Madeleine Albright’s Remarks: The Legacy of Vaclav Havel and the Future of Democracy

Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Washington, DC

Thank you, Carl Gershman, for those remarks, and my thanks to you and the National Endowment for Democracy for organizing this conference and for doing so much to uphold the legacy of Vaclav Havel.

I am delighted to be able to participate in today’s sessions alongside so many dear friends, including Michael Zantovsky – who wrote the definitive biography of Havel, and played a key role in his transformation from intellectual-troublemaker to intellectual-troublemaking statesman.

 Along with so many in this audience, I benefited immensely from both Havel’s intellect and his troublemaking. And while his accomplishments as a statesman made him a hero to me, what I valued most was the precious friendship he and I shared.

We held countless formal meetings in Prague and Washington, but I remember Havel most vividly in casual settings, when he felt free to talk about whatever was on his mind – from music and theater to the frustrations of politics and the mysteries of the universe.

As we approach what would have been his 80th birthday, there have been many fitting tributes to his work and legacy.

I recently received, for example, a small bell from Bill and Wendy Leurs.

The bell was sent to them by the Charta 77 foundation as part of an effort to raise awareness of his birthday, and to raise money for a larger one that they plan to install in the Church of St. Havel in Prague.

I was asked to sign a book that went along with the bell, to take a picture with it, and to get others to do the same. 

Well it happened that the bell’s arrival coincided with the official visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Washington, and I was scheduled to see her. 

Naturally, I decided to bring the bell with me – which made for a rather noisy entrance.

I’m not sure what exactly Daw Suu thought was happening, but once I said the name “Havel” she was more than happy to sign the book, and pose for a selfie.

Bells aside, it was fitting for me to have an opportunity to talk to her about Vaclav Havel, for it was because of him that she and I first formed a connection.

This was in 1992, after she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, for which Havel had nominated her.

I was approached by her late husband, Michael Aris, who asked if I could arrange for Havel to draft a short introduction to a volume of his wife’s writings. 

Although the request did not have much to do with his day job as President of Czechoslovakia, Havel was pleased to do it – because of how much he admired her, and because of the sense of obligation he felt toward men and women on every continent who still struggled for recognition of their most basic rights.

This obligation, in my mind, is central to our discussion today about Havel’s legacy and the future of democracy.

For even though he was very much a product of his country’s culture and history, what distinguished Havel was that he thought, spoke, and acted on behalf of principles that will always matter everywhere.

To further illustrate what I mean, let me share another story.

Not long after he became president, Havel traveled to Washington where he was scheduled to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress.

I had the honor of helping him prepare.

Because he had little experience in public speaking and had developed the habit in prison of avoiding eye contact, we brought in an expert to coach him on his delivery.

Even though we had the speech translated to English, Havel insisted on delivering it in Czech. And while Michael Žantovský provided an animated English interpretation, Havel’s delivery was still poor.

It did not matter one bit.

Havel may not have been the smoothest of orators, but he was authentic – and also surprising.

The world had expected him to denounce the Soviet leaders who had long oppressed his country; instead, he requested help for the Russian people in making their own transition to democracy.

Instead of treating the Cold War’s end as a climactic victory; he emphasized the challenge that lay ahead – to create a world shaped by moral responsibility.

Instead of focusing on ideology or politics, he stressed the obligations we each have to one another.

Narrow interests of all kinds, insisted Havel, must give way to universal principles and concerns.

It was a very idealistic speech, not the sort that most national leaders would give.

But we know that Havel’s conception of leadership differed from that of most presidents and prime ministers. 

He had no interest in the kind of political rhetoric that divides people into one camp or another, or that exploits anger, resentment and fear.

He worried that the defeat of Communism would prompt democratic peoples to conclude that their work was done and that, in the future, they could always expect to enjoy the upper hand in battling evil; but complacency was not in Havel’s dictionary.

He celebrated his country at its best, but without falling into the trap of chauvinism. 

He argued to domestic and foreign audiences alike that, despite all the external foes we might face, our most dangerous enemy is our propensity toward selfishness and indifference to others.

The logical corollary to this argument was his relentless advocacy on behalf of civil and political rights for all people.

Whether the specific challenge was posed by apartheid, as in South Africa; or ethnic cleansing, as in the Balkans; or genocide, as in Rwanda and Sudan; or political repression in Cuba or China, Havel never hesitated to raise his voice on behalf of justice.

This was true in the days of Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution, it was true when he served as President, and it was true in the final weeks and months of his life.  

I remember vividly the conversations I had with him during that last year.  He was encouraged by Arab democracy movements and by the promising developments in Burma.

In October 2011, he signed the Budapest Appeal, which reminded every country in Europe of its obligations to observe democratic norms.

His last public statements were in support of prisoners of conscience in Belarus and of opposition protests in Moscow where, on the day of his funeral, 80,000 demonstrators observed a moment of silence to mark his passing.

It is natural to wonder what Havel would have made of the events that have transpired in the five years since his passing. I know I often do.

Clearly, he would have been frustrated by the world’s inability to stop the slaughter in Syria, and he would have been deeply troubled by the response of his own country and many of its neighbors in Europe to the refugee crisis.

I believe he would have been concerned about the rise of populism globally, while worrying about how European unity has been undermined by forces both external and internal. And I am sure he would have been just as perplexed as all of us by Donald Trump.

So he would have felt frustrations, to be sure, but I am equally certain that Vaclav Havel would not have allowed those frustrations to harden into despair. And neither can we.

Yet as we gather here to discuss the future of democracy, there is no question that it is undergoing a new and rigorous round of tests.

The combination of new technology and social media has empowered citizens everywhere to voice their views with a breadth, immediacy, and volume never before possible.

This matters because of the widely held perception that democratically-elected leaders are failing to create jobs, reduce debt, and end conflict.

For their part, presidents and prime ministers often find that their responsibilities exceed their power, and that they are unable to satisfy their constituents’ hunger for instant solutions.

Along the way, democracy’s enemies have become increasingly bold and outspoken.  

They are turning to sophisticated new tools to undermine confidence in our institutions – including hacking, disinformation campaigns, and online trolling.

We are in the middle of an information war, and democracy’s friends are both unarmed and ill-prepared.

That’s in part because, in the twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, we grew too complacent and too confident that the democratic tide would rise simply because history was on our side.

We underestimated the tenacity of our opponents, and we did not pay enough attention to the admonitions of Vaclav Havel, who urged us in that speech to Congress to treat the Cold War’s end not as the conclusion of a bitter struggle but as the beginning of a new and even greater challenge.

If Vaclav Havel were here today, I am sure he would say that it is not too late for us to regain the upper hand.

Because throughout his life, he bore witness to the rationalizations we often employ to avoid meeting our responsibilities, whether civic or moral.

Like Nelson Mandela and Aung Sang Suu Kyi, he forgave his jailers and was charitable toward those who fell short in the test of courage.

But he also assured us over and over again that we could do better.

Whether he was reminding his own countrymen of their best traditions, or rousing the slumbering conscience of the world, he never wavered in his commitment to personal liberty, respect for human rights, and the defense of liberal democracy. 

The best way for us to honor his legacy would be to renew our own commitment to these principles, and to demand even more of ourselves in defending them around the world.

A few months before his death, many of us gathered in Prague to celebrate Havel’s 75th birthday. 

My gift to him was a compass that had been used by American soldiers in World War I, the conflict that led to Czechoslovakia’s founding.

In my note, I cited the irony of giving a compass to someone who had served as the North Star for a generation.

But five years after his death, Havel’s star still shines bright.  And his legacy still lights the way for all of freedom’s friends.

That is why it is so appropriate that as we reflect on his life today, we are also set to discuss how to carry on the work that Havel so nobly advanced.

So let me thank the National Endowment for Democracy once again for bringing us together for this discussion, and for supporting so many of the causes that Vaclav Havel held dear.

Thank you very much.