Chris Graham: Vaclav Havel on autocracy, outsized expectations
Something former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel said to Barack Obama back in 2009 foretold where the West is today in 2021.
Havel, you may remember, is the late playwright and former dissident who led the push against the Soviet puppet regime in Prague, then served two terms as the president of the Czech Republic, finishing out his second term in 2003.
What he had seen happening in the intervening six years before meeting Obama, who wrote about their conversation in his book, A Promised Land, has only deepened in the decade-plus since their chat.
“In some ways, the Soviets simplified who the enemy was,” Havel told Obama. “Today, autocrats are more sophisticated. They stand for election while slowly undermining the institutions that make democracy possible. They champion free markets while engaging in the same corruption, cronyism and exploitation as existed in the past.”
Havel, per Obama, was concerned that the economic crisis of that time was strengthening the forces of nationalism and extremism in Europe, and that “without attention from the U.S., freedom here and across Europe will wither.”
Havel died in 2011. What he saw in 2009 has been playing out across the West, with nationalist politicians riding faux populism to power in Europe and here in the States, and the observations from Havel warning that they would work to undermine the institutions that make democracy possible, and engage in corruption, cronyism and exploitation, seem particularly prescient given what we saw here in the Donald Trump years.
Something else Havel said to Obama seems to apply today with respect to Joe Biden, then Obama’s vice president.
“You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations,” Havel said to Obama in 2009, and one can imagine, were he still alive in 2021, he’d say the same to Biden. “Because it means they are also easily disappointed. It’s something I’m familiar with. I fear it can be a trap.”
Story by Chris Graham