Year's Address by Vaçlav Havel
President of the Czech Republic
My Dear Fellow Citizens,
Today at midnight we entered a year that marks a great turn of ages. At moments such as this, people have traditionally felt challenged to engage in a more fundamental reflection about themselves; about the world; and, about the meaning of all things. I believe that there are strong reasons why we, the citizens of the Czech Republic, should make the coming year a time of renewed thought about our life together; about the character of our society, our system and our state; about its position and its direction; as well as about our concept of our own existence. And I would deem it marvelous if, as a result of such thought, the new year brought also an actual major change for the better.
If I were to most succinctly characterize the situation of the world, of which we are today - willingly or unwillingly - an inseparable component, I would describe it as a true warning.
Some estimates foresee as many as forty billion people living on the Earth toward the end of the coming century and expect that such a number can constitute a serious threat to the very existence of life on this planet. Various non-renewable resources, whether it be fuel or other raw materials, are being consumed at an ever faster pace; entire species are dying out; and, humankind is knowingly depriving itself of such a vital substance as oxygen.
At the same time, globalization is progressing at an almost dizzying speed, which means that our planet finds itself - probably for the first time in its history - increasingly covered by a coat of one single civilization. It is becoming a unified and electronically interconnected information, communication, finance and business environment, in which not only news but also billions of dollars, cultural values, or pseudo-values, beneficial as well as harmful properties, and sound as well as ill-advised attitudes toward life travel at the velocity of light.
An extremely dangerous phenomenon consists in the fact that the uniformizing pressure which the increasingly globalized civilization brings to bear on the rapidly growing population generates many new social antagonisms. The endeavor of various communities to defend their identity and uniqueness under these conditions multiplies conflicts among cultures, ethnic groups and traditions of civilization. The gigantic urban agglomerations, into which the progress of civilization inevitably compresses the human race, destroy natural, easily surveyable human communities, and thus also natural tools of moral societal self-control, which logically leads to a further growth of the crime rate. Along with global trade, and with an increasingly sophisticated technology, possibilities arise also for an unprecedented advancement of organized crime and terrorism.
At the same time, the current character of global market economy and its institutions facilitates various types of economic injustice, short-sighted egoism, and parasitism. The integrating giant supranational corporations have an ever greater influence on the politics of states as well as of international organizations and jeopardize free economic competition. Wealthy states with advanced economies make an effort in order that the markets of poor countries are open to them in the greatest possible measure, while they close their own markets to others. It is probably not a sign of a good trend when the property of the three richest people in the world exceeds in worth the combined gross national products of a group of developing countries with a total of six hundred million inhabitants, many of whom suffer from famine.
The world economy is flourishing in an amazing manner, and yet, there are eighty countries where the average income of the people is much lower now than it was ten years ago. The volume of computer-aided money laundering has already reached five percent of the economic output of the whole humanity, and drug trafficking now represents eight percent of world trade - more than the trade in cars or steel. Management of transfers of money, capital or ownership rights brings much higher profits than generation of real values. I am afraid that it is much more lucrative in this country to do business in the sphere of the various PR agencies, consultancy firms, or intermediary services than, for example, to build fine houses for medium-income people or to cultivate the increasingly neglected forests.
The concept of human rights and the endeavor to build and consolidate democratic institutions is successfully spreading across the world, but the same is unfortunately true also of the numerous modern vices, such as the dictatorship of advertisement and consumerism, a brainless commercial culture, violence on television, or the growing domination of media manipulators and sloganeers over thoughtful politicians.
But this is not everything; perhaps this is not the main thing at all. The fatal dangers threatening our civilization also include the growing risks associated with modern research and technology, whether it be the dangers of computer piracy, or directly of terrorism; possible abuses of genetic engineering; or, even the risk of losing all control over the arsenals, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
All these and other threats to our civilization are well known to humanity - they are being dealt with by special disciplines of science, at many global conferences as well as in many books addressing the issue at both expert and popular levels. Nevertheless, the world is lacking in real determination to reverse unfavorable trends. As if, through some sort of inertia and against the call of common sense, the prevalent concept was that of apres nous le déluge - that is, immediate interests taking precedence over long-term ones. In my opinion, this is so because the humanity of today - without being properly aware of it - is losing the age-old humility before the secret of the origin, the order, and the intentions of Being, that is, before that which reaches far beyond us; consequently, people are also losing a sense of responsibility for the world as a whole, and of responsibility before the eyes of eternity. Globalization in the fields of information and business is not accompanied by a growing sense of global responsibility. Conscience appears to be limping behind science, research, and technology, or behind that type of human knowledge which determines their main direction today.
It is true that millions of people still go to their churches or shrines, pray to their gods, some, allegedly in their gods' names, even wage battles against other people. In reality, however, humanity behaves as if there was nothing above us, as if - notwithstanding the transient nature of our existence, and the limitations of our ability to understand the meaning of things - we were the makers, the masters, and the owners of the universe.
To sum up: At the turn of the third millennium after Christ, the human world appears to be more interconnected, and also more imperiled, than it ever was in its previous history.
What should we conclude from all this?
One thing of fundamental importance: We should perceive - much more intensively than before - that we are not only members of our family, employees, or owners of our company, inhabitants of our village or town, representatives of our profession, members of our association or party and individuals belonging to a nation, but also inhabitants of this Earth. We should be aware that the fate of every one of us is affected by the fate of the entire human race more than it was ever before and, at the same time, that every one of us is now more co-responsible for the fate of the globe than we were in any previous period.
I know how unpopular it sounds, but I cannot help telling you this: We shall hurt ourselves most if we care about nothing but ourselves. We must not be indifferent to what happens around us; or to the face of our country, of its landscape, of our towns and villages; we must not think only about having a fine house and garage of our own, but also about that which surrounds them; we cannot defend solely the interests of our own company or our profession, we must also pay regard to the interests of others; we cannot think that there is nothing but the Czech Republic, we must know that there is also Kosovo, Chechnya, Somalia, Rwanda, East Timor, as well as Tibet, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, and the now severely tried Venezuela; we must recognize and respect the quality of life, and the multiplicity of colors in it, and we must properly appreciate the worth of human togetherness; of solidarity; and, of a shared creative commitment, as values ranking much higher than mere profits. It is, of course, no disgrace to have money or possessions.
On the contrary: such wealth can, and should, be a sign of success in generating values that improve the overall level of life. On the other hand, it is disgraceful to amass money or possessions in ways that are detrimental to other people's right to human dignity and to living in a fair society and a law-ruled state; to the overall quality of life and of the environment; to the beauty of a country's landscape and of its settlements; to the future. The law of supply and demand cannot completely explain the world; it cannot explain even such natural things as helping a fellow being in need; longing for a child and taking care of one's children; desiring to live in harmony with a healthy nature and to be part of a community united by mutual trust, goodwill, and good cheer; nor can it explain why many regard freedom - including freedom in business - as something that is worth sacrificing a part of their lives, risking their lives, or even dying for, as it was proved by those of our fellow citizens who joined in active resistance against dictatorships and occupations.
My dear fellow citizens, I am afraid that politics and everyday life are becoming alarmingly estranged in this country in the past few years and months. At the same time, a special kind of animosity, ill will, egoism, disrespect for both legal and moral rules, greed, skepticism, maybe even cynicism, has been on the rise in both public life and economy. Many people cease to trust one another, and many begin to see their primary concern in not being robbed, or - worse still - in how best to take someone else in. It sometimes seems to me that we have taken over from today's global market economy, in the first instance, all the worst things - those which others have already begun to systematically combat.
Let us make the year 2000 - the year at the turn of ages - also a year of change. Let us seek a change in our political culture, in the culture of our public life, in the order of precedence of our values, in the direction we pursue as individuals, in the importance we attach to civic association, as well as in our concept of the role and purpose of the state. Let us try to do more for the wider communities - be it the civic communities to which we belong or the entire contemporary humankind. Let us try to finally give our country a clear, long-term, universally - understandable program that will meet the requirements of the coming era. It is true that every one of us lives in a world of his or her own, which is different from other people's worlds. Let all of us try to look beyond the borders of our small worlds, to see farther in both time and space.
Fairly little is needed for a start: We could, for instance, give much more support to all the organizations that help suffering people in various parts of the world. By global standards, we belong to the more advanced countries. Why, therefore, could we not be more generous in this round - number year in excusing the debts of some of the poorest nations? Such a gesture alone will not save the world. But it will show that we feel co-responsible for its future.
The new concept of humanity's mission on this Earth can best be promoted by force of example. Why could we not begin to live a little bit more modestly, in the general interest, which is our own interest as well? Why could we not exert a much more energetic effort in order that all our companies have truly wise management and that they produce, at a low cost, high-quality articles for which there is demand, and which do not harm the world? It is appalling to see how our banks lose dozens, if not hundreds, of billions of crowns and, at the same time, to know that there are companies which do not pay their employees for their work.
It is sad that our most influential political parties are suspected of dark dealings, possession of mysterious accounts and tax evasions, or that a person responsible for a loss of billions or a propagator of racism remains unpunished, while many of those who were political prisoners in the 1950s have not yet been granted even so much as decent pensions. But one thing is still worse than all this: the fact that we are so little surprised to see this happen. I think it will do no harm at all if we occasionally feel more surprised at the bad things around us, because feeling surprised is the first step toward probing into their true causes, and toward speedy remedial action.
It is not true that all is bad and all is lost, or that everything must be swept away by some windstorm. Just the opposite: This society possesses a huge potential of goodwill, creativity, industry, kindness, and yearning for a better human environment. The matter is to release this potential, to encourage it, to give it more latitude. This is a task for politicians, but not only for them. It is a task for all people involved in public activities; for all those holding responsible positions; and, actually, for all of us - citizens of the Czech Republic who mean well for this country.
There is hope for us. I am more certain of it now than I was ever before. But we cannot simply wait for this hope to be fulfilled. We have to fulfil it ourselves. Perhaps, among other things, by shaking up all those who possess influence, but slumber instead of acting.
Dear friends, I do not know whether I have the right to thank you for all the good deeds that you have performed in your various fields, because you have not done these things for me, but for us all. But I know what I have the right to do: I can - even though some may dismiss it as a mere moralizing a hundred times over - share with you my opinion as to how we all, without distinction, could and should enrich our behavior, add more depth to it, or change our conduct in this coming year.
This is all the more relevant in light of the fact that the coming turn of ages can indeed be a moment of crucial importance to us - a moment that will clearly show what options we have chosen:
Whether we shall shut ourselves in our own world, suicidally cutting ourselves off from the world around us; or, whether we shall join the others in taking upon our shoulders the burden of deciding about the future of our civilization; whether we shall be a modern and open civil society; or - though situated in the center of Europe - merely an uninteresting marginal state, bogged down in some local quarrels that even its own citizens find hard to understand.
Finally, if there is something for which I should like to thank you on this very day, ten years after the change of regime and ten years after my first election to this office, it is primarily this: I thank you for having so unequivocally opted for a good direction ten years ago; for persevering, even though so many of your expectations still remain unfulfilled; and, for bearing for so long with all of us whom the revolutionary times once elevated to political offices.
I wish for us all the best at the turn of ages in the year 2000.
I wish for us all a great return of hope - for our personal lives; for the life of our country; as well as for the life of the entire humankind.
Happy New Year!
- Vaçlav Havel