Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Symbolism in the Diplomacy of Czech President Vaclav Havel

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Symbolism in the Diplomacy of Czech President Vaclav Havel

Article excerpt

Sir Ernest Satow celebratedly added to the prerequisites of a diplomat the qualification of "use of intelligence and tact."(1) To that maxim the former dissident and later Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel added "good taste," which he explained serves politics, and by extension diplomacy, better than a graduate degree in political science.

Applicable to both the content and expression of his beliefs, "good taste" is only one of several metaphors Havel used to express his ideas. When he was elected President of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989 he said unambiguously that the beliefs he expressed in his writings(2) of the 1970s and 1980s were all the more applicable to public life once in political office and that he had not strayed or modified those beliefs.(3) He stated unambiguously that his foreign policy derived from that thinking. He explained, for example, that:

   a sense of responsibility grows out of the experience of certain moral
   imperatives that compel one to transcend the horizon of one's personal
   interests and be prepared at any time to defend the common good, and even
   to suffer for it. Just as our "dissidence" was anchored in this moral
   ground, so the spirit of our foreign policy should grow and, more
   important, continue to grow from it.(4)

He sought to put his personal style and priority on his politics generally. As an author he was concerned about the importance and accuracy of the word; as a playwright he employed symbolism and staging. Just as he believed politics could benefit from "good taste" so he sought to inject literary techniques into political life.

While the term symbolism is obviously connected to literary criticism, it is taken here as the expression of abstract ideas through the use of inferences and images.(5) These will be examined in Havel's diplomacy, as an instrument of his foreign policy, particularly with respect to dialogue with other states and in certain aspects of negotiations. This article is primarily concerned with Havel's diplomacy as Federal Czechoslovak President, namely from the period of December 1989 to July 1992, although it draws on illustrative examples from the Czech Republic as well. While Havel also became President of the Czech successor state, one of the article's observations will be that the use of symbolism diminished with the post-revolutionary normalisation of politics. It will consider symbols in the context of Czechoslovak foreign-policy objectives, such as the reformulation of European security and in Soviet and German relations. It will also examine the use of symbols thematically, including geographic references, dates, diplomatic appointments and Havel's own rejection of symbols. It will conclude by offering some views as to what this case adds to our understanding of the nature and limits of diplomacy. First, though, it is necessary briefly to set the stage for the playwright as statesman.


Havel as President was intent on underscoring a new form and style of politics. He proclaimed "I like symbols in politics. Professional politicians do not have much experience in this, less than in the theatre and in the arts."(6) Over and above what has become a standard package of legalistic changes comprising the post-communist transformation (such as new investment and property laws and free elections), he sought to create an image and a style of difference.

He sailed through the halls of Hradcany, the Presidential Palace, on a children's scooter. He personally choose the colours of his motorcade explaining that he did not wish to resemble a funeral procession. He marked the transition from the dull monochrome of the communist polity to the vibrancy of pluralist society by changing the uniforms of the Presidential Honour Guard. The grey outfits of old were discarded and the new with multicoloured sashes were donned, designed on order by the costume designer for the film Amadeus. …

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