5th September 2017

Radio Praha: Bill Clinton: Today Václav Havel's ideas are more relevant than ever

The former US president Bill Clinton first visited the Czech Republic in 1994, offering the countries of the former communist bloc support and assistance on the road to democracy. It was a historic, trust-building visit in many ways, which saw the birth of a special friendship between the then US head of state and the Czech Republic’s first president Vaclav Havel. Bill Clinton gave Czech Radio’s Washington correspondent Lenka Kabrhelová an interview in which he recalled his visit to Prague, his admiration for Vaclav Havel, and how he played the saxophone at a Prague jazz club.

...You talked a lot about the 1990s optimism; you mentioned it even during the visit in the Czech Republic in 1998, talked about belief in things changing for the better. Is it possible that that was just a blip?

“We won’t know until we see another twenty years go by, whether it was a blip or whether this is a blip.”

What do you think?

“I think this is a blip and that was a trend. And I think that for several reasons. The world is going more interdependent. In an interdependent world you are more able to claim the benefits of the positive factors and you’re more open to the negative forces. Because it means that there’re all kinds of things out there that cross borders. Whether they’re just little creaks or whether you have walls there. You can’t keep cyber traffic out for example.”

“Particularly after the financial crisis in 2008 it hurt so many people so badly in almost every country. The wealthiest people rebounded most quickly, they lost vast percentages of their income but they got it back in a hurry. Meanwhile the recovery was sluggish in the West and so there was a lot of dissolution. The European Union also had different problems because the common currency worked very well as long as everybody was growing. Everybody could borrow money on German interest rates and they had money to buy German products or French products or Czech products. And when it went down, it had huge impact on Greece, southern Spain, where you had the huge housing collapse, Portugal was hit hard. And many people started to question whether the EU should continue to expand or whether if they should enter the Eurozone even if they joined the European Union. And then the British people voted Brexit, something I don’t think they would do today if they had a revote, I think they’d vote to stay in.”

“But again, something like this was completely predictable. Because when you have a lot of social and economic and political change at the same time, even if you can see it going in the right direction, it’s personally disorienting. And identity for all of us is so caught up in how we classify ourselves. By nationhood, by race, by ethnicity, by religion, you name it.”

“Havel got all that. He understood that a terrible thing about totalitarian countries is that they try to wipe away all this difference. He wanted it to be able to flourish. And he was willing to gamble that in the end, free societies with human rights were the only kinds of societies that would be successful. Maybe after we’re both long gone, the days of the 1990s will still look like the harbinger of the way the world works out because decisions of diverse groups are better than decision made by homogeneous groups or lone genius. And cooperation works better than conflict. If you want to share a fraternity share responsibilities. That’s what I think will happen.”

Read full interview.

Members of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic