"The Transformation of NATO"

Opening speech by Václav Havel, President of the Czech Republic at the conference organized by Host Committee and Aspen Institute of Berlin

  • 20 Nov. 2002
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  • Last updated: 03 Nov. 2008 21:24

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me begin by welcoming you all to Prague. I thank you for coming here and I thank the Host Committee and the Aspen Institute Berlin for organizing this conference.

With your permission, I shall open your deliberations with five remarks that bear a relation, direct or indirect, to the agenda of this year's NATO Summit meeting in Prague.

Remark one: Thirteen years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, during a time of horrible terrorist attacks on civilian populations, it must have become clear to everyone that currently the principal adversary of the values espoused by the Alliance is not a State power or a great power that could somehow be located in one way or another. The enemy is now represented by an evil that is widely diffused and very dangerous indeed ? an evil that we find very difficult to grasp, or even to fathom. Therefore, we all must know by now that if the Alliance is to continue to fulfill its original mission in today`s world it should transform itself much more distinctly and much more swiftly. That means that it should transform itself into an instrument that will be capable of effectively confronting an entirely new set of threats. It can no longer be merely a large, but somewhat empty, structure possessing many commanders without troops, and numerous committees and commissions without any substantial influence, that the member States are merely prepared to fill with allocated parts of their military forces if the need arises. If the Alliance is to be meaningful today it must be an organization equipped with a large quantity of information processed promptly and professionally; an organization capable of taking split?second decisions and, wherever this becomes necessary, of immediately engaging either its permanent rapid deployment forces, perfectly trained and constantly ready, or specialized forces of various armies that will be capable of confronting modern dangers such as terrorism and nuclear, chemical or bacteriological weapons. Although some may object, at least a part of these units should not be purely military but should also have substantial police functions.

What would impede such a transformation, or slow it down? To my mind, nothing but inertia, bureaucracy, habitudes that have built up for years and have implanted in their bearers a fear of anything that is new. This inertia must be resisted before it is too late.

The documents being prepared for the Prague NATO Summit follow along the line of strategic intentions adopted previously and move toward the direction that I have outlined here, representing a new important step along this path. These documents will probably not be very entertaining to read and few newspapers would print them in full. But anyone who can influence this should act all the more earnestly with a view to translating their content into reality.

Remark two: The Prague Summit will substantially enlarge the Alliance. This will be the most extensive enlargement experienced by NATO until now, an enlargement of a truly explosive nature. Inevitably, it will bring the Alliance a number of serious complications. However, I believe that these complications will be a thousand times recompensed by the fundamental and long?standing significance of this enlargement. Only by its accomplishment will the Alliance make it absolutely clear that it has taken the end of a divided Europe truly seriously. While the recent incorporation of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary may have been viewed by some as a sort of trial gesture; as a cautious acknowledgement that something has changed; or, merely as a concession to the consequences of those changes or an act of altruism, the present enlargement can no longer be seen in that light by anybody. On the contrary: it represents an unmistakable sign that the Alliance is not merely a club of Cold War veterans slightly apprehensive of the mystifying developments in post?Communist countries, but that it truly intends to be an organization encompassing the entire sphere of Euro?American culture, regardless of who once made claim to its individual parts or what those claims were. If the past centuries witnessed various great powers dividing the small, or smaller, European countries among themselves without asking the latter's opinion ? whether this happened in direct forms such as the Ribbentrop?Molotov pact or indirectly through arrangements such as those at Yalta ? the present enlargement of NATO carries an unequivocal message that the era of such divisions is over, once and for all. Europe is no longer, and must never again be, divided over the heads of its people and against their will into any spheres of interest or influence.

Fifty-seven years lie between the present and World War II; to this day, as is known, there has been no peace conference unambiguously settling all the affairs associated with that war. After a shared readiness to respect the will of all European nations has been affirmed in such an explicit manner, who knows whether the time has not grown ripe for such a conference, or for something that could substitute for it in some way? I do not know, maybe it has not; maybe such a conference can no longer be held for a variety of valid reasons, now or ever; and perhaps it is no longer necessary. I have mentioned this long?forgotten subject simply to underscore the importance that I ascribe to the present NATO enlargement.

When speaking about the enlargement of our defense organization we must not, however, bury our heads in the sand when questioned about where the enlargement process should end, where should the limits be, whether an organization of this type can expand without end.

I am convinced that the enlargement of NATO has logical boundaries and that overstepping those boundaries would result in depriving the entire institution of its meaning. In my understanding, NATO is - among other things - an organization of regional character. It encompasses a very specific sphere of civilization that has been commonly referred to as Euro?Atlantic or Euro-American, or simply as the West. The countries within this sphere have a similar history, similar traditions, a similar culture, similar political systems, and a similar perception of values and of humanity's position in the universe. At the same time, this sphere is relatively clearly delimited in geographical terms as well. That is why, for instance, no one would think of offering membership in NATO to New Zealand, which is obviously closer to Britain in terms of civilization than a country such as Albania, while Albania, undoubtedly, will be offered membership sooner or later. Russia, on the other hand, makes up a great part of Europe but obviously represents a Euro-Asian power of such a singular character that its membership in NATO would make no sense either; the only result might be a profound mutual weakening of both bodies and a reduction of their partnership to nothingness.

I have previously stated a number of times, and will gladly repeat it now, that the primary prerequisite for sound cooperation between two States, or regional organizations, consists in clear awareness of where each of them begins and ends, where their borders are and, in particular, where they border each other. Wherever borders are blurred, the situation usually results in conflict, or outright war.

So where is the beginning and where is the end of the cultural sphere that is encompassed by the Alliance, or what the Alliance should encompass or may reasonably be expected to encompass?

In the West, the line apparently runs along the border between the United States and Mexico.

I am less certain about the Eastern border. Much depends not only on the strategic thinking of the organization in question, but also on the self-perception of the individual nations. An open?minded discussion on this subject is obviously called for. The only thing that seems certain to me at the moment is that, in addition to the States to whom the invitation to NATO will be extended tomorrow, membership in the Alliance should sooner or later be also offered to other Balkan countries ? Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina ? and that this already should be clearly stated now.

And between west and east? I believe that the Alliance should declare permanent accessibility to all the European democracies that have remained neutral until now, from Finland to Switzerland to Ireland. Many of these nations profoundly cherish the historical traditions of their neutrality, and we all respect that. Nevertheless, I believe that all these countries sooner or later will ask themselves what the purpose or the content of neutrality is in the world of today; what neutrality actually means; what it makes possible; and, what it makes impossible. It is certainly understandable that if there are two major power blocs it is of great importance to many countries, for many reasons, to preserve their neutrality, regardless of what they may think of either bloc. But what should one think about neutrality in a situation when such blocs no longer exist, and when the common enemy of all consists of organized crime, terror or the advancement of weapons of mass destruction? Can one be neutral, for example, toward assassins who perpetrate large-scale murders of civilian populations?

Remark three: NATO represents a unique combination of two parts of the world - North America and Europe - closely related to each other and yet fairly distant in many ways, both geographically and mentally. Numerous circumstances indicate that the present era ? when so much is changing, so much is being born and so much is subjected to examination ? is becoming, among other things, a time of serious testing of the relationship between America and Europe, and that the fate of NATO in the future depends, to a substantial extent, on how those concerned will stand this test.

My personal opinion is that although the two components of our alliance may, in the future, divide various tasks between them in a greater measure than they have until now, they will always need each other. Actually, they may need each other even more in the future than they do now and it would, therefore, be an historical mistake of immense consequences, possibly close to a disaster, if they were to begin to move away from one another at the political level in any major way.

What needs to be done in this situation?

I believe that the first requisite, above all else, is a quest for better knowledge of each other, better mutual understanding and a greater capacity for empathy with one another's positions and one another's dilemmas.

Europe should perhaps remind itself, more than it has before, that the two greatest wars in the world's history to date grew on its soil from conflicts between European countries; and, that on both occasions it was the United States - which had no part in the outbreak of those conflicts - that eventually made the decisive contribution to the victory of the forces of freedom and justice. And more than that: Who knows whether Western Europe would have been able to hold its ground during the Cold War and withstand the Stalinist, or the Soviet or the Communist, expansion if it had not been backed by the immense potential of strength brought in by the United States, among other things within NATO? And it was, again, the United States that acted as a driving force in the solution - though apparently belated and imperfect - of certain European conflicts that emerged after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Would Europe have been able to resolve them on its own? I am not certain. Looking back at all we have been through during the twentieth century, and witnessing all that is happening today - with the United States being inevitably involved in some way or to some extent - Europeans should be more conscious of the roots and the type of the American responsibility and, if necessary, show a certain amount of understanding for the occasional insensitivity, clumsiness or self?importance that may come with this responsibility. I would even go so far as to profess my feeling that every European who blames the United States for the manner of subjugation of the world's economy by its global corporations should realize that it was Europe that gave birth to the entire culture of profit and economic expansion and laid this culture in America's cradle. It is not very wise to blame our own mirror. Actually, is this not an inadmissible ethnic interpretation of the problem? It is no accident that the large corporations are called "supranational"!

On the other hand, America should realize not only the fact that it owes a substantial part of its greatness and strength to the European roots of its civilization. First and foremost, it should be aware that it might still need Europe very badly indeed. It is not so difficult to imagine that other powers, equally advanced as today's USA, might emerge on various continents of our planet ten or twenty years from now and that a close cultural, political and security link with half a billion Europeans might prove to be very useful for the United States, even if merely for the purpose of maintaining balance. Perhaps all those complicated debates with that fussing gaggle that Europe may occasionally resemble in the eyes of the Americans have meaning after all and are worth pursuing again and again. Where but on European soil, for that matter, can America find a spiritually closer ally or partner in the future?

Remark four: Six months ago, at a NATO?Russia meeting in Italy, we subscribed to the validity of a new, firmer institutional relationship between these two important entities. I will be very keen to hear how this new partnership works, the results it brings and how it helps to promote cooperation in the fight against terrorism and other contemporary dangers threatening both of these cooperating bodies.

Nevertheless, I should like to restate that which I pointed out in Rome already: this firm link between NATO and Russia should by no means create the impression that the wealthier northern hemisphere is forging some kind of a special bond at the expense of the poorer South, or of other continents in general. We are entering into an era of a multipolar world whose political and security order should emanate from a principle of equality of the various spheres of culture and civilization, various religious worlds, various regional organizations and various continents. In addition to building good relations with Russia, we should, to my mind, proceed immediately - before it is too late - with a view to establishing and defining NATO's relations with other crucial entities of today's world, be they States or regional groupings of nations.

I often stress that NATO represents an alliance designed to defend certain values, usually understood to mean democratic political order, human rights, the rule of law, market economy, freedom of expression, etc. This is clearly true. Nevertheless, I would recommend that we sometimes use a subtler language and speak not of values, but of a certain perception - in our case a Western perception - of human values that are universal. If we limit ourselves to the terse statement that we represent and protect certain values it may ? though obviously unintentionally ? create the impression that we may see others as those who profess or defend only some quasi-values. I do not think that humankind has fared very well on those occasions when some claim that they are the only guardians of truth and the sole worshippers of true deities, thus suggesting that they are somehow superior to those barbarians, pagans, misguided creatures or savages who constitute the rest of the population. On the contrary, the most savage acts of all have often been committed in fights against savages in the name of a 'one and only' truth.

Needless to say, this type of understanding for other people, other cultures and other traditions, and of an effort to refrain from looking down at them and to build networks of relations on an equal footing instead, does not mean that we should have to detract in any way from our own standards or to conceal our conviction for the sake of an auspicious climate. On the contrary: genuine friendships cannot be based on a lie; they can thrive only on the life-giving soil of openness to one another.

Let me give you two small examples: I can hardly imagine how someone could combat global terrorism together with the Russians without stating an opinion about their war against the people of Chechnya; or, how someone could join forces with the People's Republic of China in fighting for the right of peoples to autonomy without mentioning its policies in Tibet.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me to conclude with my fifth remark.

Extensive debates are now under way on the subject of whether a general threat can be resisted preventively at its very inception, before growing into a general disaster, even if it were to be done at the cost of violation of State sovereignty; or, whether such prevention should be inadmissible as a matter of principle. From NATO's point of view, this means a debate on whether intervention is possible beyond the purview of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.

This is a very tricky issue indeed, and it is probably necessary to ask and to look for an answer again and again on each particular occasion. There is no universal answer that would be applicable to every imaginable situation and whoever might try to offer one would be moving on extremely precarious terrain.

I have usually leaned toward the opinion that evil should be combated rather in its germinal stages than in its expanded forms, and also toward the belief that human life, human freedom and human dignity represent higher values than State sovereignty. This leaning, perhaps, gives me the right to raise this serious and complex issue.

In my lifetime, my country experienced two situations whose consequences turned out to be far-reaching, deep and long-lasting. The first of them was the Munich capitulation when two principal European democracies, supposedly in the interest of peace, yielded to Hitler's pressure and allowed him to dismember the then Czechoslovakia. They did not save any peace at all. On the contrary: Hitler took their conduct in Munich as the final indication that he was free to unleash a bloody European war, and eventually a world war. I believe that the greater part of my fellow citizens join me in perceiving the Munich experience as evidence in favor of the belief that evil should be resisted as soon as it is born.

We have also had another experience : the occupation by the Warsaw Pact States in 1968. At that time the entire nation reiterated the word 'sovereignty', cursing the official Soviet interpretation that the intervention was an act of 'brotherly help' offered in the name of a value that ranked higher than national sovereignty ? in the name of socialism that was allegedly endangered in our country, which allegedly meant a danger to the prospects for a better life for the human race. Almost everyone in our country knew that the sole objective was to preserve Soviet domination and economic exploitation but millions of people in the Soviet Union probably believed that the sovereignty of our State was being suppressed in the name of a higher human value.

This second experience makes me very cautious. It seems to me that whenever we think of intervening against a State in the name of protection of human life we should always ask ourselves - even if only for a moment, or in our innermost thoughts - the question of whether this would not be some kind of a 'brotherly help' again.

Three years ago I saw hundreds of thousands of villagers in Kosovo returning to the homes from which they had been expelled. I know of no other instance in modern history when almost a million people would have returned no more than half a year after they were driven out. Those villagers thanked me then ? as a very fresh representative of a NATO member State - with tears in their eyes for the intervention against Milosevic's criminal regime. Once again, I realized that the earnest and responsible debates conducted within the Alliance on whether or not to intervene resulted in the right decision at that time.

But it does not automatically have to be so every time. It is always necessary to weigh on the finest scales whether an envisaged action would really be an act helping people against a criminal regime and protecting humankind against its weapons, or whether, by any chance, it would not be another variation of 'brotherly help', though more sophisticated than the Soviet version back in 1968.

We can never lie our way out of responsibility for the decisions we have made. No matter whether they have been right or wrong, we shall always be accountable - to our fellow citizens, as well as to history. But there is one thing that we can do and that we should do. Before making a decision, we should always subject the matter to the most serious debate on all possible alternatives and all their conceivable consequences and listen most attentively to those whose views are least close to our own.

Dear friends,

I thank you for your attention and wish you success in your deliberations!