About 30,000 people gathered at Hradčanské náměstí (Hradcany Square) on Prague Castle of Apr. 5 to hear U.S. President Barack Obama. The whole city seemed to have turned out to hear this most eloquent of politicians, waiting patiently in the chill morning.
Today, 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Obama praised the role the Czechs had played through peaceful protest:
“The Sametová Revoluce – the Velvet Revolution taught us many things,” he said, pausing, to allow the applause to die off. Not only was his pronunciation nearly flawless, said Czechs in the audience, but it touched those who had taken to the streets so long ago.
“It showed us that small countries can play a pivotal role in the world events, and that young people can lead the way in overcoming conflicts.” As in 1989, “moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”
Obama’s visit to Prague came at a difficult time for the young democracy, with a deepening political conflict between President Václav Klaus, first post-Communist Prime Minister and architect of the Czech Republic’s economic success of the 1990s, the conservative minority government of Mirek Topolánek and the Social democratic opposition, led by former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek
On Mar. 24, just days before Obama’s arrival and in the midst of the EU presidency, Topolanek’s government lost a no confidence vote in the Czech Parliament over whether to allow some of the controversial U.S. missile defense shield to be installed on Czech territory. Topolanek will step down by May 8 to make way for a transition government of technocrat Jan Fischer, head of the Czech Statistical Office, before interim elections in October.
The internal political turmoil did not cloud the warmth of the welcome, however. Many remembered Bill Clinton’s visit to Prague in January 1994, where he played the saxophone at the Reduta Jazz Club for Václav Havel, Communist dissident, writer and the first president of the new Czech democracy.
And Obama had come well prepared. His skillfully crafted speech joins the ranks of public addresses by U.S. presidents in the past, particularly the remarkable speech by John F. Kennedy’s on Jun. 26, 1963, within sight of the Berlin Wall:
“All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’” Ronald Reagan’s demand, no less emotional, addressed the former Soviet Leader (Jun. 12, 1987) at the Brandenburg Gate:
“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
Along with these echoes, it was a lesser known speech by Kennedy of Jun. 10, 1963, the Commencement Address at American University, that seemed to serve as model for Obama’s address in Prague. There Kennedy highlighted in three steps his thinking about peace and U.S. attitudes towards the Soviet Union, and, most crucially, the Cold War.
“The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war,” Kennedy said. “We do not want a war. We do not expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough – more than enough – of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try and stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just… Confident and unafraid, we labor on – not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.”
His strategy was two-fold: First, to strengthening the United Nations to “make it a more effective instrument for peace, to develop it into a genuine world security system” that would allow the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Second, to deepen negotiations on international arms control “designed to limit the intensity of the arms race and to reduce the risks of accidental war” – talks in Geneva that resulted in a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (Aug. 1963) between the U.S., the U. K. and the USSR.
Back in Prague, Barack Obama reminded us that the serious threats today still come from the existing nuclear arsenal. “Today, the Cold War has disappeared but thousands of those weapons have not. In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” As more nations have acquired nuclear weapons, the technology has spread and terrorists will do anything they can to get hold of nuclear material.
“Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global non-proliferation, but as more people and nations break rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.” Thus a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty are among those measures Obama promises to negotiate and implement. He is also firm on the nuclear threat in Iran, “not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies.” And applauded the Czech Republic and Poland for hosting missile defense systems.
“As long as the threat from Iran persists,” he promised, “we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for the missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.”
To the disappointment of the activists who were hoping that the new U.S. Administration would scrap the deeply unpopular project in the Czech Republic, the new U.S. President was buying time. It was, at any rate, unlikely that such an important strategic decision would be reversed at a visit abroad.
At the end, Obama returned to the Czech Republic in a tone reminiscent of John F. Kennedy: “There is violence and injustice in our world that must be confronted. We must confront it not by splitting apart but by standing together as free nations, as free people.”
And after the applause calmed down, he added that “I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices of peace and progress must be raised together.” Those voices, he said, still echo in the streets of Prague.
“Those were the joyful sounds of the Velvet Revolution. Those were the Czechs who helped bring down a nuclear-armed empire without firing a shot.”
Although international reactions to Obama’s speech were scarce, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine was openly skeptical as to whether a nuclear-free world increased chances for peace. In an interview with France Info television on Apr. 6, Védrine welcomed the debate on reducing the nuclear arsenal, but called Obama’s vision “demagogic.”
“No U.S. President has been able to reduce nuclear arms because they could never be sure of a world without conflict.” Védrine believes that “in a world with fewer nuclear armaments there will be not less war, but more.” He argued that “in a world of nuclear weapons, they function as a means to dissuade war.”
In the end, Obama’s vision may indeed be too ambitious. If Védrine is right, it may be that we need the legacies of the Cold War just to keep the peace.
This is an excerpt, the full article was published in May 2009 in The Vienna Review.