CZECH, PLEASE:

Havel, his memories and the world (Judy Dempsey, October 22, 2004, International Herald Tribune)

In his dissident years, he cherished the vision of the Czechs joining a united Europe. The country joined the European Union on May 1; there is more than a tinge of disappointment over the EU’s ability to set out its priorities.

“The problem is that we don’t think very much about Europe’s identity,” said Havel. “We worry about the bureaucratic rules, about endless regulations and economic issues. But we debate very little about the issue of identity, about the spiritual heritage of Europe and the relationship with the rest of the world.” He paused. “I, for one, do not share the emotional anti-Americanism that is very current these days in Europe. That does not mean I cannot be critical of some aspects of American policy.”

The bells from the church of St. Nicholas rang out. It was noon.

“I think the Europeans should define its relationship not just towards America but towards Russia and other parts of the world,” said Havel.

“Historically, Europeans played a role as an exporter of ideas, as a conqueror and as exploiter. I think in these days Europe could serve as an inspiration for other parts of the world in order to counter the dangers of globalization.”

Asked how Europe might do this, Havel pondered. “I don’t understand why the most important deity is the increase of gross domestic product. It is not about GDP. It is about the quality of life, and that is something else.”

Havel admits he does not envy leaders, particularly President George W. Bush of the United States.

“I sometimes feel very sorry for President Bush, who is being criticized by everybody for his various decisions. If you make a decision to spend $200 billion on a war, while combating AIDS in Africa would perhaps need the same amount, how do you make that decision?” asked Havel.

He was warming to his other big issue: the United States. Never one to hold his tongue, Havel said that whoever wins the race to the White House next month should consider shifting his attitude.

“I think that the more powerful the U.S. is and the more responsibility it feels, rightfully, for the future of the world, the more careful and cautious it should be in exercising that power, because sometimes, inadvertently, Americans may act in ways that are seen as arrogant and bullying.

“I do understand that Americans are very proud of their freedom and independence and that throughout their history they escaped being occupied or dictated to by another country. I understand, too, that sometimes they are in no mood to listen to the United Nations, where many obscure countries have a say in the decision-making. But just the same, I think Americans should realize that somehow they should cope with the reality of international organizations.”

Still, Havel’s criticism of the United States was tempered by a kind of gratitude for what Washington did for Europe during the past century.

“You see in places where Americans helped the most, it is there where the most frequent expressions of anti-Americanism have occurred. There exists something like the phenomenon of the hatred by the saved towards the savior. We can see this very well in Europe, where twice in its recent history, the U.S. had to come in and save Europe, and again, in a nonmilitary way, during the cold war. Maybe this anti-Americanism in Europe is a part of this hatred of the saved towards its savior.”

In a 20th Century that produced rather too few heroes, Mr. Havel stands very near the top of the short list–along with Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, the Pope, Ronald Reagan, and Natan Sharansky.

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