The Free World

TRUDY RUBIN

November 12, 1993|By TRUDY RUBIN

Philadelphia. -- Now that communism is dead, you don't hear many Americans talking about defending ''the free world.'' Perhaps people don't think it needs defending anymore. More likely, people aren't sure anymore what ''the free world'' means.

But a lonely central European Cassandra -- Vaclav Havel, the brilliant president of the Czech Republic -- thinks he knows. And he thinks the ''free world'' is in as much potential danger as it was from the communists, or the Nazis before them.

But he worries that without the Soviet bogyman, Westerners are too short-sighted and unimaginative to foresee the new danger: the virulent ethnic and religious nationalism that is threatening Europe (and spills over into America in the form of the more fanatic variants of multiculturalism). More troubling, Europeans and Americans don't even grasp what they should be trying to protect.

Which brings us back to the meaning of ''the free world.'' To many Americans, that phrase is little more than an outdated Reagan-era slogan. But to Mr. Havel, a former dissident who spent five years in communist prisons and wrote brilliant underground essays on the meaning of pluralism and toler- ance, the import of that phrase is clear.

He thinks it has to do with the common values that Western Europeans and Americans share: the basic belief in a society based on law, individual rights and tolerance, not on ideology or on the superior rights of any one group or creed. He thinks those values are seriously threatened by the rise of nationalism in Europe, as exemplified by the war in Bosnia.

Mr. Havel says the Western failure to stop the Serbs and Croats from dividing Bosnia up into ethnically purified mini-states shows that Westerners are no longer willing to sacrifice to preserve the values upon which ''the free world'' was supposedly based.

He says, in bitter criticism of European -- and American -- leaders, ''An internationally recognized state [Bosnia] is being subdivided according to the dictates of fanatic warlords.'' By permitting such behavior, the West is ''sanctifying the idea of the 'ethnically pure state' and giving up on the idea of the civic society'' based on peaceful co-existence between different ethnic groups and cultures.

''We forget the fundamental values upon which we would like to shape the future of our continent,'' Mr. Havel says.

Perhaps this sounds to high falutin' to you. But pause a moment. What the Czech president is doing is trying to defend the values underlying ''Western civilization,'' values for which we supposedly fought World War II and the Cold War.

The concept of ''Western values'' may be out of fashion at the moment in this age of multiculturalism. For many Americans, this concept harks back to the stale stuff of civics courses.

But Eastern European dissidents take Western values very seriously. After all, they struggled under communism for decades to join the West where citizens lived under law, not under communist ideology or under ethnically pure regimes like Nazi Germany. For men like Mr. Havel, the notion of Western values has the deepest of meanings. For him, the ideals of democracy are very real.

Which is why he is so sensitive to what he sees as the new threat to Europe. And to the unwillingness of Western leaders to counter that nationalist threat, or to welcome new East European democracies like the Czech Republic into European organizations like NATO or the European Community.

As a dissident, Mr. Havel was engaged in a highly emotional debate over European ideals with Czech exile writer Milan Kundera, a debate played out in articles published in European and American media. The question was whether Eastern Europeans should aspire to join ''Europe'' if they were ever freed from communism. Mr. Kundera argued cynically that there was no such thing as Europe, that Europe was merely an agglomeration of wealthy capitalist nations motivated by mass consumerism.

Mr. Havel argued back that Europe represented an intellectual and spiritual heritage built up over thousands of years of history, which shared values that protected the individual against those who would impose state controls based on ideology, religion or ethnic group. He believed in Europe as the expression of the democratic idea. He still does.

He is fighting for a system of values which many Europeans and Americans don't even know they enjoy. In a speech last month to the Council of Europe, President Havel chastised European Community leaders for forgetting what a unified Europe really meant. Europeans, he said, had become caught up by the technical and administrative details of setting up a unified Europe. ''The very values that were to be secured . . . get lost in the debates over these changes.''

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