20th Anniversary of Havel’s Speech in the U.S. Congress

Twenty years ago almost to the day, on February 21, 1990, the new president of then Czechoslovakia Václav Havel delivered a memorable address to the Joint Session of the U.S. Congress. It was an amazing time of change – the Soviet bloc was crumbling and the symbol of the East-West division, the Berlin Wall, fell only three months earlier. But it was also a time of great uncertainty when the outcomes of this sweeping change were still uncertain and the democratic transition that began in the region still feeble. Havel very well understood that building democracy is a long-term transformation. On a more philosophical level, he also appreciated that democracy can never really call itself complete but rather must always strive for improvements, just like human beings strive for but can never fully claim perfection. He said,

    “As long as people are people, democracy, in the full sense of the word, will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would the horizon in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained. (…) the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility.”

Today, Havel’s historic speech was commemorated at an event held in the U.S. Capitol, with remarks offered by several distinguished panelists including the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Ambassador of the Czech Republic Petr Kolář. They shared historical analysis, policy recommendations, and personal stories, including Madeleine Albright’s memories of helping to organize Mr. Havel’s visit to the U.S. and his Congressional appearance. She also discussed the complex nature of democratic transformation that Havel referred to in his speech.

“Democracy is much harder than it looks. It’s not an event, it’s a process,” she said. “Elections are necessary but not sufficient.” Indeed, she added that even the countries considered as success stories of transition are still missing some elements of the infrastructure of democracy that need to be worked on to provide better democratic accountability and inspire a sense of responsibility among citizens, since democracy cannot work without public participation. That is precisely the lesson that CIPE draws from its work in Central Europe and around the world, emphasizing that this necessary public participation must include public-private dialogue and building market institutions together with democratic institutions in order for democracy to deliver.