The U.S. should take a time-out from supporting Egypt’s democrats, a former envoy suggested yesterday, suggesting that Washington was courting unpopularity and damaging diplomatic relations with Cairo.
But a forum of eminent politicians, diplomats and democracy practitioners suggests otherwise.
“As an instrument of public diplomacy — winning international support by inspiring emulation — instruction in the arts of democracy is invaluable,” says Philip Seib, director of the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy.
“This is clearly the case in today’s Middle East, where dictators have fallen but the ‘What next?’ question looms large.”
This week’s forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library to mark the 30th anniversary the former president’s Westminster Address demonstrated that democracy assistance is not only a diplomatic asset, but a reflection of a country’s moral purpose and commitment.
“Today, the United States sometimes seems uncertain about what it stands for and what example it wants to set, particularly for those emerging from many years of grinding repression. Reagan’s Westminster speech is instructive,” Seib writes on Huffington Post:
We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings … The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.
The instrument crafted to foster that infrastructure was the National Endowment for Democracy which co-sponsored the meeting with the Pacific Council on International Policy. Reflecting the NED’s bipartisan nature, former Secretaries of State George Shultz (left) and Madeleine Albright stressed that its mission remains as vital as ever even if the challenges differ radically from those of the Cold War.
At a time when “the world is awash in change, as almost never before,” the NED’s mission “was never more important than it is right now,” said Shultz.
With new communications technologies, formerly closed societies and autocratic regimes have “opened up in an unprecedented way,” he said. “The powers-at-be used to have a monopoly on information and the ability to organize. That’s not true anymore.”
The Chinese government’s attempt to stifle the flow of information on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre involved censoring such words as June 4, 1989, 23 years, today, and tomorrow, said Xiao Qiang, founder and Editor-in-Chief of China Digital Times.
Nevertheless, China’s people “know today what’s happened in the Middle East, Burma and Taiwan,” he said. “It’s now impossible to govern by control and fear.”
Thirty years’ experience of advancing democracy has yielded valuable lessons, said Albright (right), not least the realization that democratic transitions are fragile and vulnerable to regression, especially when governments fail to address citizens’ materials needs as well as their constitutional rights.
“Democracy is not linear,” she said. “There are ups and downs, often based on whether or not people feel their government is delivering” better services, living standards and quality of life.
“People want to vote but they also want to eat.”
Alejandro Toledo, the former President of Peru, affirmed the importance of the social agenda.
“How do we create a democracy that delivers measurable results?” he asked.
Assistance groups can help provide knowledge and skills of the “nuts and bolts of democracy,” said Albright, but democracy is necessarily a home-grown affair.
Democrats in authoritarian states benefitted from foreign funding and advice, but democracy assistance groups do not engage in political engineering.
The color revolutions demonstrate that local democratic actors need to take responsibility for crafting democratic transitions, said Myroslava Gongadze.
“After the Orange Revolution, civil society and the democratic leadership made many mistakes,” she said. With “no plan and no program” for forging a democratic Ukraine, the country’s divided democrats were no witnessing a revived authoritarianism, said Gongadze, a journalist for Voice of America and widow of slain investigative reporter Georhiy Gongadze.
Perhaps democracy assistance groups need to provide more strategic planning? As Shultz told the conference, “people don’t know what to do once you win.”
Tunisia’s people “are looking for a civil state that respects religious values, not a theocracy,” said Radwan Masmoudi, founder and president of the Center of the Study of Islam and Democracy. But international assistance, including economic aid, is imperative if the transition is to succeed.
While the recession in the West has stretched resources and placed real constraints on budgets, the advanced economies are still able to use development aid budgets as a source of leverage for democratic change, said Birtukan Midekssa, a former federal judge and leader of Ethiopia’s pro-democracy opposition movement.
Indeed, the international community “has more leverage to promote democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region,” she argued.
Sentenced to life in prison in 2005 after her party won an unprecedented number of seats in parliamentary elections, she was released in 2007 and is currently a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow.
“Today we live in a world far different from that which Reagan surveyed in 1982, but the principles he articulated remain valid. His observation about the weaknesses of dictatorships is as applicable to today’s Middle East as it was to the Cold War’s Eastern Europe,” Seib suggests:
Any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders. In such cases, the very repressiveness of the state ultimately drives people to resist it, if necessary, by force.
“I don’t think I’ve heard a clearer discussion of struggles for freedom, and building democratic institutions than this event,” NED president Carl Gershman said at the close of the 30th anniversary forum.
It doesn’t seem that democracy assistance practitioners are likely to heed those calls for a time-out.