20th Anniversary: Forum 2000, Sept. 11, Clinton and Havel
A month after the attacks, leaders convene to discuss century-defining changes
Posted: January 6, 2011
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton in reflection at Forum 2000, Oct. 15, 2001.
Sitting under the gilded chandeliers of the Spanish Hall in Prague Castle, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, then only months removed from power, described how the world had changed.
"We are dealing here with a basic struggle for the fundamental character of the 21st century," Clinton said as, far from the castle's ornate halls, U.S. forces were just beginning air strikes and planning for a ground war in Afghanistan.
It was a little more than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and in Prague a group of the world's leading intellectuals and public figures had gathered for Václav Havel's annual Forum 2000 conference.
There was an added sense of urgency to the forum as the likes of Clinton, former South African President F.W. De Klerk and then Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres wandered the halls and joined discussion panels. Everyone knew the Sept. 11 attacks had fundamentally altered global politics, but no one was yet sure how.
I was among a team of Prague Post reporters deployed to cover the forum. We had of course covered - and would cover - the fallout from the attacks from a variety of angles: the alleged meeting of Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta with Iraqi officials in Prague, reports of a plot by Saddam Hussein to attack Radio Free Europe's headquarters on Wenceslas Square and, eventually, the deployment of Czech troops in Afghanistan.
But the forum was a chance to take a step back and hear how some of the world's leading thinkers were interpreting the event we were all still reeling from.
There was, not surprisingly, a lot of confusion. The narrative of Sept. 11 was still being written, and the full impact of the attacks had not yet been felt.
De Klerk put it simply during his talk.
"We are all in a state of shock," he said, before making the prophetic warning that the threat of terrorism would overwhelm concerns about global human rights.
Historian Timothy Garton Ash warned of a potential backlash if the West was seen to be "imposing its own values" on other countries in the wake of the attacks, while Peres warned against rising militancy in the Middle East, saying "good neighbors are better than good guns."
I remember one panel discussion, with the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, turning vicious. Fukuyama had made a name for himself in the early 1990s by announcing that the collapse of the Soviet Union had brought about "the end of history" - a new era of liberal democracy and Western-style capitalism. Other panelists said Sept. 11 had made a mockery of Fukuyama's claim, but he insisted the attacks were nothing but a "rearguard" action by fringe anti-modernists.
If there was little consensus about the meaning of the attacks, those gathered for the summit were unanimous in support for the decision to send troops into Afghanistan. This was before U.S. President George W. Bush had squandered much of the global goodwill for the United States that emerged after the attacks and before the invasion of Iraq cast doubts on U.S. motives. Havel was among those praising Bush's creation of "an international coalition with the aim of combating terrorism."
No one then knew that nearly 10 years later, U.S. forces would be bogged down in Afghanistan, that Osama bin Laden would still be free and that terrorist threats would remain an almost daily concern.
I remember seeing Havel during a break from the conference, stooped over and leaning on an aide, and wondering how many more of these forums he'd be able to host. The rumors swirling around Prague at the time were that his respiratory problems were worse than ever.
So I was glad to read in the Post last October that Havel was hosting another Forum 2000 conference, although no longer at Prague Castle, of course. Critics have often derided the conferences as elitist, and I remember some - both inside and outside the Post - criticizing the paper for giving blanket coverage to the forum. But Havel deserves credit for creating a venue where the big questions can be asked, even if, like in October 2001, there are no easy answers to be had. I hope he hosts many more.
- The author was a Prague Post reporter from 2001 to 2002. He went on to be a Moscow correspondent and then the Caucusus bureau chief for Agence-France Presse. He now works for AFP in Paris.
Michael Mainville can be reached at
Tags: 20th anniversary, prague post, forum 2000, havel, clinton, atta, terrotism, hussein, shimon peres.