Commentary Magazine


Topic: first head

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.

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.

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Obama’s India Blunder

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House next week, Obama and his administration would do well to employ their much-practiced skills at making nice. New Delhi rightly fears outside meddling after this week’s U.S.-China Joint Statement, which contained a sentence widely interpreted as an affront to India:

The two sides [China and the United States] welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.

The Joint Statement’s timing was particularly bad considering the recent India-China border dilemma. Both countries have reportedly increased troop presence near the blurry border, and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Indian territory that is still claimed by China did little to improve the relationship. China has emphasized that its “more pronounced” territorial issue is its border dispute with India. So New Delhi has good reason to be nervous about Chinese prying at Washington’s behest.

A spokesman from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly commented on the Joint Statement, stating that “a third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary” regarding India-Pakistan relations.

Already, both China and the United States are trying to downplay the significance of the Joint Statement reference.

China’s Foreign Ministry denied that a discussion took place between Obama and Chinese heads of state about U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and its statement emphasized Beijing’s support of regional stability. The spokesperson added that China “values its friendly cooperation with” India and Pakistan and “hopes to see relations between the two continue … improve and grow.”

But India can hardly be blamed for frustration at the Obama administration’s mixed message. Yesterday, Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the United States welcomes China’s participation in stabilizing the India-Pakistan region. But he also added, “We have always said, in terms of Indo-Pakistan relations, that’s really up to India and Pakistan to decide how and when and the scope of that.” Also yesterday, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, declared that better relations with China do not necessarily come at the cost of India.

One can only hope that the ill-considered phrasing of the Joint Statement won’t hinder next week’s discussions. No doubt Obama will want Prime Minister Singh’s support on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention climate change. That Singh is the first head of state to visit the Obama White House in itself highlights the importance of Indian cooperation. If the mix-up is merely linguistic, it can be overcome. But if the lack of clarity lies within Obama’s foreign policy itself, expect a rocky summit. Obama’s diplomacy and eloquence will be tested as he attempts to please both India and China.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits the White House next week, Obama and his administration would do well to employ their much-practiced skills at making nice. New Delhi rightly fears outside meddling after this week’s U.S.-China Joint Statement, which contained a sentence widely interpreted as an affront to India:

The two sides [China and the United States] welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight terrorism, maintain domestic stability and achieve sustainable economic and social development, and support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan. The two sides are ready to strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development in that region.

The Joint Statement’s timing was particularly bad considering the recent India-China border dilemma. Both countries have reportedly increased troop presence near the blurry border, and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Indian territory that is still claimed by China did little to improve the relationship. China has emphasized that its “more pronounced” territorial issue is its border dispute with India. So New Delhi has good reason to be nervous about Chinese prying at Washington’s behest.

A spokesman from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs quickly commented on the Joint Statement, stating that “a third country role cannot be envisaged nor is it necessary” regarding India-Pakistan relations.

Already, both China and the United States are trying to downplay the significance of the Joint Statement reference.

China’s Foreign Ministry denied that a discussion took place between Obama and Chinese heads of state about U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and its statement emphasized Beijing’s support of regional stability. The spokesperson added that China “values its friendly cooperation with” India and Pakistan and “hopes to see relations between the two continue … improve and grow.”

But India can hardly be blamed for frustration at the Obama administration’s mixed message. Yesterday, Robert Blake, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said the United States welcomes China’s participation in stabilizing the India-Pakistan region. But he also added, “We have always said, in terms of Indo-Pakistan relations, that’s really up to India and Pakistan to decide how and when and the scope of that.” Also yesterday, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, declared that better relations with China do not necessarily come at the cost of India.

One can only hope that the ill-considered phrasing of the Joint Statement won’t hinder next week’s discussions. No doubt Obama will want Prime Minister Singh’s support on nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention climate change. That Singh is the first head of state to visit the Obama White House in itself highlights the importance of Indian cooperation. If the mix-up is merely linguistic, it can be overcome. But if the lack of clarity lies within Obama’s foreign policy itself, expect a rocky summit. Obama’s diplomacy and eloquence will be tested as he attempts to please both India and China.

Read Less