The United States’ founding proposition -- that men and women should have the right to govern themselves -- will face critical tests in 2008, not only during our own country’s marathon presidential campaign but in venues across the globe. It will be the responsibility of our leaders, both current and prospective, to take a firm stand in support of democratic principles. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it appeared that the global debate had been settled in freedom’s favor, yet almost two decades later, the struggle to define and defend self-government still rages on every continent. Indeed, a real danger exists that the world will again be split by competing ideologies, not communist versus capitalist but democratic versus autocratic.
For a time, democracy enjoyed an aura of inevitability. No longer. In China, neither the emergence of free enterprise nor the information revolution have loosened communist control, though party chiefs have been forced to respond to popular discontent over such issues as corruption and worker safety. Leaders in Beijing now have democratic debates and votes within the party but still prohibit noncommunists from forming parties of their own. Across the border in Russia, Vladimir Putin has transformed his country’s nascent democracy into a personal empire. Leaders in both countries largely ignore external criticism; in fact, they often cast it as “meddling” by the West and turn it to their rhetorical advantage.
These troubling developments are amplified by events elsewhere. An increasing number of foreign leaders now insist that the West does not understand their societies and has no right to object when they manipulate their constitutions or silence political opponents. Many officials in Africa, where Chinese investments are on the rise, find the Beijing model of economic reform without political change more congenial than free elections. In some cases, such as Nigeria and Kenya last year, elections were held but the processes were deeply flawed. In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf has stressed the need for national unity while riding roughshod over constitutional procedures, thereby exacerbating national divisions. The tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto shows that repression does not prevent violence but instead causes it to build.
Arab democracy, meanwhile, has shifted out of first gear and back into neutral. The Bush administration’s grandiose plan for the democratic transformation of the Middle East has been shredded by the venomous politics of Iraq, the electoral gains of Hamas, the popularity of Hezbollah and the growing fear of Iran. President Bush no longer pressures Arab dictators to reform; instead, he calls them moderates and urges them to unite against extremist groups that are, awkwardly, both implicated in terrorism and proficient at competing in elections.
In parts of Latin America, democratic consolidation has been threatened by a new generation of caudillo-style leader, adept at pleasing crowds via economic populism while determined to eviscerate competing centers of power. Though narrowly rebuffed by Venezuelan voters in a recent referendum, Hugo Chavez still appears to equate his right to the presidency with the matrimonial vow: ‘til death do us part. At the same time, an older generation clings precariously to life in Cuba, where the prospect of a post-Fidel government is both raising tensions and inspiring hope.
The policy dilemma for the United States has two parts. First, our ability to promote democracy successfully depends on the credibility and appeal of our example. It is hard to persuade others to follow our lead when White House officials disregard democratic rules and make excuses for torture. Second, throughout 2008, American voters will be preoccupied with the presidential election, while President Bush will be preoccupied with his legacy. Neither will be focused on democratic progress overseas, even at a moment when the cement may be hardening on a new global split between democratic and undemocratic forces. As a result, our next president may confront a world in which self-government has been supplanted by top-down government in key countries. Twenty years after the Cold War ended, we may see Putin -- not the likes of Havel, Walesa or Mandela -- pointing the way to the future.
I am 70 years old, without stars in my eyes. I understand that no system of government, not even democracy, guarantees prosperity or peace. Our leaders must weigh a variety of factors when deciding which governments to support. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to make alliances of convenience with countries that do not share our values. Democracy itself is not an event but a painstaking process that must evolve over time through the creation of institutions and changing habits of thought.
These reservations aside, the principle endures. The United States is not China. Without a passion for democratic government, we have no valid claim to the attention of foreign populations. If America is lukewarm or transparently hypocritical in its support for democracy, we will cause irreparable damage to our long-term interests. The more democracy is challenged, the more its champions must insist on its validity as the best system of government humans have devised. And if America does not lead that roster of champions, who will?