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Jewish World Review
July 7, 2010
/ 26 Tamuz 5770
Democracy in trouble
KRAKOW, POLAND---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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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
06/22/10: Buzz off? : What to do about the vuvuzela
06/08/10: Germany's dangerous code of silence
06/02/10: Can the Brits play nice?
05/11/10: Greece's stubborn surrender
05/04/10: Another human-rights irony at the U.N.
04/27/10: Britain's spot of Tea Party
04/13/10: Out of tragedy, a detente of sorts between Russia, Poland
03/25/10: From Britain's Tories, lessons for the GOP
03/16/10: Britain and America both have center-left leaders, but the two nations are further apart than ever
03/09/10: Germany Is Tired of Paying Europe's Bills
03/02/10: Chile will survive the earthquake because its democracy works
02/23/10: Prepare for war with Iran in case Israel strikes
02/17/10: America's Greek tragedy?
02/09/10: The Big Problem With Big Solutions
01/26/10: India's model of reflective patriotism
01/12/10: Haiti's man-made disasters
01/12/10: We need a smarter way to fight the jihadi elite
01/05/10: How every year we waste millions on wasteful homeland-security projects
12/30/09: The next decade will be bad for authoritarian regimes except one
12/15/09: The Apocalypse Is Not Upon Us
11/24/09: Superpower without a partner
11/17/09: Why has the global response to swine flu been so politicized?
11/10/09: After the wall fell
11/03/09: Angela Merkel's Quiet Revolution
10/20/09: Will the President of Europe Be a Gifted Pol or a Compromising Bureaucrat?
09/29/09:What Is Iran Afraid Of?
09/22/09: Letting Europe Drift
09/17/09: Greed and fear are proving stronger than companies' commitment to free speech
09/08/09: Will Obama Fight For Afghanistan?
09/01/09: The Polish Prologue
08/20/09: Why Afghans Need a Vote
07/29/09: No Burqa For Clinton
07/14/09: The Summit of Green Futility
07/09/09: Obama Puts Medvedev Ahead of Putin
06/30/09: In Morocco, an alternative to Iran
06/23/09: An overlooked force in Iran
06/16/09: Some good in a bad election
06/09/09: Why Is the Right Doing So Well in Europe?
06/02/09: Is China Pulling Strings in North Korea?
05/26/09: What a Member of Parliament Deserves
04/22/09: The Twitter Revolution That Wasn't
04/14/09: Do we really need interactive exhibits to bring Jefferson to life?
04/07/09: No Nukes? No Thanks: Obama's odd obsession with universal nuclear disarmament
03/31/09: What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
06/24/08: Why do we expect presidential candidates to be kind?
06/17/08: Pity the Poor Eurocrats
06/12/08: Is the World Ready for a Black American President?
05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2009, Anne Applebaum. By permission of the author