Opinion

Havel speech anniversary worth noting

The irony in anniversaries is that they are often remembered more for what they forebode for the future than what they tell us about the past. The last few years have brought us many important Cold War hallmarks—first the 25th anniversary of President Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and then the twentieth anniversaries of “tear down this wall,” the actual fall of the wall, and the opening of the Brandenburg Gate.

We now approach an anniversary of a different dawn: the beginning of the so-called New World Order and Russia’s emergence from the Soviet era. Twenty years ago this week Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress as the personification of this breath of freedom from Russia’s strangulating dominance over Central and Eastern Europe.

Havel, the renowned playwright and dissident, had gone from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia in just four months. Havel recounted how in those extraordinary days his country rose from “beneath the pall of a totalitarian regime…to the road to democracy.” As he stood before the Congress, however, Havel made clear that the United States could best help his countrymen most by helping the Soviet Union on its “irreversible but immensely complicated road to democracy.”

That road has been a far more complicated one than ever imagined. After initially implementing democratic reforms, Russia drifted back towards autocracy. Today’s Russia continues to take steps to resemble her Soviet past: her occupation of Georgia, her petro-blackmail of Europe, and her suppression of dissent are just some recent examples.

A month into office President Obama spoke of a desire to “reboot” relations with Russia. To wit, President Obama’s decision last year to scrap America’s longstanding plans to deploy a critical missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland in favor of a sea and land-based mobile interceptor system may have pleased Russian Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev. But it sent shockwaves throughout our Central and Eastern European allies, who feared that the decision would only further embolden Russia and leave them inadequately protected from long-range ballistic missile attacks from Iran or North Korea. “This is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence,” remarked former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.

President Obama worsened his decision by unconditionally offering to share the technology with Russia. For diplomacy to be effective, it must work both ways. In this instance, Putin and Medvedev offered nothing. Nearly six months later, a rumored concession that Russia would toughen its position on Iran’s nuclear program had not come to fruition. When President Reagan, who first proposed the concept of a missile defense shield, offered to share the technology with General Secretary Gorbachev it was in exchange for something explicit—namely the reduction of Soviet nuclear arsenals. Here, an olive branch extended without something in return amounts to merely table garnish.

Obama then met the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with little more than a press release. Such acts, at a minimum, fail to honor America’s historical commitment to the region and create the perception that we are shifting support away from key European allies.

As to Obama’s missile defense decision, Havel was diplomatic. He was not concerned with the decision, as he put it, to replace one ballistic missile system with another. He was far more pointed, however, with the state of play in today’s Russia. “[M]y visits to Moscow confirm to me that what is born there,” Havel told Foreign Policy in December, “is a special new type of manipulative democracy, or some new type of dictatorship that is far more sophisticated than communism.” He went on to warn against Russia’s efforts to re-establish its spheres of influence, and the connection between those spheres and Russia’s growing economic might.

The anniversary of Havel’s address to Congress thus needs to be recognized not just for what it meant 20 years ago, but what it means today and could mean for the next 20 years. As Havel reminded us back then, both world wars of the last century were born in Europe. To paraphrase Havel’s more recent statements, while we do not need conflicts with Russia, we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated—or even allow for the perception of intimidation. We also cannot continue a foreign policy with Russia that seems based on unreciprocated concession that perpetuates the Russian propaganda machine. Even a perceived shift in security policy in Eastern and Central Europe should not be part of a “reboot” in relations with Russia. Their security remains our security. If the Obama administration fails to comprehend this truth, it may soon realize that the past cold war was merely a prologue to the next one.

Elliot S. Berke served as Counsel to the Speaker and to the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was responsible for Homeland Security policy. He is a Washington, D.C., attorney focusing on political law and can be reached at [email protected]