Liberal democratic values are not self-explanatory–We must talk about them

Andrej Kiska, President of the Slovak Republic, gave a speech at a forum called GLOBSEC, held in Bratislava this past weekend. The international symposium serves as a platform for European policymakers, especially those based in Eastern Europe, to address issues of global and regional security. It is now the largest regular gathering of foreign policy and security experts, as well as political leaders, in Central and Eastern Europe. A Hungarian politician, Viktor Szigetvári–the co-president of the centrist Együtt party–drew my attention to Mr. Kiska’s address. The President of the Slovak Republic used this platform as an opportunity to speak out–quite elegantly, but also with clarity–against the rising tide of populism and political extremism, which preys on the fears of the population and demonizes ‘the other’. (C.A.)


Andrej Kiska

Andrej Kiska

Last year, many of our conversations were about whether the world has changed for good, or if we are just going through a bad moment. Whether it was a storm or a climate change.

This year the trouble continues. Ukraine, our neighbour remains wounded. More lives have been lost to terrorism in Paris, Istanbul, Middle-East, African countries, or recently, in Brussels. The basic international norms are still being violated. And the number of people in need leaving their homes in search for a better life is still huge.

And yet, even as the world outside continues to be a dangerous place, I want to speak about something else. Something we might not fully comprehend yet. I think we have to take deep and honest look at what’s going on in our very own societies. Not just in Slovakia, but in other decent democracies of the Western part of the world as well.

The picture we’re getting these days from our societies is somehow baffling. We have modern tools to communicate, the best ones in our history. And yet we sometimes fail to deliver a message. Years after the Cold War we’re facing the new wave of political propaganda and information wars so intense and efficient, they again have the power to manipulate the mood in our societies. Or even to cripple important political outcomes. And as a result, to weaken our security.

We can see disturbing signals about the depth of this challenge. The word “decent” becomes a symbol of weakness and the word “extreme” a symbol of strength. Extreme political parties and movements are getting stronger in many countries. Even the mainstream politicians can’t resist to retreat or even echo the language of simple, popular but wrong solutions. And on the other hand, moderate, value-based politics is often seen as weak, old fashioned and not fancy enough, in the face of calls to tear down the walls of the existing system.

The pressure to undermine and dismiss our core values and principles — the building blocks of our societies — is growing. The level of this threat might not be the same across all our countries. Because the strength and foundations of the open societies are not the same across our countries. But one thing is common to all of us — the pressure is fed by the information wars, but also by our own inefficiency to explain and to deliver solutions for our domestic and global problems.

We cannot act as if history has ended. Because this is not the first time when liberal, democratic societies are under pressure. The previous century taught us how such mistakes can lead to a dangerous outcome.

We can’t take our core values and principles for granted. I understand that we are busy with high politics, strategic challenges and the complexity of everyday tasks we have to face. But those issues are connected. In fact, it’s the values and principles that are the ultimate target of the propaganda encouraging ghosts from dark corners of our societies — extremism, xenophobia and general suspicion against the democracy.

Our values and principles are not self-explanatory. It would be a mistake to fall under this illusion and to forget to talk about them at all. We won’t be able to counter hoaxes and misinformation if we abandon the ambition to calibrate the moral compass of our societies.

The answer to boiling anger cannot be cowardly silence.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am not talking about the importance of values and principles to give some abstract moral lesson. I just want to underline how important is to halt this slow erosion of trust in our societies, because it leads to serious political and security consequences.

Here, in this room, we all know we had a lot to digest in the previous years. And still lot to face —financial crisis, risk of Grexit, Ukraine, refugee crisis, terrorism, risk of Brexit. Tackling these issues takes time, will and ability to compromise. Sometimes we simply have to try to come up with something only to learn from our own mistakes afterwards.

But we also understand that democratic societies are in fact best equipped to handle and benefit from this creative process of solution-seeking. That’s why we are living in the most prosperous and safe part of the world.

But honestly, I can understand why part of our societies perceives these recent events as seemingly endless queue of troubles and failures. So things like the results of the last week’s referendum in Netherlands shouldn’t surprise us. This should not be a reason to give up on searching for common solutions. Because if we give up, if we fail to fight with skepticism, extremism and nationalism, we may get caught in a loop of damage control, rushed plans B, plans C, plans D. And face the fact that we will repeatedly hit the wall of distrusting public in one or another country.

So we should spare no opportunity to remind ourselves of the irreplaceable role of the EU or NATO, our unity and stability. To speak frankly about our security and the challenges we face. To explain to the young ones why we have no better alternatives to freedom and democracy. To understand the value of solidarity and unity. To stress the importance of being able to compromise, but also to remain principled, when necessary. To show here, in this region, that the V4 is about the empathy and cooperation. And that we can’t ever abandon our humanity — no matter what difficulties we face.

I wish you all the best when you discuss how to improve cooperation, intelligence, or enhanced NATO presence. But let’s keep in mind we are only strong if we manage to remain healthy in the core of our societies, in the hearts and minds of our people. Because the strongest foundation of our safety and defense is when people understand there is a lot to lose and a lot worth defending.

Andrej Kiska


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