Havel in Ottawa, 1999

Vaclav Havel died today. Perhaps my friends at the National Post won’t mind if I reproduce the column I wrote for that paper’s edition of April 30, 1999, after Havel addressed the Senate and House of Commons of Canada.

Apparently at some point, after you have sat too long in jail for something you wrote, you lose your patience for wasted words.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, addressed a joint session of the Senate and the House of Commons yesterday. Such visits are almost always the occasion for vapid, back-slapping cocktail speeches. If the visitor is a U.S. president, he announces with amazement that our two great nations share the world’s longest undefended border. If he is a potentate from some other land, he thanks Canada for its unflagging loyalty and marvels at the beauty of our athletes or our trees. Bilateral irritants are gravely acknowledged, but all resolve that friendship will overcome any obstacle.

His Canadian hosts clearly expected similar banter from Mr. Havel. The House was packed to the rafters, MPs in their chairs, senators and Joe Clark seated in the middle aisle, galleries lined with invited dignitaries. Jean Chretien greeted Mr. Havel, and the speakers of the House and Senate thanked him, with the sort of dishwatery odes Mr. Havel must have had to endure thrice weekly for the last decade.

They kept reciting his curriculum vitae — playwright, dissident, prisoner, President — as if the story still held surprises. None of his greeters could think of much to say about Mr. Havel’s decade in office, the modern world he operates in, his political ideas or their own. “Your presence in this chamber is a very strong symbol for us,” Gilbert Parent, the House Speaker, said.

It has clearly been some time since Mr. Havel found the symbolism of his own presence impressive. He had come to take care of business, which for a writer can only ever mean he came to discuss ideas. Stockier than in the old photos, slow-moving but apparently in fair health, he strode to the podium and dispensed with ceremony with a single sentence: “Prime Minister… distinguished guests, I certainly do not need to emphasize how honoured I am to address you.”

So he didn’t. He launched instead into a thicket of assertions and arguments, many debatable but each worth debating. The nation-state, “as a climax of the history of every national community . . . is already past its culminating point,” he said. (Stephane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew shot glances at the Bloc Quebecois MPs, who sat poker-faced.)

With state functions drifting upward to “regional, transnational or global communities” or downward to “our family, our company, our village or town,” the traditional reluctance to interfere in other states’ business should be out of date, he argued.

And with those global communities becoming more important, their shapes and borders matter, which is why Russia is so touchy about NATO expanding onto its doorstep. Mr. Havel’s speech was, in great measure, devoted to gently lecturing Russia, whose rulers made more than a little trouble for him during his dissident days. Countries can only contribute positively to world affairs “when they are conscious of their own identities; in other words, when they know where each of them begins and ends. Russia has had some difficulty with that in its entire history.” (Did I hear sad humour sneak into his almost robotic English there?)

From there he discussed United Nations reform — “We must reflect on whether it is indispensable that one state . . . could outvote the rest of the world” — and mounted an assault on the idea of “national interest.” It isn’t in his country’s interest that there be “an equitable peace” in the world, he said; rather, the Czech Republic’s interests must take a back seat to equitable peace.

All this was prelude to his perhaps surprising defence of the war against Slobodan Milosevic, “probably the first war . . . that is not being fought in the name of interests, but in the name of certain principles and values.” If a war can be ethical, he said, this one is.

And what is the barometer of the good against which the ethics of a war can be measured? “These notions have meaning only against the background of the infinite and of eternity,”he said. “While the State is a human creation, humanity is a creation of God.”

He headed for the exit door soon after, perhaps aware he’d left his hosts with much to consider. A morality both individualist and globalist, disdainful of national interest, warlike when needed — and inspired by a guess at God’s will. Plenty of food for debate. State visitors sometimes bring sculptures, or soup tureens, or baseball caps as tokens of their esteem. This was better.

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