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Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2000 /25 Teves, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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As befits the argumentative nature of democracy -- IN THE SPIRIT of the political moment, I pass along to loyal readers excerpts of greetings which appeared in a trice upon my e-mail:

"Happy special time of year! Please accept best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all... and a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2000, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures... and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, choice of computer platform, or sexual preference of the wishee..."

Speaking of peace on earth, consider democracy, a form of governance that dramatically reduces the propensity of nations to make war. A glowing future for democracy is no slam dunk. And so, 130 nations have been invited to participate in a June '00 foreign-minister level conference in Warsaw that will be "for the first time in world history a meeting of democratic nations dedicated solely to democracy." A bold thought; perhaps it will mark a step toward what may come to be called "The Liberty Century."

The quoted words are from the invitation letter dispatched by Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, the host of "The Community of Democracies" (CD) meeting. Geremek was a leader of Solidarity, where he risked his life, and was imprisoned, fighting for democracy.

Working the American side, which has been central to preparing the CD, is an odd couple, who started out as polar opposites in the fratricidal combat about American foreign policy. Mort Halperin was a dissenter from the left, attacking American policy, the Vietnam War and the CIA -- and is now the director of policy planning at the State Department. Penn Kemble, who carries the title "Special Representative of the Secretary of State for the Community of Democracies Initiative," was active in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which espoused a muscular and assertive American international policy.

What could go wrong with the democratic system? After all, haven't we seen that democratic governance, along with its usual twin, market economics, is the best way to get prosperity and liberty as well as peace? Terrorism could destroy or erode democracy. So could organized crime, massive corruption, ethnic or religious wars, old-fashioned wars or nuclear wars.

Not so long ago, in the 1920s and 1930s, democracy failed across much of Europe. In the early 1940s, it was not at all assured that liberty would survive. Up through the early 1990s, a hostile totalitarian super-power, the U.S.S.R., had 30,000 nuclear warheads aimed at America and the European democracies. Today, the world's most populous country is China, authoritarian/totalitarian in nature, armed with a growing nuclear arsenal. There are "rogue states" planning nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction.

As befits the argumentative nature of democracy, there are disputes about the aborning CD. For the moment, some European nations seem to be wary of an American hegemonist trick, although the Brits, Swiss and Swedes seem ready.

And how come so many nations have been invited? Are there really 130 democracies in the world? If you count Haiti and Peru there are. For the moment, the CD threshold is low and imprecise: a government that seems to be, at least, following a path toward democracy. The conveners take the position that the CD will issue a declaration spelling out yardsticks, as did the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which moved the Soviets toward a better human rights position. In theory, a Declaration would include standards for free and fair elections, opposition dissent, a free press, an independent judiciary and some sort of market economics.

Most important, what will the new group do, if anything? The "concept paper" for the conference lists some laudable, and modest, goals. The CD could make an ongoing effort to help the "new or restored" democracies. The CD may set up an "informal caucus" of democracies within existing international organizations.

But ducked completely is the obvious notion of setting up an ongoing organization. Almost since the advent of socialism, there has been a "Socialist International," sometimes several at once. Some years ago Senator Moynihan called for establishing a global "Liberty Party." When Kemble was with the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, he drafted "Democratic Solidarity," which later found itself incorporated into the 1988 Democratic Party platform.

For the moment, the nervous convening democracies are afraid to publicly commit to anything so decisive. We shall see. If it all works out, it can help yield what I wish for my readers and their descendants: a peaceful and prosperous century.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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