think that America has not forgotten us, but it should still take into account that the terrain here in Central Europe is somewhat more explosive than other areas of conflict elsewhere in the world. World wars start here, not in Iran or Korea or anywhere else.
But I have not yet observed that America is losing interest in us as allies. If she has decided that she will replace one anti-ballistic missile system with another, that is her expert decision and should not be seen as American lack of interest in the region — that would be a somewhat rash and sentimental way of thinking.
But as far as Russia is concerned, many of my talks with Russian personalities plus my visits to Moscow confirm to me that what is being born there is a special new type of manipulative democracy, or some new type of dictatorship that is far more sophisticated than communism.
You can see it in Russia’s inconspicuous efforts to re-establish its spheres of influence. Of course, no great Russian armies are being raised for this purpose anymore, but it is being attempted by various pressures, political and economic. Their large companies are slowly buying our firms, and their economic might is growing and related to that, their political influence.
We certainly don’t need conflicts with Russia. We must deal with her like with any other partner. But we definitely have to know how to say what we think, but we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated. When they tell us that they will not give us gas or oil, then we will have to learn how to tell them, "you can keep it." It would be better to use less light and less heat than to allow them to blackmail us.
FP: Do you think that China and the rise of Asia are threats to the secure future that European nations, including the Czech Republic, are trying to build?
Havel: It seems to me that China is not that dangerous. China does not have any obvious expansionist intentions. China wants to control, in a hard way, what she considers hers, like Tibet. Of course, there is the open question of Taiwan, but otherwise, I do not know that she would want to conquer the world or that she would want to rule over it. She may sort of inconspicuously, through the use of economic mechanisms, become the owner of a half of the globe over time. But I do not see obvious expansive intentions behind it. Certainly nothing like the Russian Orthodox faith that they are the ones who will save the whole world, which characterizes the Russian regime today.
Buddhism does not have in itself that spellbinding Christian or Islamic will to conquer or the belief that they are the heralds of the right faith and those who do not share it are the adherents of the wrong faith and need to be educated. Buddhism does not have in itself that messianic drive, and perhaps this is one of the reasons that it seems to me that China is not so dangerous.
FP: After President Obama’s decision to postpone his meeting with the Dalai Lama, you said something to the effect that these small gestures seem harmless, but over time can have a powerful, cumulative effect. For the hardhearted realists, can you explain that effect?
Havel: We know this from our modern history. When [French Prime Minister Edouard] Daladier returned from the  Munich conference, the whole nation was applauding him for saving the peace. He made a minuscule compromise in the interest of peace. But it was the beginning of a chain of evil that subsequently brought about many millions of deaths. We can’t just say, "This is just a small compromise that can be overlooked. First we will go to China and then perhaps talk with the Dalai Lama." It all looks practical, pragmatic, logical, but it is necessary to think about whether it is not the first small compromise that can be the beginning of that long chain that is no good. In this case perhaps it will not be, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.
FP: You make it sound so easy. But how, as president, do you decide when these small compromises are worth it and when they might lead to something more dangerous?
Havel: Politics, it means, every day making some compromises, and to choose between one evil and another evil, and to decide which is bigger and which is smaller. But sometimes, some of these compromises could be very dangerous because it could be the beginning of the road of making a lot of other compromises, which are results of the first one, and there are very dangerous compromises. And it’s necessary, I think, to have the feeling which compromise is possible to do and which, could be, maybe, after ten years, could be somehow very dangerous.
I will illustrate this with my own experience. Two days after I was elected president, I invited the Dalai Lama to visit. I was the first head of the state who invited him in this way, directly. And everybody was saying that it was a terribly dangerous act and issued their disapproving statements and expressions. But it was a ritual matter. Later, the Chinese deputy prime minister and the foreign minister came for a visit and brought me a pile of books about the Dalai Lama and some governmental documents about what good care they have taken of Tibet, and so on. They were propagandist, fabricated books, but he felt the need to explain something to me.
I had a press conference with this minister of foreign affairs. And he said, "It was wonderful, meeting, because we were speaking openly. Mr. Havel gave me his opinion, and I explained the opinion of our government. I gave him this book, and he thanked me for it."
This was unbelievable! Why did they feel the need to explain their point of view to the leader of such a small nation? Because they respect it when someone is standing his ground, when someone is not afraid of them. When someone soils his pants prematurely, then they do not respect you more for it.
Susan Glasser is a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy; former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post; and co-author, with Peter Baker, of Kremlin Rising: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the End of Revolution.