Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, discussed European politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Monday night.
Moderated by Grzegorz Ekiert, director of Harvard’s Center for European Studies, the talk — which drew a full crowd — covered a range of topics, from the role of education in political discourse to the geopolitical influence of China and Russia.
Mark C. Elliott, the vice provost for international affairs, opened the event by introducing Walesa, and contrasting the current global political climate with the one in which Walesa became a pro-democracy activist.
“We live today in an age of the need to build new walls, bigger walls, higher walls,” Elliott said. “But many here can still remember the time when our leaders called for the tearing down of walls.”
During his talk — which he delivered in Polish and was interpreted in real time — Walesa said he wanted to inspire members of the younger generation to address the changing world around them. In his view, the Cold War era of “deep divisions” has given way to a modern age of “deep global uncertainty” spurred by globalization and technology.
“I want to encourage you young people to contribute to constructing the new era, this new world,” Walesa said.
Walesa also discussed the hostilities that separated the world into two different blocs in the late 20th century, which he described as the “good empire” of the United States and the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, respectively.
“Wherever people have problems, felt oppression, and were oppressed, they could count on the U.S. to come to the rescue,” Walesa said. “Now once the ‘evil empire’ has collapsed, what should the role of the U.S. be?”
Later in his address, Walesa spoke about the difficulties of integrating Europe, which he said he believes is especially challenging when each country has its own culture.
“The major question that Europe needs to answer is, ‘What should serve as the true foundation for this new integrated structure we are establishing?’” Walesa said. “Each country has its own history, has its own development.”
Responding to a question about public political participation, Walesa raised his doubts about the efficacy of democracy if citizens do not participate.
“I was taught that democracy was wherever there was majority,” Walesa said. “And now, in many countries, the turnout of the election is suddenly not with the majority – the majority do not vote. So where is democracy if the majority do not go to vote?”
Florian Bochert ’23, who attended the talk, said he found Walesa’s point about the United States's role as a world leader to be particularly interesting.
“I did not expect him as a Polish person to that obviously state that the United States should be a world leader,” Bochert said.
Matej Cerman ’23 said he was excited to see the former Polish president speak at the Forum.
“I know all about him and as an Eastern European just like him, there were similar freedom fighters like him in my country,” Cerman said.