September 26, 2010

Czech Republic President Klaus ’69 Returns to Cornell

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President Vaclav Klaus ’69 of the Czech Republic spoke to a packed Statler Auditorium this Friday about his experience at the University and how his education influenced his political ambitions. Klaus opened the lecture with a discussion of his brief time at Cornell during the spring of 1969, when he was studying for a graduate degree in economics. He recalled serving as a teaching assistant in an economics course, studying endlessly in Olin Library and skiing at Greek Peak. Klaus, then in his late-twenties, was invited to study at Cornell by Prof. Emeritus George Staller, economics. Speaking about the political context of Czechoslovakia during that time, Klaus elaborated on the significance of his Cornell experience and the opportunity of studying in the United States. “I came here from communist Czechoslovakia shortly after the country was occupied by the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries, which occurred in August 1968,” Klaus said. “It was not an accident that I was able to come at that particular period of time … The political and economic reforms carried out in my country in the second half of the 1960s … opened up a unique, yet very narrow and short window of opportunity for the Czechs and Slovaks, and made it possible — among other things — to travel to the capitalist West and even to study there.” Before leaving Prague, Klaus had expressed his expectations of Cornell as a sort of political asylum. “I hoped I’d come to a quiet campus with an Ivory tower atmosphere. I hoped I’d come to a country where politics is not omnipotent and omnipresent,” Klaus said.However, he soon discovered that there were many uncanny similarities between his experience in Czechoslovakia and that in America during the late 1960s. Klaus stated, “I came to a country in the era of [Students for Democratic Society], of Hair and “Aquarius,” of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, of Flower Children, of Berkeley’s People’s Park protests, etc. … I must confess, I had the feeling it was not much more quieter here than in Prague … and some of the views and arguments used by the radical students here sounded quite familiar … alarming and dangerous.” Klaus’ experience in Czechoslovakia initially propelled his mistrust of government. His education in economics, and especially that of the debate between Keynesianism and monetarism, influenced his current devotion to a monetarism policy. He stated, “[those experiences] led to my lifelong preference for market failure rather than for government failure.” Klaus proceeded to describe the efforts at dismantling Communism in Czechoslovakia since the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, and conveyed his joy when Czechoslovakia successfully became a “normal” European country again. In describing the new challenges for the Czech Republic, Klaus expressed his beliefs about the European Union and the “mentality” behind global warming. Known for his strong Eurosceptic opinions, Klaus first commented on the Czech Republic’s “quasi-membership” in the E.U.“After half a century of Communism, we wanted to be a free, sovereign, independent country, but we became a part of the very dominant and more and more centralized European Union instead,” he stated. “Rather than being pushed into a position of being a European, which is something I don’t authentically feel, I prefer to remain a Czech.”Then, Klaus briefly stated his disagreement with the “statist ideology of environmentalism, and especially its extreme variant, the global warming alarmism.” Rather than addressing every element of his argument, he referred the audience to his book, Blue Planet in Green Shackles.Given the opportunity to come back, Klaus noted how the lessons he learned, the people he met, and the overall experience at the University helped shape him: “I can argue with conviction that I had been very productively using what I had learned here for many years which followed and that the whole stay here … was a great experience for me. I learned a lot. I have not had a chance to say thank you yet, so I do it now. Thank you.”Organized by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and Cornell Institute for European Studies, the lecture, titled “A Return to Cornell: Personal Remarks by the President of the Czech Republic,” was part of the Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker Series.

Original Author: Melissa Kim