Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2017
Volume 28
Issue 1
Page Numbers 184-188
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United Kingdom

On October 2, new British prime minister Theresa May delivered a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. May spelled out her government’s understanding of the import of the U.K. vote to leave the European Union. (For analysis of the consequences of the referendum, see the articles on pp. 17–58 above.) Excerpts from Prime Minister May’s speech appear below:

Today, we’re going to talk about Global Britain, our ambitious vision for Britain after Brexit. Because 100 days ago, that is what the country voted for. We’re going to talk about a Britain in which we are close friends, allies and trading partners with our European neighbours. But a Britain in which we pass our own laws and govern ourselves. In which we look beyond our continent and to the opportunities in the wider world. In which we win trade agreements with old friends and new partners. In which Britain is always the most passionate, most consistent, most convincing advocate for free trade. In which we play our full part in promoting peace and prosperity around the world. And in which we—with our brilliant armed forces and intelligence services—protect our national interests, our national security, and the security of our allies.…

Because even now, some politicians—democratically-elected politicians—say that the referendum isn’t valid, that we need to have a second vote.

Others say they don’t like the result, and they’ll challenge any attempt to leave the European Union through the courts.

But come on. The referendum result was clear. It was legitimate. It was the biggest vote for change this country has ever known. Brexit means Brexit—and we’re going to make a success of it.…

The negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are the responsibility of the Government and nobody else. I have already said that we will consult and work with the devolved administrations [End Page 184] for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, because we want Brexit to work in the interests of the whole country. And we will do the same with business and municipal leaders across the land.

But the job of negotiating our new relationship is the job of the Government. Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. There is no opt-out from Brexit. And I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.…

Whether people like it or not, the country voted to leave the EU. And that means we are going to leave the EU. We are going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts. And that means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters.

Czech Republic/United States

On October 5, NED’s International Forum honored the eightieth anniversary of the birth of Václav Havel (1936–2011) by convening a conference titled “The Legacy of Václav Havel and the Future of Democracy.” It featured panels on “The Challenge of Democratic Renwal” and “Defending the Liberal World Order,” with panelists including Ivan Krastev, Fred Hiatt, Robert Kagan, Leon Wieseltier, and Jackson Diehl. Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright delivered opening remarks, which are excerpted below:

Even though he was very much a product of his country’s culture and history, what distinguished [Václav] Havel was that he thought, spoke, and acted on behalf of principles that will always matter everywhere.…

Not long after he became president, Havel traveled to Washington where he was scheduled to deliver an address to a joint session of Congress. … Instead of treating the Cold War’s end as a climactic victory; he emphasized the challenge that lay ahead—to create a world shaped by moral responsibility. Instead of focusing on ideology or politics, he stressed the obligations we each have to one another.

Narrow interests of all kinds, insisted Havel, must give way to universal principles and concerns. It was a very idealistic speech, not the sort that most national leaders would give. But we know that Havel’s conception of leadership differed from that of most presidents and prime ministers.

He had no interest in the kind of political rhetoric that divides people into one camp or another, or that exploits anger, resentment and fear. [End Page 185] He worried that the defeat of Communism would prompt democratic peoples to conclude that their work was done and that, in the future, they could always expect to enjoy the upper hand in battling evil; but complacency was not in Havel’s dictionary.

He celebrated his country at its best, but without falling into the trap of chauvinism. He argued to domestic and foreign audiences alike that, despite all the external foes we might face, our most dangerous enemy is our propensity toward selfishness and indifference to others.

The logical corollary to this argument was his relentless advocacy on behalf of civil and political rights for all people. Whether the specific challenge was posed by apartheid, as in South Africa; or ethnic cleansing, as in the Balkans; or genocide, as in Rwanda and Sudan; or political repression in Cuba or China, Havel never hesitated to raise his voice on behalf of justice. This was true in the days of Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution, it was true when he served as President, and it was true in the final weeks and months of his life.…

As we gather here to discuss the future of democracy, there is no question that it is undergoing a new and rigorous round of tests. … If Václav Havel were here today, I am sure he would say that it is not too late for us to regain the upper hand. Because throughout his life, he bore witness to the rationalizations we often employ to avoid meeting our responsibilities, whether civic or moral. Like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, he forgave his jailers and was charitable toward those who fell short in the test of courage.

But he also assured us over and over again that we could do better.

Whether he was reminding his own countrymen of their best traditions, or rousing the slumbering conscience of the world, he never wavered in his commitment to personal liberty, respect for human rights, and the defense of liberal democracy.

The best way for us to honor his legacy would be to renew our own commitment to these principles, and to demand even more of ourselves in defending them around the world.

A concluding luncheon speech was presented by Czech diplomat and politician Michael Žantovský, a former adviser to Havel who is executive director of the Václav Havel Library in Prague and the author of Havel: A Life. Excerpts of his address appear below:

It may sound counterintuitive to some of you, but on the face of it, at least, democracy is doing just fine. … Democracy, as the government of the people, if not necessarily by the people or for the people, is thriving, producing ever more new political parties with ever more bizarre names, ever more new political leaders … and ever more plebiscites and referenda with ever more bizarre outcomes. Reduced to the “technology of power” in the words of Václav Havel, democracy has run wild. “It is a[End Page 186] natural disadvantage of democracy that it ties the hands of those who wish it well, and opens unlimited possibilities for those who do not take it seriously,” he once wrote, and little did he know.…

It would seem to me that the lack of democracy or freedom is not our most pressing concern. The problem may lie elsewhere. If the popular wisdom expressed through voting is the final arbiter of what is true and right, then the room for values of any universality and durability becomes rather small. … We know what is politically correct and what is popular, but we no longer know what is true and right, thus making room for other people to get away with peddling cheap imitations thereof.

When Havel spoke to a standing ovation to the joint session of the U.S. Congress 26 years ago, few people noticed, in the lightheaded atmosphere of the euphoria of the times, the subtly apocalyptic tone of his speech.

When he memorably said, “the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human humbleness and in human responsibility,” few people registered, in the rapturous applause that followed, the next sentence: “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable.”

. … Our sense of humbleness should be telling us … that societal change takes place on a time scale which is incommensurate with electoral terms or the scale of a single human life.…

Our sense of responsibility ought to prevent us both from not doing things that we should and could do and from promising to do things that we cannot do.…

In 1967, in the midst of radical proclamations of many of his colleagues which helped to usher in the Prague Spring and indirectly the Soviet intervention a year later, Havel took a strangely reserved note in his speech to the Congress of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers, saying: “In the end the world will always ask each one of us with cold cruelty, what did we say and what we then did, whether what we did was true to what we said, or whether we had the right to say something we would not do. The question is simply whether we are all capable to ultimately bear the responsibility for our words, whether we are really and unreservedly able to vouch for ourselves, guarantee our proclamations by our acts and their continuity, and never be—led by the best of intentions as it may be—trapped at a certain moment by ourselves, whether because of our vanity or because of our fear. This is not a call for calculation but for authenticity.”

In my experience, till the end of his life Havel did his best to live by this tenet. The question is now upon us. [End Page 187]

United States

On December 9, UN International Anti-Corruption Day, U.S. representatives Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.) and David Price (D-N.C.) published a joint statement in The Hill explaining the threat that corruption poses to democracies around the world. Excerpts appear below:

It’s no secret that the U.S. electorate is significantly polarized and that significant bipartisan cooperation will be a major challenge. As a conservative Republican from the Midwest and a progressive Democrat from the South, we both understand the stake our country has in the effective functioning of democratic institutions around the world. And on the occasion of the United Nations’ International Anti-Corruption Day, we are reminded that corruption is probably the greatest systemic threat faced by democracies and aspiring democracies today.

Together, we lead the House Democracy Partnership (HDP), a bipartisan commission of the House of Representatives that partners with elected legislative bodies around the world to improve their responsiveness and effectiveness. Through peer-to-peer exchanges, trainings, and other assistance for staff and members of parliament, HDP helps strengthen parliaments in 18 partner democracies. Our work has taken us to many of the world’s more fragile democracies—from Burma/Myanmar to Tunisia to Ukraine—and we have seen firsthand that our best defense against tyranny, authoritarianism, and terrorism is the development of transparent, representative, inclusive, and accountable democratic institutions.

The partner countries we have visited face great challenges to improving democracy—from bringing former military rivals together in a unified government, to addressing military and economic threats from border states. In addition, nearly all of these developing democracies suffer systemic corruption that threatens to undermine their legitimacy and their ability to improve their countries.

We have seen firsthand that corruption corrodes the state’s ability to provide services, undermines political processes and the rule of law, and exacerbates inequality. … By eroding trust in democratically-elected governments, corruption sets the stage for authoritarian leaders to assert their will and enables violent extremist groups to recruit disenfranchised youth [by] offering an alternative to “corrupt” democracy.…

As we begin to develop foreign policy priorities for a new Congress, there remains strong support for addressing corruption through the support of democratic institutions. Fighting corruption through [the] rule of law and [the] democratic process is the bulwark against the spread of authoritarianism and extremism. This is one issue with great potential for bipartisan cooperation. [End Page 188]

Copyright © 2017 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press