The Road of Freedom is the only way for all of us
By Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Belobradek
Good afternoon dear students, ladies and gentlemen,
I am very glad, indeed, to have an opportunity to speak here in front of you today. I have accepted with great pleasure the invitation of Dr. Palouš, Director of Vaclav Havel Center for Human Rights and Diplomacy, to offer you my modest contribution to his class focused on democratic transitions and human rights and I am really looking forward to taking part in it.
As students you represent a new generation. You are among those who will assume responsibility for public and international affairs – the topics studied at this school - in a not so distant future. It is you who will be in charge of a world which may be even more complex, less safe and less predictable than the world in which we are living today.
A quarter century ago one might have really believed that freedom and democracy were winning decisively and irreversibly in the world; that what we were experiencing was the “end of history”, the final historical triumph of Western liberal ideas, with all the illiberal alternatives of organization of human society ultimately defeated. Now we know very well that the sense of living in the “end of history” was only a transient illusion belonging to “these fair well-spoken days,“ to paraphrase William Shakespeare; when the peoples of our region were celebrating, and the whole world was watching, their miraculous liberation.
President Ronald Reagan - the principal architect of the US policies that led to the victorious end of the Cold War – once said in spite of all his historical optimism and his strong determination to defeat the Soviet “evil empire”: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction!”
What we see around us today just confirms an inconvenient truth: Reagan was right! The end of communism in Europe has not brought a final victory of liberal ideas, but only opened a new chapter in the still unfinished history of mankind.
It means that you too, will have to strive for your freedom, as your ancestors did in the times of George Washington; in the times of Abraham Lincoln; in the times of Martin Luther King. As it was the case in the context of Czech contemporary history in the times of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk; in the times of Vaclav Havel. It means that you too, will participate – of course, in the context of your own concrete situation and in your own way - in the grand struggle for freedom led by the freedom-loving people of all the continents throughout the human history!
What has actually changed since the times when the Iron Curtain isolating the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from the free world was finally removed?
The old threats have been replaced by the new ones.
So called “asymmetrical conflicts” have emerged and we have had to get acquainted with a new life-death enemy of our civilization; the one that we might be able to keep defeating, but unable to ultimately defeat.
The heinous acts of terrorism – committed here and there in the name of fundamentalist, intolerant version of Islamic religion – are not a distant danger for us, but a dreadful part of our daily lives.
The migration waves - caused by the wars or terror; by poverty or the failed local governance; by draught or other natural catastrophes - test our abilities to comply with our own principles. But more than that: they represent really a serious challenge! Is it what has started, a new Migration of Nations - with all the effects known from the recorded history, on the form and shape of a future global civilization?
The changing distribution of economic power results also in a new distribution of political power. More and more, the West is loosing its past dominance in the world affairs and the new geopolitical realities are winning recognition. The question of new balance between the major global players, the problem of stability of an emerging international system has become the elementary point of departure of any actual political discussion or deliberation.
Thanks to its enormous economic growth during the past decades, China is an emerging global power now. Russia is getting more assertive again, struggling in a similar way as all the revisionist states did in the past, with her today’s “Versailles syndrome,” trying to make her comeback as a mighty empire. And there is India, Brazil, South Africa and many other competitors on the global or regional scene today. They all are now indispensable partners of former hegemonic powers in the on-going global debate about the world’s future, and their voices simply cannot be, whether we like their messages or not, ignored.
And there are not only the external threats here. We have to factor in also the internal problems of European civilization. The long decades of peace and prosperity diminished seriously the will of Europeans to defend Europe against her enemies. If isolationism were to win again in the United States – as it happened in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance – it could easily result in a real catastrophe for the old continent.
The persisting economic crisis has increased the tensions within the European societies and diminished the abilities of their governments to adopt unpopular, but necessary measures. The ever deepening demographic deficit and the aging of population contribute to the further weakening of the “developed” European countries and create a dangerous, self-enforcing “vicious circle” of decline or even decay.
All these threats have, of course, their direct or indirect consequences for our democracies. Our freedom, our endurance to preserve it under the current ever changing circumstances is tested again and again.
What are these tests?
There are strengthening voices demanding to curb the civil liberties for the sake of our security.
The populist politicians call for the enhancement of protection of borders. They suggest to build there high walls to prevent undesired people from coming - and their listeners applaud to them.
The fear of “others” - those who are perceived as a threat just for being different from “us” - is growing.
Protectionism, isolationism, nationalism have established themselves as dominant themes of today’s political discourse and those who keep them in the public domain, gain an easy political credit.
We observe deep frustration and despair that the efforts to bring the Western freedom and democracy into the Muslim world are failing.
Instead, the Islamic State has strengthened and managed to consolidate its power in the large territories of the Middle East and Africa. The radical Islamists are training in their desert strongholds and are preparing all sorts of terrorist operations against the West.
Russia has committed an act of aggression against Ukraine and has occupied a part of the Ukrainian territory. No one has been able to counteract it.
In general, liberal democracy seems to be losing its appeal and global attraction. The calls for a strong-handed government are being heard all over the world more and more.
What is at stake today is the very idea of human freedom. Many things have changed, indeed, since Vaclav Havel addressed as the new President of free Czechoslovakia the Joint Session of US Congress in February of 1990.
What does it all mean, and where is it going to lead? The answer is actually very simple: there is nothing new under the sun. What we are seeing is something we know since long ago. The struggle for freedom never ends. There is a possibility of defeat lurking behind each victory. But it is also true that there is always a chance to turn the current losses to the future gains; to get back on the path enabling the future victories. We must be aware at the same time that their impact, however, cannot and will not be permanent and will not outlive, as Reagan put it, the present generation.
We were, indeed, full of optimism in the beginning of the 1990s. We believed that the free world was so strong that it was able not only to defend its own freedom but even export it to the peoples still waiting for their liberation. The policy of containment of the evil has been replaced by the policy of active dissemination of the good.
Today we are well aware that such optimism was somewhat exaggerated. As a reaction to the transformations experienced in the past quarter century, our minds have also changed. Our optimism has faded away and we are now fearful and afraid of the turbulent world we are a part of.
Should we rather resign to the professed universality of freedom – the central premise of our liberal political creed – and start only looking after our safety?
Let us remind ourselves what a great American, Benjamin Franklin, had to say about this matter: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” And one can add: sooner or later they will loose both of them.
I strongly believe that in spite of current turmoil and our serious doubts accompanying it, freedom must be still perceived as a really UNIVERSAL value; that freedom is one and indivisible for all; that the road of freedom is here for everybody, both Europeans and non-Europeans. The reason is simple and you Americans are familiar with it: all human beings are “created” - in the words of the American Declaration of Independence - “equal… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and “among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”…
Being equal, however, doesn’t mean that we all are the same. One people may be faster on its journey towards freedom than the other one. There may be different historical moments when various nations have experienced their liberation. They can turn backwards for a while for some specific reasons or even backslide…
In short: the historical journey of each nation on the road of freedom is unique, but this road as such is one for all members of the human race. It is really universal and there is no “other” concept of freedom or human rights.
It is so, in spite of all our current doubts: in spite of all the failures of the “Arab Spring”; in spite of all the problems of weak or failed states in Africa; in spite of the existence of Chinese or Russian models of governance; in spite of the fact that there is no shortcut on the road toward freedom and democracy and that no one can be forced to accept the fundamental Western democratic values…
I am convinced that we have already learned a significant lesson of what happens when it comes to that.
There is no doubt that if we want to succeed on our road of freedom we have to adopt our approaches and our methods to the present state of “affairs” in the world. But it does not mean that we have to accept blindly everything that is labeled as “cultural differences” and be acquiesced with the “fact” that in some countries people don’t care about freedom and thus don’t deserve it. If Abraham Lincoln had accepted the “cultural differences” of the American South, the Civil War would not have been necessary and slavery would not have been abolished. If it were true that as far as human rights, the Asian perspective is different from our European “individualistic” point of departure, Aung San Suu Kyi would not have won in the elections in Burma….
When I speak about our common road of freedom, I perceive freedom as our common goal on this road; as its principal orientation point, which, however, can never be definitively reached. I am convinced that we all are proceeding in this direction. What makes us unique and different is our preparedness to meet all the challenges on the road of freedom; to overcome the obstacles connected with our concrete situation - the state of our mind, our cultural habits, our historical experience, our knowledge, our religion…
If, for example, the efforts to democratize Muslim countries are still failing, it is because of underdevelopment of civil societies in these countries. In the current Western societies it seems to be a sufficient impulse for a democratic transition to give the existing governmental institutions to the people. The reason is the creed that a liberated population of any country will demonstrate its capacity for self-governance; its capability to earn the inherent freedom and human rights of its members by the means of their own civic initiatives. Here in America this attitude is even strengthened by your inborn idealism inherited from those who came here, centuries ago, inspired by the vision to build “the shining city on the hill” and to create by their own power and with God’s help an independent and qualitatively better ”new world”.
Such attitude, however, simply cannot – no matter how admirable and exemplary it is - be applied elsewhere without reservations. The existence of liberal democracy is not a necessary condition, but rather a consequence of human capability to think and act freely; to accept freedom as a basic guiding principle of human life. Liberal democracy stands in the end of a long way of building the pillars of free society - starting from Magna Carta in the 13th century, through the American Revolution in the 18th century to the Velvet Revolution in the 20th century. What has been accumulated here in the course of times is the result of a long, single-minded and determined struggle of wise and courageous individuals that devoted their whole lives to freedom’s cause. In this sense, liberal democracy is a product of Western civilization grown from the amalgamation of Greek philosophy, Roman Law and Judeo-Christian spirituality. Our challenge today is to keep our great legacy alive and pass it to all others who emerged as active players in our common, post-European world.
It is not possible simply to skip certain stages of human development. If human societies lack the element we call “civil society”, democracy has no chance. And I can easily use here my own country as a good example. The quality of today’s Czech democracy corresponds to the maturity of today’s Czech citizens. Those who go to the ballots and cast regularly their votes cannot hope to change fundamentally the quality of Czech politics without changing their own political behavior. At the end of the day, an old adage has it right: every country has a government that it deserves.
It is useful to remember here the words of our first democratic president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk: “If our democracy has its deficiencies, let’s try to fix them, but not to eliminate democracy”. And my addition: especially if we ourselves are the source and the cause of these deficiencies.
There are several warning signals I am particularly worried about when observing the current state of democracy in the Czech Republic and particularly the current state of the Czech public debate.
There are people calling openly for our rapprochement with Russia and advocating her aggressive policies towards her neighbors.
There are people suggesting that the Czech Republic should quit NATO and the European Union.
It is discouraging to see the efforts of some politicians of my country to replace the international policies of the Czech Republic emphasizing human rights with pragmatic diplomacy leaving all principles and values behind and paying attention solely to the Czech economic interests.
It is sad, indeed, to observe the people liberated from the Babylonian captivity in the Soviet Empire so disenchanted with the current political situation that they would prefer to return to the stability of the communist “normalization” after the “counter-revolutionary crisis”, when Havel was writing his famous letter to Dr. Husák and Charter 77 was only coming into existence….
Thank God, such voices are still in clear minority and there is no eminent danger that the number of those who subscribe to such views, would start to grow. At the same time, however, they clearly demonstrate what is the main problem of our democracy today and where does it begin: in our own minds; in the endemic lack of rationality, self-control and humanity; in certain traits of our national political culture.
I am not suggesting that these imperfections are specifically Czech or predominant in the Czech milieu, but they do exist, contribute to the formation of our national character and condition our democracy. And there is certainly a remedy for them, available at our democratic environment: a better education for our young generation; the education that is concerned not only with appropriate levels of knowledge or skills, but also with values. Because it is what we believe in - rather than what we know about this or that –that determines who we are!
It is here in Florida, the home of a large community of exiled Cuban-Americans, where one can understand very well what I am trying to tell you. The reason for it is simple, in my view. What has brought the members of this economically prosperous and politically influential community together was their experience of flight from totalitarian enslavement in exchange for freedom. In spite that they have come from a state economically and morally devastated, they have succeeded in their new homeland. Why? Because they put their stakes on freedom – something what carried more weight than the fact that they arrived often with empty hands and had to start with nothing.
There is no doubt, I think, that the majority of those who live in Cuba now believe in freedom too – exactly as we did in the moment when we were still finding ourselves still inside our communist “paradise” and our Velvet Revolution was just about to begin. There are more and more signs that also in Cuba a great change is inevitably on the horizon. No one can predict, however, what is going to happen and how.
am following with a great interest the visit of President Obama to Cuba, which is taking place exactly in these days. And I sincerely hope that it will have a positive impact on the situation of people on the island and empower them to achieve their perfectly legitimate claims: to decide themselves about their future; to be free to choose what they want; to restore democracy and the rule of law in their country and set on the path of national reconciliation and economic prosperity. I am convinced that those who are right now in exile can play a tremendous positive role in these efforts, not only thanks to their economic power, but also thanks to their experience with democracy and their genuine commitment to the fundamental democratic values.
I also think that our Czech experience with transition to democracy has a relevant place in the current Cuban debates. We are ready to share it with all those who are taking part in it, both here and on the island, taking into consideration that there is a number of stakeholders here – the representatives of civil society, the academics, the entrepreneurs, the churches and of course the current Cuban government. There is no doubt that the stakes are high, and not only for Cubans who hope legitimately for a betterment of their standards of living. The success of democratic reforms in Cuba would have a tremendous positive effect on the whole Latin American region and would substantively increase its chances for peace and prosperity.
The intensification of communication between the Czech Republic, the state of Florida and its Cuban community, the exploration of new forms of three-cornered cooperation is actually one of the main objectives of my visit. What I have in mind is not just the trade exchange and cooperation in the various sectors of science and technology. All of that is of course important. As Deputy Prime Minister in charge of these matters, I am well aware of enormous potential of Florida in all these areas. That is why I am accompanied here by a delegation composed of entrepreneurs, representatives of universities and research institutions.
What I also have in mind, however, is our possible cooperation in the political area and diplomacy, the exchange of experience concerning democratic reforms and economic transformations. My deep conviction is that such agenda simply cannot be separated from other aspects of international communications. If some one is afraid that the opening of the question of human rights will forfeit his business, I have a different opinion. The good businesses can flourish only where people are not afraid of their governments. When human rights are respected and the rule of law applied, also foreign businessmen don’t need to be worried about the negative effects of governmental policies on their businesses.
Our history actually teaches us that our freedom and wealth have always gone hand in hand. And in order to be free, as a small nation in the heart of Europe we have always needed trust-worthy allies. For centuries, my nation has been trying to secure its place in the world. Too often even our best efforts were not good enough to realize our dreams.
If I used the words of Ronald Reagan that freedom can be taken for granted for no more than one generation, I didn’t mean that each generation should start from scratch and install its own values. To the contrary, as a Christian Democrat and as a conservative person, I am well aware that basic values are not changing in the course of time. They only need to be re-discovered and re-interpreted again and again in the light of our experience, tested against political realities. Christianity has been perceived as a new possibility of human life for more than two thousand years. And the same is true for the ideals of freedom, justice and solidarity.
ithout clear awareness of basic values, democracy becomes an empty shell and freedom turns into anarchy. If people deprived of their roots believe that respect for human rights, the defense of the powerless, humanitarian concerns, caring about the poor, etc. is limiting their freedom, their concept of freedom is plainly wrong and opens the door to slavery.
For all these reasons, I am glad, indeed, that the Czech Republic is represented here at Florida International University by Vaclav Havel Center for Human Rights and Diplomacy.
I am proud of a specifically Czech legacy of toleration, creativity, free thought and prudence that Vaclav Havel represented. It is a legacy, which undoubtedly transcends us, but at the same time is assisting us in our efforts to find the way out from the current political turmoil and crises.
What we are doing in our turbulent world of the 21st century doesn’t always guarantee us the success. Our motivation is more humble and down to the earth, consistent with Vaclav Havel’s spirit. It is to re-build the relationships of trust and solidarity in the world and to keep hope alive. Because as he put it when he was approaching the end of his life: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”