Alexandr Vondra, Czech Defence Minister, together with Václav Havel. © Reuters

When Václav Havel passed away last December, the flags at the NATO Headquarters were flown at half-mast. NATO Review remembers his eventful life and key contribution to the Alliance.

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The 20th century served up many paradoxes. Václav Havel was at the heart of several of them.

Here was "an unimportant conscript private", as he once labelled himself, who became the supreme commander of his country's armed forces and was celebrated as a major proponent of NATO post Cold War.

Here was a person who was denied promotion because of his political beliefs. Yet here was also a person who hated disputes and embraced harmony and agreement.

But it would wrong to consider Václav Havel a pacifist. In the 1980s, various Western pacifist movements reached out behind the Iron Curtain to gain support for their petition against the deployment of NATO's Pershing II missiles. To their surprise, many dissidents, including Václav Havel, refused to sign.

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Havel later explained why in his essay The Anatomy of Reticence (1985). "The danger of war is not caused by weapons as such but by political realities," he wrote. Disarmament deals only with consequences and not causes.

And it was the causes that he felt most strongly about. "Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens," Havel argued, "there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and their state, there can be no guarantee of external peace." This was the essence of his philosophy that he later projected into his views and foreign policy.

Havel’s dream was to be the master of ceremonies at the Warsaw Pact funeral

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The difference between Havel and pacifists is best illustrated in their views on Iraq and the Balkans. Both agreed on the need for Western intervention in the Balkans. Yet human rights activists did not back the interventions in Iraq, while Havel did so twice.

In 1990, he insisted that the Czechoslovak armed forces join the US-led coalition, despite a poor legislative framework and no experience in such operations. From the very beginning, he was convinced that the West needed to act when it came to the first war in the Balkans or later during the Kosovo crisis.

He did not hesitate to quarrel with Jacques Chirac over the second war in Iraq, and did so vocally and against the will of the Czech government as well as the majority of Europe. Václav Havel believed that human rights and dignity are superior to any state sovereignty.

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In the early 1990s, right after the fall of communism, Václav Havel wanted to quickly re-establish Czechoslovakia's independence with a fast withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country. He set up a special team led by the foreign minister Jiří Dienstbier and his deputy Luboš Dobrovský. Another friend of Havel's, rock musician Michael Kocáb, headed the parliamentary commission overseeing the withdrawal of troops.

Meanwhile, Havel's team coordinated negotiations on a speedy dissolution of the Warsaw Pact with Warsaw and Budapest. Havel's dream was to be the master of ceremonies at the Warsaw Pact funeral.

During this period, Havel's view on NATO evolved. He would often ask whether the Alliance would have any purpose once the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist. But he soon concluded that NATO had its place in Europe after the Cold War and that it should open up to new members.

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There were several reasons that contributed to this change in Havel's thinking. Havel's positive attitude towards the United States – as the key country in NATO – played a role. Havel would often speak about his trip to the United States in 1968 and was grateful for America's role in defending the freedom in Europe and worldwide. In 1991, during his visit to NATO, he apologised to the Western democracies for the lies and communist propaganda of the previous 40 years.

Also the events of 1991 showed that there would be no end of history. A definite sobering arrived in the war in Yugoslavia, and Europe was clueless about the situation.

On the 1st of July, 1991, Havel presided over the funeral of the Warsaw Pact Treaty in Prague. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, fearful of domestic developments, decided not to attend the signing ceremony of the Pact's dissolution. He sent his deputy Gennady Yanayev, who toured the hallways of the Prague Castle unsteadily. To our surprise, several weeks later, Yanayev staged a coup against Gorbachev in Moscow. It was the final drop in our contemplation on NATO's relevance, and we were resolved to seek the full NATO membership.

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A new era on our way to NATO membership began in 1993 when US President Bill Clinton took the office. If we were to succeed, it was critical to secure the US. At that time, there were only a few Americans who favoured the enlargement of NATO, among them Ron Asmus and Paul Wolfowitz.

Two special moments drew Bill Clinton's attention to NATO enlargement; a personal one and a political one.

In April 1993, the dedication ceremonies of the Holocaust Museum in Washington took place against the backdrop of the siege of Sarajevo. Clinton invited several holocaust survivors to this ceremony, including Elie Wiesel, as well as the presidents from Central European countries. Clinton was moved by the testimonies of the holocaust survivors. He saw a direct link between World War 2 and the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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On top of that, Presidents Václav Havel and Lech Waƚȩsa urged Bill Clinton that NATO needed to enlarge so that there are no more wars in Central Europe - which helped cause the horrific killing.

As Bill Clinton arrived late to the ceremony, our appeal to him on NATO enlargement grew in intensity. This may have been due to involuntary tobacco abstinence (at the newly non-smoking premises of the White House). Havel and Waƚȩsa presented their requests in less than diplomatic language. It was the time we finally drew Clinton's attention.

Still, having Bill Clinton on our side was not enough. Václav Havel's strength in difficult debates played a role in winning over Republicans too (who won Congress in 1994). He would outline the moral arguments and historic reminiscence of 1956 and 1968. The personal story mattered, and Havel helped convince many hardline realpolitikers, including Henry Kissinger.

The breaking point came in 1995. The Clinton administration tabled a compromise solution on NATO membership in the form of a Partnership for Peace (PfP). Initially, PfP felt like kissing through a handkerchief.

Truly convinced of indivisibility of freedom, he argued that the openness of the Alliance towards new European democracies was a key part of redefining itself

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Bill Clinton sent three of his high level diplomats with roots in Central Europe (Madeleine Albright, John Shalikashvili and Charles Gati) to talk us into PfP. Clinton wanted to make sure that he would be met with enthusiasm during his upcoming visit to Prague. Yet the negotiation that preceded the visit was hard.

In the end, we were ready to feign our excitement with PfP in exchange for President Clinton's public announcement that PfP was a precursor to a full NATO membership. We would soon be kissing without that handkerchief.

In March 1999, a week into our accession, NATO began the bombing of Yugoslavia.

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To Czech Ambassador Kovanda, the war in Kosovo was a baptism of fire. Against the will of the majority of the Czech politicians, Kovanda pushed through our support to the air campaign. At that time, President Havel was the only Czech politician who stood firmly behind the ambassador and did not back off. Kovanda thought that Prague deserved a better image and came up with the idea of organising the next NATO summit in the Czech capital.

Meanwhile, Havel continued to advance NATO's open door policy. Truly convinced of indivisibility of freedom, he argued that the openness of the Alliance towards new European democracies was a key part of redefining itself. The open door policy was to be fulfilled with concrete invitations to new members at the next NATO summit.

In Prague, seven countries from Central and Eastern Europe who did not or could not join in the first enlargement wave were invited to join the Alliance.

The Prague Summit was, in a way, was a homage to Havel's role in transforming the post-cold war Europe and a capstone of his long years in the presidency. A neon heart, a symbol and logo of Václav Havel shone above the Prague Castle. Inside the castle, Havel's second presidential term was coming to an end. Yet before leaving office in early 2003, Václav Havel, a man of the sixties, a "hippie," did not hesitate to support George Bush in his decision to remove Saddam Hussein.

Václav Havel knew that a strong NATO requires a strong commitment on both sides of the Atlantic. He also knew that the transatlantic partnership would be tested permanently.

He viewed NATO as something more than just a military organisation that provided extra security guarantees to its members. For him, NATO represented an alliance whose goal is to defend the shared values, moral principles, culture and civilization through solidarity and strong political commitment.

This is a legacy we should carry on today and one that should be remembered at the Chicago Summit. President Havel will be remembered as a visionary and a committed Atlanticist. I was proud to serve under him.