Democracy in trouble

A riot of golden curlicues embellished the theater boxes; in the plush velvet seats below, ambassadors in saris crowded against activists in crumpled suits. It was standing-room only on Saturday for Hillary Clinton’s speech at the 10th anniversary meeting of the Community of Democracies, and the American secretary of state had the crowd behind her. First she paid compliments to her predecessor Madeleine Albright, who co-founded the organization a decade ago with Poland’s then-foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek.

Then she spoke not about democracy, exactly, but about civil society, those “activists, organizations, congregations, writers and reporters that work though peaceful means to encourage governments to do better.” Civil society, along with representative government and well-functioning markets, she said, “undergirds both democratic governance and broad-based prosperity.” Yet civil society is under threat, and she mentioned activists in prison in many countries, including some that call themselves democracies: Egypt, China, Burma and Zimbabwe.

Behind me, a Kuwaiti diplomat scribbled furious notes in Arabic. Up in the balconies, delegates from Moldova and Mongolia leaned forward, trying to catch every word. But was anyone listening back home?

This is now the central question, not only for the Community of Democracies — an organization benignly neglected by the Bush administration and recently revived by the Poles — but for all advocates of “democracy promotion,” myself included. American democracy promotion has taken different forms in recent decades, from the Reagan administration’s covert support for anti-communist dissidents to the relaunching of Radio Free Afghanistan in 2002. Right now, though, the whole concept is in trouble.

This is partly because — as Clinton and others have recently noted — democracy is in trouble. By every measure, the world’s autocrats have become more entrenched over the past decade. Countries as disparate as Russia, Venezuela and Iran have become adept at using the rhetoric of “democracy” — along with faked elections, phony political parties, even state-controlled “civil society” organizations — to deflect pressure for change.

But democracy promotion has also been unfairly discredited by the invasion of Iraq, a decision too often remembered as nothing more than a foolish “war for democracy” that went predictably wrong. The subsequent failure of Iraq to metamorphose overnight into the Switzerland of the Middle East is cited as an example of why democracy should never be pushed or promoted. This silly argument has had a strong echo: Since becoming president, Barack Obama has shied away from the word democracy in foreign contexts — he prefers “our common security and prosperity” — as if it might be some dangerous Bushism.

In fact, democracy promotion was not invented by a secret cabal of neocons but is, rather, a long-standing tool of bipartisan American as well as Western foreign policy, one that has overlapped at times with both public diplomacy and foreign aid. The Germans use their political party foundations to bolster democrats, especially in Eastern Europe; the British sometimes work through the Commonwealth, the organization of former British colonies and others in Africa and Asia. We Americans tend to spend money on media (Radio Free Europe and its modern offshoots), on training (for judges, journalists, activists) and, yes, sometimes on covert funding of democrats in authoritarian countries.

Frustratingly — at least for those who fund these projects — none of them guarantees success and many fail outright. Revolutions can be reversed. Good dissidents don’t always make good presidents. Even established democracies require constant maintenance, and societies divided by bitter ethnic conflict or extreme poverty can be disappointingly fragile.

None of which means that these tools don’t ever work. They have in the past and they can again — especially if, as Clinton suggested, we steadily focus on supporting the culture of free speech and free association, without which elections and political parties are mere farce. We cannot impose democracy by force, but we can bypass the United Nations and its corrupt Human Rights Council, perhaps using the Community of Democracies to monitor and investigate abuses of civil society. We can also join others, not only in Europe but in South Korea, Indonesia or Chile — newer democracies that care enough to have sent senior ministers all the way to Krakow this past weekend — in condemning the abusers.

And we can continue funding those training programs and radio stations that might, someday, bear fruit. Clinton announced the administration’s intention to contribute $2 million to a fund that would provide lawyers, cellphones and quick support for embattled civic organizations. It’s not much — a friend pointed out that some in the audience Saturday have more in their bank accounts — but these things don’t have to cost a lot.

Besides, even that level of support requires somebody, occasionally, to say that it is necessary. Clinton did so Saturday and won wide international applause. I hope she gets some at home, too.

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