CZECHOSLOVAK SOCIETY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
The Perspective of a Small State
Ambassador Martin Palous,
Embassy of the Czech Republic, Washington, DC
(Presented at the Meeting of the Washington DC Chapter, May21, 2002)
In what ways are international affairs seen differently by small and large democratic nations? Obviously, such a question can be more difficult to answer in the post-September 11th context. We all see the common threat to the freedom of our. increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, and we all wish to cooperate in the cause of the struggle against international terrorism. At the same time, however, we should not forget that despite the common goals that lay ahead and the common values that make us all part of one civilization, small nations have their own heritage, their own experiences (both personal and with the surrounding world), their own questions and discussions, and their own perspectives. As an illuminating example of the species of small nations, I would like to introduce the case of my own country, the Czech Republic.
There are two sets of problems that should be articulated in the context of the Czech Republic. First, there is the question paraphrasing the efforts to understand a democratic society undertaken almost one hundred and eighty years ago here in the United States by Alexis de Tocqueville: What is democracy in Central Europe, and what is democracy in the Czech Republic? Modem Czechs and Americans share the same basic democratic values and ideas; but what are the differences, if any, between their political cultures, national identities, and political habits? And second, how do these factors influence the behavior of democracies in the international arena? American national interests are defined and formulated within the never-ending dialogue of their politicians, public intellectuals, journalists, pundits and experts of all kinds and colors, and we certainly follow their debates and eventual clashes over relevant issues very attentively. But what about our Central European climate of ideas? What about the national interests of small nations like the Czech Republic? We certainly can point to many things we have in common with America, but should we not try to better understand the sources, be they historical, cultural or political, of our eventual differences? And should we not do that -- not to weaken the transatlantic bond between Europe and America, but rather to strengthen our capacity for mutual understanding and cooperation?
Let me start with the first question. The modem Czech nation emerged in the second half of the eighteenth century, i.e., during the European equivalent
of history when the American "founding fathers" were pursuing their own cause on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Nonetheless, it is crucially important to realize that the story of Czech "national revival" was inspired and set in motion by ideas and aspirations that were quite far from the spirit of the American Revolution. In my view, it was Jan Patocka (after Masaryk, he was undoubtedly the most influential Czech philosopher and political thinker of the Twentieth Century), who outlined the still unsurpassed analysis of the origins of our modern national identity in his relatively short book (originally written in German as a series of letters to his German friend in the beginning of the 1970"s and published only after the Velvet Revolution), "Was sind die Tchechen" ("Who are the Czechs"). The center of Patocka"s efforts to offer his reader "a concise overview of I~acts and an attempt at explanation" is the thesis that an insurmountable
gap in Czech history exists, separating its older, medieval phase (formed by the glorious deeds of mighty Czech kings, whose traces and reflections can still be seen in the beautiful architecture of Prague and other Central European historical cities and towns) from our presence (when historians desperately attempted to bridge this gap with the help of their conceptions of national history and corresponding historiographies); that the modern Czech nation was "reborn" overwhelmingly "from below" and that its is exactly this origin, one might even say our "genetic disposition," that constitutes our endemic political problem in the modern era: the Czech "smallness."
The principal source of Czech democracy and the factor decisively influencing Czech modern politics and political culture, from their origins in the late
eighteenth century and up to their present forms and habits, is, according to Patocka, the structure and composition of Czech society. Being "reborn from
below" means that for historical reasons, Czechs lacked the aristocratic element (which was largely present and active in the Polish or Hungarian stories of modernization and subsequent political emancipation); that among the dominant players decisively influencing the Czech political environment, one can rather find individuals from the middle or even lower strata of society to be modernized, i.e. awakened, enlightened and educated: teachers, writers and poets, journalists, priests, university professors and playwrights. Looking at how the whole process of reawakening began and contrasting what can be characterized as "Czech-style-modernization" with other, definitely more glorious and more visible forms of the similar process, Patocka had to say in his piece: "The Czechs are a nation of liberated servants. They did not liberate themselves. They did not carry out any great revolution such as that which brought the great American republic into existence. Nor did they experience anything similar to the French Revolution Rather, they were liberated by an act of emperor"
I-laving said that, however, Patocka at the same time admits that it is exactly the "rebirth" of Czechs "from below" that makes them -- as a modem political nation, formulating and pursuing its political program with the central aim of political emancipation -- naturally democratic. And he also admits that in comparison with others, the Czech achievements in the process of modernization were quite impressive. The main feature of the Czech national behavior was a patient but steady progress in the building of a civil society. Throughout the nineteenth century, this idea was captured by the term drobecova politika, which could be translated as "small aims, small gains," with the word "small" understood as a gradual and evolutionary development. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the Czech lands were a developed industrial society with a quite impressive educational system and an active associational life. Czech politicians traditionally had all sorts of complaints as far as the centralist policies of the government in Vienna, or the sometimes more and sometimes less oppressive strategies as far as the Austrian secret police were concerned, but among themselves they certainly got used to and were enjoying their own kind of "democracy."
The democratic spirit, which found undoubtedly strong roots in the modern Czech nation, precisely because of her "rebirth from below," had not only its advantages, but also its weaknesses. Czech smallness, as far as its aims and gains (Patocka emphasizes thar "smalness" here does not only describe the
lack of resources and the disadvantage that results from small numbers, but a kind of "quality," substantively influencing political behavior), is always threatened by its own tendency towards closed-ness, parochialism, opportunism, lack of confidence, and at the same time its permanent need for self-excuse and sel&defense. The spirit of "liberated servants" was not only wonderfully democratic, hut was also periodically troubled within the Czech national political life, generating controversies or even crises. As "smallness" represents an inherent feature of modern Czech polities, there always have been outstanding individuals, both politicians and political thinkers, who have desperately tried to open the windows to the outside world and invite a fresh breeze into the somewhat airless environment and generate alternatives. Czech smallness, Patocka states emphatically, required a dose of greatness or worldliness, if those who were born from below wanted to succeed and bring their project of national revival to completion. I have no space here to illustrate my point in detail, so I will end my sketchy characterization of Czech democracy here. The fact that many Czechs were reaching out from their small world throughout the nineteenth century, and particularly the fact that many of them moved to America, was for sure very helpful in making the Czech question more worldly. However, if I were to single out one person who devoted his entire life to shaking the modem Czechs out of their "shells," I would have to mention the name of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, a university professor who got involved in all of the major political debates of his time; a man who exhorted Czechs to think about
themselves, their politics, and their national identity in "worldly terms;" who spoke openly against the fabricated Czech mythologies and false self-illusions; who strongly defended the rights of women and struggled against anti- Semitism; who married an American and had strong personal, academic and political ties with the United States, and who, in the end, became the first president of the Czechoslovak State.
The significance of Masaryk"s contribution to the evolution of modern Czech democracy is indisputable, but the very fact that Masaryk was the first president of the independent Czechoslovak State gives us a good opportunity to move from the domestic to the international perspective. Thanks to him and to his understanding of both the significance and the revolutionary character of the "Great War" of 1914-1918, as well as to his "foreign action" during the war years, the generally accepted creed of generations of our politicians, according to which Czech "national interests" were best served within the Austrian Empire, was replaced by a clear and uncompromising drive for independence. The creation of the state of Czechoslovakia was perceived as the completion of the national emancipation process, as the definitive end of the so-called "dark ages" of enslavement under foreign rule, which had lasted for three hundred years. The role of the United States in this process was indisputable -- Masaryk worked closely with president Wilson during the war, and Wilson"s idealistic vision of the postwar world, which should have been "safe for democracy," heavily influenced the beliefs underlying the foreign policies of the emerging democratic Czechoslovak State. "The history of Europe since the eighteenth century, "wrote Masaryk in a seminal essay that precisely reflected the dominant and unambiguously optimistic spirit of the time, "proves that given their democratic freedom. small peoples can gain independence. The world war was the climax of the movement begun by the French revolution, a movement that liberated one oppressed nation after another And now there is a chance for a democratic Europe and for freedom and omnipotence of all nations." (New Europe). [he quoted text nicely demonstrates two things that later became the basis of the foreign political doctrine of Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. First, the Czechoslovak "founding father" was clearly aware of how much the success of the political body he had created depended on the international environment in which this body was to operate. Second, Masaryk spoke here as a staunch believer in the progress and the power of enlightened reason, as a disseminator of the dogma that might have been true in the "golden age" of
Europe in the nineteenth century -- in the history understood as the "movement begun by the French Revolution" -- that, however, turned out to be a sheer illusion in the coming twentieth century, in the era of totalitarianism and the "crisis of European civilization."
This short century, the age of extremes (to borrow the title from the famous book by Erich I-Iobsbawm), gave us and other Central European nations a harsh
lesson in political realism. Democracy in Czechoslovakia was defeated twice, first when the Masaryk state became a victim of aggression at the hands of
Nazi Germany, and then again when Stalin"s Soviet Union got the green light after World War II to gain influence in Central Europe and forcibly lead her nations on the path to building communism. Whereas the beginning of the Twentieth century was marked by Masaryk"s historical optimism as far as the future of his nation and the whole region was concerned, by 1984 Milan Kundera, in reaction to what had happened during its course, commented on Central Europe"s in the Twentieth Century as a "tragedy": "Central Europe, as" a family of small nations, has its own vision of the world, a vision of deep mistrust of history. . . history, that goddess of Hegel and Marx, that incarnation of reason that judges us and arbitrates our fate, that is the history of conquerors. The peoples of Central Europe are not conquerors They cannot be separated from European history They cannot exist outside of it. But they represent the wrong side of history. They are its victims and outsiders." (Tragedy of Central Europe)
Kundera"s epitaph itself had a strange fate, because at the moment that it was pronounced, Central Europe was preparing herself, with Poland"s Solidarnosez and Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 and other dissident initiatives, for her miraculous "resurrection." However Kundera did make a very good point " did the small Central European nations have a chance to decide about or at least to influence their own situation when confronted with greater political powers, momentarily shaping not only the political map of the whole continent, but seemingly dictating the course of human history? Could they escape, or at least partially change their lot if they had behaved differently when they found themselves on various political crossroads? Or rather, was it the lack of political realism, an evident shortcoming seriously weakening the otherwise strong political vision of Masaryk (which, by the way, was shared by the presiding President of the United States)? Was it, on the contrary, too much of the opportunism and parochial indecisiveness inherent in the endemic Czech "smallness" that Masaryk had struggled with, that must be identified as the main reason for our past political failures and fallacies? What lessons are Czechs advised to draw for their future political behavior and decision-making, based on the Munich treason of 1938, the Communist coup d"etat in 1948, or the failed Prague Spring of 1968?
The collapse of communism in 1989, the annus mirabilis, ended the short twentieth century and offered Czechs and other Central Europeans the chance to try again. For almost 13 years now, we have been busy not only with our transition from socialism, our building of a democracy and a free market economy, but also with our participation in the formation of a new political architecture. What we sue when we look back and judge our achievements and shortcomings is perhaps a bumpy road, yet nonetheless, optimism can still prevail in our post-communist world. In spite of all the difficulties (even in spite of such enormous tragedies that have come to pass, such as in the former Yugoslavia), one simply cannot deny that things are really changing for the better. The Czech Republic, together with Hungary and Poland, are, since 1999, new members of NATO - there is even a realistic chance that in the fall of this year, the Prague NATO summit will invite another seven countries to join. The European Union will also be enlarged in the foreseeable future, and thus we can expect that though we once found ourselves on the wrong side of the barricade in the division of Europe, that too will soon be over. The shadows of the past are simply fading away, and the new threats that the free world is confronted with in the beginning of the 21st century - threats which have become especially visible after the enormous tragedy of September II of last year " do not seem to open a new gap or do not seem to build a new wall to again separate us from our natural
partners, from those with whom we share the same values of civilization.
Having said that, however, I would conclude anyway that we should not
forget our unique history, we should not stop asking questions as to why we failed
to protect our interests and to defend our freedom in the last century. On the contrary, we should remain open and vigilant as far as our past is concerned, we should be aware of the fragility and vulnerability of our region, and we should prepare to carry the burden of common responsibility. We will never escape the smallness factor, certainly it could once again become our weakness, the proverbial Achilles heel of Central Europe. But it oes not need to be so -- if used properly and creatively, our smallness may become a smart weapon contributing significantly to the struggle otherwise dominated by greater players, the struggle against the unprecedented evil which in the dawn of a new era assailed not only the United States, but the whole of civilized humanity.
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