Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Havel Unplugged

Vaclav Havel, in a intriguing interview, explains why “small compromises” on human rights have a dangerously cumulative effect:

We know this from our modern history. When [French Prime Minister Edouard] Daladier returned from the [1938] Munich conference, the whole nation was applauding him for saving the peace. He made a miniscule compromise in the interest of peace. But it was the beginning of a chain of evil that subsequently brought about many millions of deaths. We can’t just say, “This is just a small compromise that can be overlooked. First we will go to China and then perhaps talk with the Dalai Lama.” It all looks practical, pragmatic, logical, but it is necessary to think about whether it is not the first small compromise that can be the beginning of that long chain that is no good. In this case perhaps it will not be, but it was the first thing that came to my mind.

Havel then shares an anecdote that comes at a timely juncture. At West Point and again in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama waxed lyrical about human rights. But in practice he has consistently shoved human rights off his agenda, going as far as defunding Iranian democracy protesters and objecting to support for new media for Iranian dissidents. This as he engages despotic regimes without any sign of progress in their treatment of their own people. Havel argues, “Politics, it means, every day making some compromises, and to choose between one evil and another evil, and to decide which is bigger and which is smaller.” He recounts:

Two days after I was elected president, I invited the Dalai Lama to visit. I was the first head of the state who invited him in this way, directly. And everybody was saying that it was a terribly dangerous act and issued their disapproving statements and expressions. But it was a ritual matter. Later, the Chinese deputy prime minister and the foreign minister came for a visit and brought me a pile of books about the Dalai Lama and some governmental documents about what good care they have taken of Tibet, and so on. They were propagandist, fabricated books, but he felt the need to explain something to me.

I had a press conference with this minister of foreign affairs. And he said, “It was wonderful, meeting, because we were speaking openly. Mr. Havel gave me his opinion, and I explained the opinion of our government. I gave him this book, and he thanked me for it.”

This was unbelievable! Why did they feel the need to explain their point of view to the leader of such a small nation? Because they respect it when someone is standing his ground, when someone is not afraid of them. When someone soils his pants prematurely, then they do not respect you more for it.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. The question is an apt one for the Obami: what have they gained from pushing human rights off the agenda and what evidence do we have that this has produced benefits for America or for those living under the boot of thugocracies? It seems we might earn respect — restore America’s standing in the world, as the Obami like to say — by standing up to Iran, China, Russia, and the rest rather than saving pretty words for West Point cadets and Norwegian elites who are less in need of a lecture than the despots to whom Obama has strained to ingratiate himself.