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Havel's amazing swan song
NATO expansion is Czech President's ultimate achievement
 
Matt Welch
National Post
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LOS ANGELES - When historians look back on Nov. 21-22, 2002, they will have no trouble locating the globe's most significant event: the announced expansion of allied Europe's border to the outer edges of Romania, Bulgaria and five countries that didn't even exist 13 years ago.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will now include three Black Sea countries instead of one, three Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) that until recently existed within the borders of the U.S.S.R., and two states (Slovenia and Slovakia) that only a little more than a decade ago declared their independence over the objections of the United States. For the first time in history, 24 European countries can sleep at night knowing they are protected from foreign invaders.

Yet the historic NATO summit in Prague was cast largely as another chapter in the geopolitical melodrama about Saddam Hussein. "Bush draws NATO allies to anti-Iraq campaign," The Globe and Mail's headline read on Thursday morning. "U.S. Wins NATO Support on Iraq," the Financial Times chipped in yesterday.

The forest missed by the tree-obsessed press was vast, and worth considering. Beyond the real significance of guaranteeing security for oft-trampled Central and Eastern European countries, the Prague summit provided them with their first tangible multilateral reward for overthrowing communism, gave U.S. President George W. Bush a noticeable shot in the arm and served as the crowning achievement of Czech President Václav Havel's fabled political career.

When Havel addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress in February, 1990, as the new president of a wrecked country that would surely be asking for handouts, he raised quite a few eyebrows when he announced, "We, too, can offer something to you: our experience [of communism] and the knowledge that has come from it."

Twelve years later, what may have sounded like a delusional boast has become reality. As former U.S. State Department official Ronald Asmus put it in his new book, Opening NATO's Door, "The idea of enlarging NATO ... originated in Central and Eastern Europe."

The dissident-turned-leaders of Central Europe -- Havel, Poland's Lech Walesa and Hungary's Jozsef Antall -- led the push for inclusion starting around 1991. Although few North Americans remember it now, it was by no means a foregone conclusion back then that these fragile new democracies, and their even more fragile Eastern neighbours, would not sink into the bloodshed that marred their pasts.

That year, in fact, began with an ominously familiar sight -- Soviet tanks rolling into a satellite capital and crushing civilians in Vilnius, Lithuania, a chilling reminder of Prague in 1968 and Budapest in 1956. The U.S.S.R. still had troops stationed throughout the countries of the Warsaw Pact (which had not yet been dissolved) and it was not until two years later that the last Russian soldier left Poland. Mikhail Gorbachev was ousted in a confusing August coup and Boris Yeltsin took the unsteady reins of the first Russian revolution of the nuclear age. To the southeast, Serbs invaded Slovenia (if briefly), and Yugoslavia collapsed into chaos and war.

If history suggested anything, it was that the newly freed countries had better find a protector, and quick. Czechoslovakia was still haunted by the betrayal of its putative allies at Munich in 1938, and then being left at the mercy of the Soviet Union in the continent-dividing Yalta Conference of 1945. Hungary had a losing streak of seven consecutive wars. Poland's entire history was shaped by the imperial lust of its neighbours.

In April, 1993, at the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Havel, Walesa and Hungarian President Arpad Goncz each pulled president Bill Clinton aside and urgently lobbied to join NATO. Clinton began to change his thinking and policy on the spot, initiating a process that would culminate in the 1999 admission of the three countries. And, not for the first or last time, a U.S. president found himself rejuvenated by the democratic enthusiasm of the Central Europeans.

In the following months, according to Asmus, Clinton would describe that meeting as "the clearest example I know ... that NATO is not dead."

ed by the great democracies can rob millions of their liberty and their lives."

Like Clinton and Albright before him, Bush stood on Czech soil and declared: "No more Munichs; no more Yaltas." Like his father, who visited Prague in November, 1990, he drew a direct connection between the Munich capitulation and the world's containment of Saddam Hussein.

After several short bilateral discussions about Iraq, Bush won a stronger-than-forecasted alliance statement of concern, one that, in the droll words of NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, "Took, I think, 24 hours ... to be drafted and then to be endorsed by the 19 governments. I think that's approximately 41 days quicker than the United Nations, but I can't be certain about that."

The future of NATO, as many alliance critics have noted, is unclear. Robertson, Bush, Havel and others have been initiating reforms to make reaction time quicker, decision-making more streamlined and military spending more specialized and relevant.

But the fact remains that NATO played a minor supporting role in the Afghan war and it is likely to do more of the same should shooting break out in Iraq. Decision by consensus is beastly enough with 19 members; 26 and counting may make it a nightmare.

But opponents of NATO expansion have been famously wrong -- about Russia's once-feared opposition to the idea, mostly. And, as Bush told the new invitees, "Never again in the face of aggression will you stand alone."

Matt Welch founded Prognosis, a bi-weekly newspaper, in Prague in the early 1990s. www.mattwelch.com

© Copyright  2002 National Post


 
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Copyright © 2002 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest Global Communications Corp.
All rights reserved. Copyright terms & conditions.   |   Corrections   |   Privacy Policy
Optimized for browser versions 4.0 and higher.