Prague, 3 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Over the weekend, the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly and the Czech Helsinki Commitee held a two-day conference at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague devoted to the civic dimension of European security. Much of the first day dealt with NATO expansion, but the premise of the conference was that in the post-Cold War era, security depends on more than just military preparedness.
Those addressing the opening session included Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Karel Kovanda, U.S. Ambassador the Czech Republic Jenonne Walker, Swedish Deputy Foreign Minister Pierre Schori, Russian human rights activist Sergei Grigoriants, Dutch Inter-Church Peace Council Director Mient Jan Faber and Czech Helsinki Committee President Martin Palous.
As Palous told participants, the purpose of the conference was to enable representatives of what he termed the "civil community" to influence the debate over security and NATO expansion, instead of just leaving it to the politicians and military decision-makers. Palous said that unless citizens across Europe have a real discussion about how they would like a future NATO to look like, expanding the alliance will not by itself bring automatic security to the continent.
Ambassador Walker stressed that the civic element of security must not be underestimated. She also said that many citizens in post-Communist societies still limit their understanding of democracy to voting every few years. But she noted that democracy depends on an engaged citizenry, working both as individuals and within organized interest groups to lobby their governments and influence policy. Without this, she said, democracy becomes weak and a largely empty concept. And no amount of military hardware will be able to prop it up should it be threatened.
Karel Kovanda spoke along similar lines, saying that while the Czech government is very eager to join NATO and the EU, the Czech Republic's citizens are very little involved in any public debate on the issue. Kovanda said that Czechs habitually emphasize their "shared values" with Western Europe, pointing to geography, historical ties and a pre-war experience of democracy. But Kovanda said that it is not enough to merely proclaim one's allegiance to democracy and noted that after 50 years of Fascist and Communist dictatorship, democractic habits need to be significantly redeveloped in his country.
Kovanda went on to say that a society of vocal, emancipated citizens is still in the process of being formed in the Czech Republic. Grassroots movements remain weak, he said, and there is almost no public debate on key issues such as NATO membership, and day-to-day issues of importance to Americans and Europeans, such as racism, to name just one topic. Kovanda said this should alert Czechs to the fact that perhaps they need to educate themselves a little more, before they can omce again lay claim to Europe's common "shared values."
Jan Palous and Mient Jan Faber both used Bosnia as an example, to note that military solutions can only be temporary. Faber said that for the moment, further fighting in the Balkans has been stopped, but unless a strong civil society is formed in the country, no lasting peace will be achieved.
"We will just have an absence of war along the lines of what we have in Cyprus," Faber said.
Faber noted that as NATO expands, it must find a new role for itself in a post-Cold War era where there is no clear enemy. He added that if the alliance seeks to be a true collective security organization for Europe and North America, it should ask itself how it can hope to achieve this aim by excluding Russia.
Picking up on the same theme, Pierre Schori called to mind two men with two different visions: Andre Maginot, whose infamous Maginot Line sought to create security by building a barrier, and failed, and Jean Monnet, whose brainchild, the European Coal and Steel Community, eventually grew into the EU and brought unity and prosperity to Europe. Schori said that merely expanding NATO without rethinking its role will create new divisions in Europe and will untimately fail. But expanding NATO while restructuring the organization, could indeed be fruitful.