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New Life for the Old World : Europe: The estrangement of East and West is ending, and the peoples emerging from totalitarian bondage have a gift for the world: a commitment to human rights and a rejection of terror in any form.

February 19, 1990|VACLAV HAVEL | Czechoslovakia's President Vaclav Havel wrote this commentary for U.S. News & World Report on the eve of his first visit to the United States this week.

People speak of Europe as "the old continent." It is because Europe has been the cradle of a civilization that has shaped the history of the world for the last past 2,000 years. European civilization discovered, explored, conquered and dominated other continents, other civilizations. It has brought European thinking, enterprise and inventions to the remotest corners of the earth. It has also brought war, misery and endless suffering to millions of people in less fortunate countries. In this century in particular, Europe became the center of mercilessly competing ideologies and of two world wars that cost tens of millions of lives in Europe and elsewhere.

Still, Europe's power and its ability to project its civilization and strength have diminished. It no longer has the power to dominate other continents, other cultures. New centers of power and thought have emerged. Europe has aged.

In yet another sense, Europe is a continent that does not exist. For more than 40 years, there has been not one Europe, but at least two. One is the Europe of the West, the land of democracies and relative prosperity. The other is the Europe of the East, of totalitarianism until recently unchallenged, the Europe that has finally awakened.

Western Europe was often taken to stand for the whole of the continent, while obituaries were periodically pronounced over the East. Eastern Europe, or at least the people who lived in it, felt equally European and watched with envy and despair the luckier half that seemed to be floating away all the time. The dividing line became a gap which threatened to widen into an abyss.

Europe has been divided in yet another sense. The dividing line in my country did not run between the Communists and the rest of the people, it ran between what is good and bad in the heart of each man. So, too, the dividing line in Europe did not run only between the East and the West, but through the heart of the continent.

Materialism may have failed as an ideology in the East, but it has certainly triumphed as a matter of practice in the West. In exchange for the prospect of prosperity and security, many Europeans became all too willing to forget about the bigger Europe of spiritual values, humanistic ideals and intellectual integrity. A strange sort of newspeak developed in which "noninterference" stood for indifference and "detente" for appeasement.

Then the tide turned, and the concept that turned it was the old European (and American) concept of human rights. Perhaps a political invention in the beginning, designed to win concessions from the other side, it soon evolved into something real.

In less than 15 years, this simple concept of human rights came close to accomplishing what the theories of "containment," "deterrence" and "mutual assured destruction" could not. Let us note that unlike these concepts, backed by the most impressive collection of hardware that man has ever assembled, this was a concept purely spiritual. With the moral rather than tangible support of other Europeans (and Americans and Canadians), this concept of human rights paved the way for the enormous changes in Eastern Europe that we have recently witnessed.

These changes, and the steps toward integration in the West, now offer Europe a chance to become a whole after 40 years of dual existence (or nonexistence). Not through war, but through a consensus of its nations and people. Such chances do not occur twice.

Europeans in the West have made clear their intention to overcome national, political and geographical barriers, and to enter the next millennium as a single community. Europeans in the East have made equally clear their interest in joining this community of free nations.

What kind of place could or should the new Europe be? What principles would hold this community together, and what could it contribute to the rest of the world?

First of all, because Europe is as much an idea as a place it would have to remain bigger than a sum of its parts. Any concept of a new Europe will have to deal with the existence of the United States and the Soviet Union, and not only for political reasons.

The United States, though completely outside Europe, is not entirely non-European. It was born out of Europe in a rebellion against it. The Soviet Union, though not completely inside Europe, has gravitated toward Europe for centuries, without ever taking the final step. In this century, the United States and the Soviet Union fought a war against a totalitarian ideology that threatened to undermine the very idea of Europe. Then, they almost fought each other over another incarnation of totalitarianism. If that had happened, the battlefield almost certainly would have been Europe once again. Thus both the Americans and the Russians, though in different degrees, may lay claims on the loyalty of Europeans. And both, fighting as they have for control of the continent, have earned different measures of distrust from Europeans.

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