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Gina Loften, Member of the Board of Trustees, TIAA Luzius Meisser, Chairman, Bitcoin Suisse Tycho Onnasch, General Manager, Trust Machines Shuo Chen (Topic Leader), General Partner, IOVC
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“My Own Leadership Chapter Was That of the Conquest of Freedom”
An Exclusive Interview with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Lech Wałęsa (Part 2 of 3)
In an exclusive interview, Leader of Tomorrow Grégoire Roos talks to Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former Polish President Lech Wałęsa about Wałęsa’s historic struggle for freedom, the current contestations of liberal democracy across the globe, and his vision for the future of Europe.
The interview was conducted in early 2020, before the COVID-19 crisis, in Gdansk, Poland. This is part two of the interview. You can find part one here and part three here.
Grégoire Roos: The question of popular mobilisation, including in the polls (the young generations’ level of abstention is reaching dramatic peaks) is essential, however good their leader is. You once pointed out that people were very good at slogans, but much less at organising themselves. You denounced their passivity. This would explain much of today’s rise of authoritarianism, don’t you find? But is it only about people’s passivity? Shouldn’t we also look into how our fundamental institutions work, how they are structured?
Lech Wałęsa: That’s right. But today, we need to reorganise everything. It’s not just about people, or communities. It’s about the fundamental institutions upon which the prosperity, peace and security of our societies have relied for the past 30 years: the EU, NATO, political parties, etc. These institutions should modernise themselves to adapt to the new realities of our time, and come up with two brand new lists: the first is a set of 10 fundamental rights that each institution gives its members; and the second is a list of 10 obligations each of the member has got to respect. In other words: 10 rights and 10 responsibilities. Nothing more. We have to clear everything up, rationalise our very principles of functioning with rights and responsibilities, which should be readable (no jargon!) and simple (no room for interpretation). Of course you go into further development of thought by writing about these 2 charters in law books as much and extensively as you want, but the charters themselves should be kept as simple as possible, and everyone should know them by heart.
Frankly, if the EU had such 20 simple rules, rights and responsibilities, what is going on now in Poland and Hungary (and, still recently, in the UK) would not be possible. Because by not playing by these fundamental written rules, those countries would exclude themselves from the community immediately and automatically. No interpretation, no politics, just the rules! Either you respect them, or you leave. It’s as simple as that.
Roos: So fewer but clearer rules. What about evidence-based politics? What about fake news?
Wałęsa: It is obvious that we have lacked courage and true leadership by letting those who want to destroy us act against us. They have pushed us, kept provoking us with violent political discourse totally disconnected from facts and reality. And they come up with absurd solutions, but are meeting with popular support simply because they’re the only ones on the market!
The best example to me is the so-called “anti-Globalist” movement. They go all over Europe, shouting against the EU, against the Commission, against free trade, against growth, pretty much about everything actually! They are full of pretentiousness in so-called ethics and morality but then, when they get back home, they pick up their American-marketed-Italian-designed-Vietnamese-made cell phone! But if they are honest with themselves and coherent with their criticism of free trade and globalisation, they should be using pigeons to communicate, not cell phones, the item of globalisation by excellence! Why are they using it?
Let’s be frank once and for all: we have evidence-based arguments to combat demagogy on pretty much every issue. Why are we not using them to destroy (with arguments) those who do not hesitate to threaten us? Do you think the technologies that we use stop at the border, show their passport? No, of course they don’t. And this is all what Europe is about, what we fought for. We must work and debate on the basis of this reality. We must fight back with evidence, and shouldn’t be afraid of meeting with our enemy. Because with evidence we are unbreakable. We don’t base our politics on lies, on approximations, we don’t play with people’s fears: we live with our eyes wide open on the reality of the world, however disturbing this reality may often be.
You know, during my time as leader of Solidarność and, later, as President of Poland, I met with my enemies almost every day. Trust me when I say that not all meetings were easy, pleasant or peaceful. But I always founded my arguments on evidence, and I can assure you that no one ever won me over, even when they tried to make me an agent of the secret service [laugh], they never succeeded in conquering me. Because their world was not that of reality but of illusions. A world of sheer fantasies.
Roos: You talk of destroying the old system. As far as you’re concerned, you destroyed a system, but you did it peacefully, without a single drop of blood (unlike what happened in Romania at the fall of Ceaușescu), through dialogue and with no demagogy. Today, those demons or enemies you’re talking about do indeed want to destroy the old system, but with violence, no dialogue, and blatant demagogy.
Wałęsa: You’re right. But my enemy was a fierce, well-organised and uncompromising one. The people in Warsaw and, behind or above them, the Kremlin, were no choirboys. I had to deal with a very small political space on the one hand, and, on the other hand, cope with a hardly-containable longing for freedom and justice from the workers all across the country. But you know, we are all responsible. I am responsible! Because it was up to us, up to me, to show as fierce, well-organised and uncompromising as my enemy was 30 years ago!
What did we do instead? We let them act, we let them move, we let them be! How can we complain now? Demagogy and violence will always be the easy solution. And in politics easy solutions are so much nicer, so much simpler! Why containing and dampening the people’s anger when you can yell with them? Let’s face it: we’ve been too soft!
Roos: Too soft on people who actually lie, however arrogant this assertion may sound.
Wałęsa: Of course they lie. How can you want to survive alone in this world where giants like China are dominating everyone else with a growth rate and a population that surpass those of any other nation? Europe is not a luxury, Europe is not a fantasy, Europe is our only solution to survive in a highly unstable and highly competitive world. It’s very simple, if we stick to the so-called solutions of the populists, they who call for more walls, more division, who call for isolationism and defensive closing-off of our societies, we will destroy our civilisation purely and simply.
We’ve really been hoisted on our own petard by letting these evils play with our spirit of tolerance, free speech and what I call a “peace attitude”. These people, in America and Europe, have pulled our strings very cleverly. We didn’t react, too afraid of clashing, and now they seem all-powerful, over-shouting and successful in the polls. As a revolutionary, it pains me, believe me. And I wonder: how many bruises will we have to endure before we wake up and start making wisdom triumph again?
Roos: In the speech you wrote and that your wife read in your name before receiving your Nobel prize in Oslo in 1983, you refer to the death of your comrades fallen for your cause stressing that the “bitterness of memory and violence has become a lesson never to forget”. For many years –and this is true for all the communities who fought against tyranny throughout the 20th century- the sacrifice of these martyrs was brandished as a reminder to always behave in a way worthy of the fallen, those who gave their lives for the cause of justice and freedom. This was the power of memory: both a bulwark against the drifts and excesses of politics, and a source of political determination. Today, the younger generation, who lived neither through WW2 nor the Cold War and the fight against communism, tend to be much less sensitive to this question of memory. Where can political determination therefore stem from?
Wałęsa: Well that’s why I said that it is up to political leaders to propose a new moral compass, some sort of sanctified foundation for the political discussion to take shape: foundations for a united Europe, and, tomorrow, foundations for a united world community. Today, I would say that the world is divided in two groups. A first group, which I’d call the “guaranteed-minimum” group, wants to base everything on freedom: everyone is equal to one’s neighbour. This is in line with the Decalogue: same freedom for everyone, one single common line of life for all. And everyone is free to create all the organisations they wish, under the rule of law and order: in politics (political liberalism), in the economy (free market), etc.
A second group thinks that you cannot build a society on freedom alone, and that you will end up with populism, demagogy and a sort of money-above-everything spirit, with everyone quarrelling. This group believes we should build our future on common values. But first we need to agree on what these common values are, and to accept them across religious and cultural borders: 10 secular Commandments, upon which we, Europeans, could agree along with the Chinese. If we say that these 10 new Commandments are the foundation of a new world order and that we accept them, it will arouse the European sentiment and reshape, both morally and politically, globalisation. Then a second question arises: what about the economy? For sure free market should remain the main basis, but not with this savage and unequal capitalism we have at the moment. And the truth is there are proposals for alternative models of capitalism or, at least, for improvements of the current system.
You know, I’m often invited to talk where huge strikes are taking place, all over the world. And almost each time, I meet with people who have very good and innovative ideas to improve our socio-economic system. Honestly, you can listen to them, it’s not so difficult. And you’ll learn a great deal. If we manage to do that, freedom and democracy will be safeguarded, even strengthened.
Roos: You talk of innovative ideas. Can you tell us more?
Wałęsa: Do you know why they are innovative? Because these are actually ideas of common sense.
First of all, a leader shouldn’t be allowed to serve for more than one term in office. The fallacious argument that in one term you only have the time to learn how to lead is the weakest we could ever think of. Have respect for the people for Christ’s sake! You should spend your life learning and failing, and only run for office when you feel you are ready, that your learning is more or less complete. Power is not a doormat! It is the will of the people put in your hands with trust. It should be respected, cherished, and used wisely. Once you’re in office, the time for rehearsal has passed. You shouldn’t learn how to govern at the expense of the taxpayer!
Then you need to have political parties that mirror the social structure of society: more room for civil society, for the young people, etc. And again, this is not rocket science, it is not difficult to implement. Then, once its structure is clearly built in accordance with that of society, a political party should create its own list of 10 Rights & Responsibilities for its members. Therefrom, people would feel truly and meaningfully represented again. And, if you think about it, people could send a monthly check to the party by which they feel best represented without necessarily being a member. This would turn political parties into brand new social institutions! We would go beyond the party political approach, one that has thus far ruined contemporary politics.
Roos: You call for the protection of democracy and system reform, but this is actually a call for leadership. If we stop for a few seconds and look at what the greatest leaders of the 20th century (and you are obviously one of them) have in common (Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi…), we see that they all suffered from repression and persecution, with all the isolation and loneliness it implies. Death was their daily companion for years during their time of struggle. If we think about it, a good leader is someone who has been through pain, and who knows the price of the commitment to justice. A true leader is someone who has suffered.
Wałęsa: At that time yes. But I am actually wondering if this suffering you are talking about is universally true. You know, the divisions people like Mandela or myself had to deal with have nothing to do with those we are facing today in the democratic world. Back in the 1988, for instance, you had no choice but to take communism by surprise. Today no. Today you need to learn languages, you need to travel the world to understand all the stakeholders and actors of globalisation, you need to build the base of your supporters and to unite them behind a cause that is much less obvious than 30 years ago. That’s how you become a leader.
Should you have suffered? Well that’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t know. I sincerely hope not. Otherwise no one amongst your generation will dare take up the challenges of our time. The truth is the book of leadership is made of numerous chapters. 30 years ago, I led my people to democracy, encouraged and supported by the West. When we won, the West told us that they had played their part, and that is was now up to us to organise ourselves. But we didn’t know what to do, simply because the victory was too great. Then we joined Europe, and Europe apparently didn’t know what to do either.
My own leadership chapter was that of the conquest of freedom. Today, it’s up to a new generation to write the chapter of the exercise of that freedom. I built the car, now drive it! And it is actually a significantly different challenge. Look at the great crisis of our time: migration. No one seems to be able to come up with a solution. This is in fact a very complex situation that requires leadership skills far different from those needed in the 1980s to fight tyranny. Our world is different from that of yesterday. It is therefore logical that the characteristics of leadership have changed as well. Leaders are products of their time. And as far as migration is concerned, we are not prepared yet. Imagine China and India open their borders, that Northern African governments fall… the flows won’t come to millions, but to billions. And we’re obviously not ready. We should stop looking in the rear-view mirror once and for all, and seek leaders for the 21st century, not the 20th!
Roos: You often stated that the programme of Solidarność stemmed from “fundamental moral laws and order”. It sounds somewhat uncommon today to hear of morality when discussing politics…
Wałęsa: I understand your point. But you have to think about it in a different way. These were special times. Solidarność belongs to a bygone age. In the late 1940s, we fought communism with weapons. In the 1950s/1960s, we fought with isolated strikes and student riots. Each time we lost. So we had to draw conclusions from that failure. That’s how we came to a simpler philosophy: we cannot lift the burden by shooting or going on minor but violent strike. We have to get altogether, and unite all society, not just minorities within the population. We came to the conclusion that we should aim at uniting the entire nation, and upgrade to a higher level if necessary: Europe, and then the world. The burden of communism and the Soviet Union was simply too heavy to be borne by a minority.
So you are right to say that these “fundamental moral laws and order” on which we founded Solidarność to appeal to the greater number of people are needed today. But the burden is different. At that time, we had to organise within industry unions, workshops, etc. Why? Simply because these were places where communism was weak, where the system was struggling to spread its tentacles. If they fought us in one plant, one factory, they would need to do it in every other plant or factory in all the country. Today the situation is different. The enemy is different, and mentalities have changed. But what is certain is that leadership cannot -or shouldn’t- be separated from solidarity.
Roos: Do you believe that solidarity is compatible with globalisation? In his first address outside Rome a few months after his election, Pope Francis, speaking in front of migrants in Lampedusa, denounced what he called the “globalisation of indifference”.
Wałęsa: Yes and no. The issues we face are so pressing and the past is so tarnished with blood that we tend to forget, here in Europe, all the good that has been done for the past 30 years. Is solidarity in crisis? Yes, I can but agree with that. Can we talk of a global indifference? Well, the simple fact that you’re here to ask me about leadership, and that we both talk about how we can find solutions to such serious crises as that of migration is for me the perfect evidence that no, there is no so-called global indifference.
We may be slow in acting, yes, lose ourselves in endless talks and palaver, that is for sure, but no, we are not indifferent to the misfortune and the tragedies of this world. I would even say that this self-flagellation speech is not useful, counterproductive even. It actually serves the populists by providing grist to their mills. We lack proper moral foundations, and it seems to me we should whine less about how bad we are and work more. There is no leadership in whining and self-flagellation. The world, with all its tragedies, gives us enough bruises. No need to self-inflict.
The real priority is to get prepared in the case the Czechs, the Hungarians and the Poles decide to make the big jump, and leave the EU. It’s not once they’ve jumped that France, Germany and Italy should ask themselves what to do next. It is now they should think about it! And what they should do is very simple: if the Visegrád group leaves the EU, then the EU as we know it collapses. Well, excellent! Then, you should immediately create a new one, the EU 4.0! A stronger one, a wiser one, with its 10 rights and responsibilities. And trust me when I say that everyone would yearn to join this new EU!
This world is much too unstable for the nations not to see in Europe a guarantee of stability, solidarity and support in times of crisis. Think about it. Prepare for it. And stop whining. The true question I keep asking myself is not “are we indifferent to the world’s misfortune”? But rather: “should we try to fix the current EU or get rid of it and build a new one on new and more solid foundations?” Sometimes it’s easier and cheaper to destroy your house and build a new one that renovating it… That’s the true question of our time.
Lech Wałęsa is a Polish Statesman, an electrician turned trade union, human rights and democracy activist, and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who served as the first democratically-elected President of Poland from 1990 to 1995. As leader of the “Solidarity” movement, he played a fundamental role in the Roundtable Talks between the workers and Poland’s communist government, which resulted in the first semi-free elections in a Warsaw-Pact country in 1989 and the end of the communist rule in Poland. A year later, in December 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected President of Poland, and led his country’s transition from communism to a free-market liberal democracy which later joined NATO (1999) and the EU (2004).