In Search of Allies: Vaclav Havel and the Expansion of NATO

During the Czech Republic’s first year of existence, most Czechs felt that nothing much had happened. True, there was now a new country east of the Morava River, where they had previously gone to hike and ski without the need of a passport. But nothing had changed within the Czech lands, Bohemia, Moravia, and a stump of Silesia. They were still there, as they had been for a thousand years, a country of milk and honey, hardworking, peaceful people, known around the world for their skills, intelligence, and culture.

From the outside, the picture was slightly different. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia, there were suddenly a dozen new countries in the eastern half of Europe, an area of tumultuous changes, ethnic strife, and people killing each other in places with unpronounceable names. Czechoslovakia, yes, that rang a bell . . . although it was easy to confuse with Yugoslavia—no, that was Tito . . . Czechoslovakia was the country with great beer, a world-class ice-hockey team, the country of Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel. But this new country, one did not even know what to call it—Czechia, Czech Republic, Czechlands, or simply Czech? A letter sent to me in Washington was addressed to the “Republic of the Czech Embassy.” It was in part a question of branding.

It took some time and effort to put the country back on the map, but in its first president, Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic had perhaps its greatest asset. For proof of this, one only had to look across the border to see how much rougher the sailing was for Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar.

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Even so, a fledgling country of ten million people would have hardly been a foreign policy priority at a time when the Soviet empire had disintegrated into a number of much bigger and less orderly entities, and when the fighting in former Yugoslavia brought about the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. Havel rightly sensed, as he had when he first came to office as president of Czechoslovakia, in 1989, that the new country could play a meaningful international role only if it engaged with the acute problems of international politics and security in the name of values larger than narrow national interest.

In a March 7, 1993, speech at the unveiling of a monument to the founder of Czechoslovakia, Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, he quoted the first president: “We had been buried when we ceased to live the larger life.” And he left no doubt as to what was meant by these words in the present: “It is an appeal to realize that the immeasurable suffering of our fellow human beings in Bosnia and Herzegovina is of fundamental concern to us, that we must address it unequivocally and identify the main culprit, that we must accept our own share of responsibility for peace and justice in Europe, and that, should all other solutions fail, we must, within our capabilities, support even more forceful steps of the international community. As people who once became the victims of a shameful concession to a bully in Munich, we must know even better than others that there must not be concessions made to evil, even when it is not committed directly against us. Our indifference toward others can after all result in only one thing: the indifference of others toward us.”

This rather inconspicuous speech, on an anniversary occasion in the ancient Moravian town of Olomouc, contains perhaps the most comprehensive outline of the “Havel Doctrine” of humanitarian intervention. It is striking in its simplicity. It emphasizes the shared responsibility of people to stand up to evil wherever and whenever it is being committed, and the unacceptable nature of appeasement, inaction, or indifference in the face of evil. It is cognate to the maxim attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” The historic reference in Havel’s case was to the Munich Pact, as the immediate precursor to World War II. This is the doctrine that Havel invoked for Kuwait, the former Yugoslavia, and that he would invoke in the future, more controversially, for Kosovo and Iraq. Its weakness lies in the question of who determines what is evil. Not everybody could be trusted with the definition as well as Havel, who had been well aware of the dangers when he wrote, in his 2007 memoir To the Castle and Back: “Defending human beings is a higher responsibility than respecting the inviolability of a state. One must, however, constantly and carefully scrutinize such humanistic arguments to determine that it is not just a pretty facade concealing far less respectable interests.”


By the time Havel came to office as the first president of the Czech Republic, Czechoslovak troops had already been a part of Operation Desert Storm, the international coalition that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. Now the new nation offered its troops to assist in the international intervention in the former Yugoslavia, first with the UN-run UNPROFOR, and then with IFOR and SFOR under NATO command. On his first trip to the United States as Czech president, in April 1993, Havel spent much of his precious time with President Clinton arguing for US efforts to help stabilize the region as a whole and to open NATO’s door to new members. It would take some doing. Clinton had run his campaign against George H. W. Bush, the victor of the Gulf War, largely on a domestic agenda. There was little support in Congress for US involvement on the ground in Yugoslavia, which was seen as Europe’s backyard. The new administration also found it impossible to persuade its European allies of the wisdom of the “lift-and-strike” strategy, which would enable the Bosnian Muslims to hold their territory without the need for deployment of peacekeeping troops on the ground. Still, at a private dinner at Madeleine Albright’s house in Georgetown, following a White House reception where he had spoken one-on-one with Clinton, Havel went out of his way to persuade the reluctant American president that without the US participation in a peacekeeping, or even a peacemaking, international operation in former Yugoslavia, the bloodshed, atrocities, and ethnic cleansing would continue without end.

Events, sadly, proved him right. When the Bosnian Serbs overran the UN-declared protection zone in Srebrenica and massacred its male inhabitants, and when they bombed the marketplace in Sarajevo, the US initiated the NATO-led bombings of Serbian arms depots and other targets, in the end forcing the belligerents to come to the negotiating table in Dayton, Ohio, and sign an agreement under the watchful eye of the late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

The case of the former Yugoslavia illustrates well the potential and the limitations of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. It should be primarily an instrument to stop bloodshed, encourage the parties to find compromises through negotiations, and, when atrocities have been committed, to bring the culprits to justice. But it is a blunt instrument, not best equipped to solve protracted, often centuries-old conflicts. When the ultimate goal of such an intervention is nation building, it most often fails, and will be seen by one or more parties to the conflict as biased, hostile, or simply as an enemy to be confronted. Perhaps this intrinsic difficulty, rather than ulterior motives or criminal negligence, ought to be considered the main problem with the war in Iraq.

Havel’s staunch advocacy of interventions in former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and even more so his later open support for the effort to remove Saddam Hussein (rather than for the method of his removal), came at a price, tainting his idealized image as a saintly patron of nonviolence. But it is the image rather than the man that is at issue here: Havel, like Gandhi and Mandela, was advocating nonviolence not only as a matter of moral principle but as a weapon of political struggle. Havel would always give precedence to a peaceful and amicable way of conflict resolution, but he believed too strongly in the inadmissibility of appeasement when facing an evil to be a pacifist. Whether his perceived combativeness in these instances actually deprived him of the chance to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for which he was nominated several times, can only be a matter of speculation, but if true, it would be more of a commentary on the Nobel Peace Prize than on Havel.

Havel’s thinking on security in general went along similar lines. It is true that in the very beginning he was leaning, in keeping with the views of some of his friends, Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier foremost among them, toward a universalist, collective security concept; under this approach, with the end of the Cold War, its two huge military alliances, the Warsaw Pact and NATO, would be disbanded to make room for a new pan-European security arrangement that would build on the foundations of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (predecessor to the OSCE). Havel had expressed hopes, as he told the Polish Parliament in a January 1990 speech, of “belonging to Europe as a friendly family of independent nations and democratic states, a Europe that is stabilized, not divided into blocs and pacts, a Europe that does not need the protection of superpowers, because it is capable of defending itself and building its own security system.”

But the first two years of his presidency convinced him that thinking about the two camps in terms of symmetry had not only been wrong while the Cold War was still on, but was bound to be wrong for the foreseeable future. It was not only the Soviet Union but even post-Communist Russia that continued to express a different geopolitical view of the world and its current problems, as during the Gulf War, or the war in former Yugoslavia; moreover, it continued to be at the very least unhelpful when it came to problems in some of the post-Soviet states, like the Baltic countries, Moldova, or the Trans-Caucasus. The OSCE, in its attempts to address the crises in former Yugoslavia, in Transnistria, or in Nagorno-Karabakh, proved to be an ineffectual instrument of collective security. There was no residual common ideology, will, or trust in the Warsaw Pact to make it anything but a relic of the past or a potential threat for the future. NATO was thus the only effective organization left that could offer a genuine guarantee of a country’s security in a rapidly changing world.

Havel’s political aides were rapidly realizing this. They found willing if initially cautious interlocutors in some of their counterparts in the Bush administration, notably Robert Hutchings, the NSC director for Central and Eastern Europe, Paul Wolfowitz, the under secretary of defense for policy, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Wolfowitz’s deputy, who came to Prague with the first US delegation for political consultations on defense and security matters. (Whatever criticism may be leveled against Wolfowitz and Libby in their subsequent careers, they played an essential role in helping to stabilize post–Cold War Europe.) The encouragement of Senator Richard Lugar, a former and future Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, who visited the Castle in April 1991, strengthened the determination of Havel and his aides.

Soon after his election to the Czech presidency in January 1993, Havel started to pursue the question of the expansion of NATO. The first signs were not promising. The European member nations of NATO were busy drawing their peace dividend and could not be expected to take the lead on an issue that might aggravate the Russians. Although Clinton told me in an interview last year that he already contemplated the enlargement of NATO as a way to secure the gains for freedom and democracy in Central and Eastern Europe during his election campaign in 1992, his administration was initially wary. Their main argument was that in the absence of a clear security threat, an enlargement of NATO was not necessary, and might even be counterproductive. The State Department took the view that Russia should be an integral part of any new European security architecture. Even the faithful Madeleine Albright, then the permanent US representative to the UN, could not be initially prevailed upon to take up the cause lest she was seen as lobbying for her native region. (Clinton once teased Havel that the Czech Republic was the only country with two ambassadors in Washington.) In October 1993, NATO eventually adopted the Partnership for Peace, a confidence-building and limited-cooperation plan. At first, this was as far as the administration was willing to go.

Several things changed that picture. The war in former Yugoslavia was enough to focus the attention of the Clinton administration on the need to build viable and reliable security structures in post-Communist Europe. The wild excesses and occasional xenophobic outbursts of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia made it an unlikely candidate for a responsible role in guaranteeing European security. Some of the European members of NATO were becoming keenly aware that there would have to be a security solution for Central and Eastern Europe if destabilization and conflict were to be prevented. Manfred Wörner, the NATO secretary general, warmed to Havel already on his first visit to NATO’s Brussels headquarters in March 1991 (when Havel was still president of Czechoslovakia), and while bound to reflect the consensus of the NATO council, made his sympathies clear. Important thinkers in the US security and foreign policy establishment, in particular a group at the RAND Corporation, argued that NATO enlargement should not be threat-driven but rather part of a strategy of projecting stability and unifying Europe.

Bipartisan support of the US Congress was absolutely crucial for the success of the enlargement plan. Initially there were few congressmen willing to adopt the issue as their own. None of the potential candidates had enough clout in Washington to launch a major lobbying effort on the Hill or enough money to hire professionals to do it for them. It took little time for the Czech, Hungarian, and Polish envoys in DC to realize that they had to join forces and lobby as a group to have any chance of success. Now the Visegrad idea conceived by Havel in Bratislava and affirmed by the leaders of the three countries at a historic Hungarian castle on the banks of the Danube—where three kings, Jan Luxembourg of Bohemia, Hungarian Karel Robert, and Pole Kazimierz the Great, had met to forge an alliance in 1335—began to pay dividends. With the help of sizeable and politically active Czech, Hungarian, and the even more numerous Polish minorities in states on America’s Eastern seaboard and in the Midwest, along with Florida and Texas, the US legislators began to listen. Several bills, starting with the NATO Participation Act of 1994 and continuing with the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996, were successfully enacted into law.

Although Clinton had been originally hesitant, as a consummate politician he too saw the writing on the wall. In no small part, the impassioned appeals of Havel and Polish President Lech Walesa, in their meetings with him, both separately and together, in April 1993, made the American president “inclined to think positively toward expansion from that day on.” For Clinton, who has admitted to being influenced by Havel long before they met, the Czech president “embodied a personal plea” on his part to get things moving.

The balance of the argument gradually changed, with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, though opposed by some on his staff, becoming more forward-leaning than the State Department and the Pentagon. With increasing support for the enlargement on the Republican side, the administration did not want to be caught on the back foot. After the arrival of Richard Holbrooke as the assistant secretary for European affairs, in September 1994, the State Department came on board, too.

There was considerable headwind as well. Many in the administration saw the developments as an unwelcome distraction from domestic priorities, and conducted a covert but effective rearguard action against the new policy. A large part of the foreign policy establishment around the Council on Foreign Relations was worried about the impact of the enlargement on what they saw as the more important relationship with Russia. Thomas Friedman raged against the enlargement in the New York Times (and still does, twenty years later). It became clear that this was going to be an uphill struggle.

But Clinton had already made up his mind. He decided to announce the change of policy in a spectacular fashion during his trip to Europe for the NATO summit in January 1994. He sent Madeleine Albright and John Shalikashvili, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ahead on a whirlwind tour of Central and Eastern European capitals, to encourage and reassure the new democracies that would, for the time being, learn to cooperate with NATO and strive for military and political interoperability within the Partnership for Peace. And with some gentle lobbying, Clinton chose Prague, one of the most scenic backdrops in Europe, to declare that “now the question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members but when and how.”


Havel was naturally thrilled that the US president chose the Czech capital for the announcement and for a meeting with a larger group of Central and Eastern European leaders, notwithstanding the huge organizational and logistical challenges this posed for a country that was exactly one year old. While in November 1990, President Bush’s party numbered seven hundred souls, the Clinton delegation, in keeping with his stated goal of “reinventing the government,” weighed in at nine hundred, not to mention the delegations of the other countries. As always, however, Havel was looking to give an informal, human, and intellectual dimension to the trip. After conspiring with Madeleine Albright and me at the Little Blue Duck restaurant in Prague over an eponymous bird, he set his ambush on the night before the announcement.

The plan almost collapsed when Clinton’s ailing mother died just several days before the visit. The American advance team insisted, understandably, that all parts of the program that could be seen as frivolous were cancelled. Havel’s scenario for the visit, assembled with the same attention to detail as any of his plays, was up in the air, literally, as the presidential plane was approaching Prague. But there was a co-conspirator on board Air Force One to take up the host’s case. As the president was descending onto the tarmac, followed by his entourage, Havel’s eyes were as much on Clinton as on the US permanent representative to the UN, Madeleine Albright. When she gave the thumbs-up sign, Havel smiled. Clinton had relented and, out of respect for his Czech counterpart, had agreed to the original schedule with only minor cuts. After the official welcome and a round of talks, Havel showed Clinton his private study at the Castle, adorned with spectacular pieces of modern art, including two nudes. “Can you imagine what people would say if I had something like this in my office?” Clinton said, somewhat wistfully. (Little did he know.) The schedule then took the two presidents across the Charles Bridge to the notorious Prague pub where for years the king of Czech storytellers, Bohumil Hrabal, and his buddies had been spinning stories while putting countless pints away. Then they crossed Narodni Street to the Reduta jazz bar, whose name symbolized the great era of the small theaters in Prague in the 1960s, and among whose founders was Havel’s erstwhile guru, Ivan Vyskocil. A jazz group fronted by Jiri Stivin, a legendary Czech saxophonist, flutist, and improviser, was playing for the presidents. When they finished a set, Havel got up and unveiled his personal present for the visiting US president, a brand new, golden and Czech-made tenor saxophone, complete with his signature and a heart. Clinton knew instantly what was expected of him. After a few trial puffs he embarked with the band on an unrehearsed but respectable rendition of “My Funny Valentine.” Then he set his own ambush, inviting Havel to join him on percussion in “Summertime.” The latter gave a spirited if not nearly as accomplished effort. The evening almost ended in an incident when a car exhaust misfired loudly just as the US president was leaving the club. The secret service, fearing a more serious ambush, bundled Clinton unceremoniously into his armored limo and were off in seconds.


The struggle itself was far from over. Clinton’s declaration, vague in terms of a timeline, or the countries that would join NATO, was still only half a policy and half a rhetorical statement of intent. To make it reality, the other fifteen NATO member countries, their governments and parliaments, and last but certainly not least the US Congress, had to be persuaded. Among the European member countries, there was much hesitation, and even open reluctance. The Partnership of Peace was itself a compromise, which could be construed as a first step to enlargement by those who were inclined to support it, or as a holding station of undetermined duration by those who were not. The latter group represented a numerical majority, and included important member countries like France, which had for a long time been opposed to anything that might strengthen the alliance.

In the United States, the struggle continued unabated until shortly before the July 1997 NATO summit in Madrid, at which the Atlantic Alliance formally agreed to offer membership to the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. The administration and the aspiring countries faced a formidable coalition of “Russia firsters” and geopolitical realists, both of whom were unwilling to trade the chance of putting the relationship between the two Cold War adversaries on a new track for a militarily insignificant, politically risky, and economically costly enlargement by the impoverished and still fragile democracies of Central and Eastern Europe. The grand old man of American diplomacy, George Kennan, pronounced in the New York Times: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the post cold-war era.”

Havel took the fight to the opponents. He refused to think about NATO as guarding a piece of territory, but saw NATO primarily as a guarantor of values and principles comprising liberal democracy. Now that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe espoused the same values and principles, there was no reason why they should not be given a chance to share in the security benefits and responsibilities of the alliance. To deny them that chance would mean to artificially preserve a dividing line that had been erased by the end of the Cold War. It would not only be illogical, but unfair and immoral. It would grant a posthumous victory to those enemies of democracy who had started the Cold War in the first place.

Havel and his Polish colleague and (sometimes tough) friend, President Walesa, were undoubtedly key in the drive to join NATO. With unassailable moral credits and the aura of revolutionary leaders they could not be simply dismissed as Russophobes looking for a place to hide. For all the similarities, however, there were subtle differences in their approach. While Walesa embodied the heroic past of the Polish nation, with its brave if sometimes futile resistance to foreign oppressors, who often turned out to be Russian, Havel exemplified the fundamental unity of Central Europe with the rest of the West in terms of culture, philosophy, and political thinking. While he was well aware of past disasters and possible future threats involving the Russians, Havel’s take on Russia, starting with his February 1990 speech in the US Congress, was unprejudiced and forward-leaning. Clinton highly valued Havel’s support for Yeltsin as “Russia’s best hope for a non-aggressive democratic state.” Together, Havel and Walesa complemented each other as well as any pair since Laurel and Hardy. It is hard to imagine that the enlargement would have occurred without either of them. They gave the debate the urgency that made it possible to accomplish the task by the end of the century. If the debate had still been under way at the time of 9/11, other considerations would surely have taken over.

It is another question whether the triumph of the Havel-Walesa crusade represents also a lasting accomplishment for European and Atlantic security, or marks a geopolitical dead end entered due to the residual inertia of Cold War thinking, as people who never came to terms with it would claim. To answer the question, it is useful to observe the results of one of the biggest natural experiments in the history of Europe. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe that eventually joined NATO in two waves, in 1999 and in 2004, represent today a zone of political and economic stability of one hundred million people, and are increasingly indistinguishable from their neighbors in the west of Europe. The stabilizing effect of the NATO accession process and entry helped pave the way for their slower and more difficult integration into the European Union. By contrast, the countries between this zone and Russia, namely Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova, still find themselves in a geopolitical void, torn between their conflicting instincts and affinities, prone to reversals, instability, and political and economic mismanagement. The same thing is true of the countries in Southeast Europe that stayed outside of the enlargement field of gravity, as well of the Trans-Caucasus region. With resurgent Russia, and Europe weakened by the financial crisis, the window of opportunity has closed, at least for the time being.

And Russia would never have been a less complicated interlocutor, with or without the enlargement. The trauma of a collapse of the largest country in the world and the most ambitious ideological movement in Europe since early Christianity would have played out regardless. With its history of tyranny and xenophobia, and with its perpetually warring Westernizing and Slavophilic instincts, the country could only regain its footing in contrast and opposition to what it saw as a triumphalist West. No amount of Western economic aid such as offered, provided, and wasted in the mid-1990s, no amount of security assurances, such as masterminded by the United States and Secretary of State Albright in the form of NATO-Russia Council and the NATO policy of “three no’s” of 1997—no intention, no plan, and no reason to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new member states—or any number of resets would have changed that. Russian aggression in Ukraine earlier this year only emphasizes this point.

If most of Europe today is safer than at any time in its history, it is not least thanks to the vision of statesmen like Bill Clinton, Lech Walesa, and Vaclav Havel.

Michael Zantovsky is the Czech ambassador to the Court of St. James’s and the author of the forthcoming book Havel: A Life, from which this article is adapted.

Havel: A Life © 2014 by Michael Zantovsky; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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