Democracies of the World Unite

In the darkness of 1939, H.G. Wells asked in a letter to the London Times, “What are we fighting for?” Apart from Britain’s survival, Wells proposed it was for the “rights of man.”

Some time later, Franklin D. Roosevelt told Americans the allied cause was for the “four freedoms” — speech and worship, and from want and fear — “everywhere in the world.”

At the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport recently, this global cause no longer seemed to impress a tough U.S. Homeland Security officer who challenged my explanation of what I was doing in the United States. “A ‘foreign democracy project’? Haven’t we stuck our noses enough in other peoples’ business and done enough harm?”

Indeed, the Pew Research Center reports a drastic fall in U.S. public support for democracy promotion. At the same time, democratic space in the world is narrowing in what Freedom House calls a “freedom recession” as the number of countries practicing democracy dips for the fourth year in a row.

That’s not what bright-eyed Westerners expected in the early 1990’s when we pressed Russians to mimic our democracy and go all-out for open markets. The chaotic experience left Russians with genuinely private lives and growing prosperity, but in the messy process, “democracy” became code for convulsive change, market failures, deep social inequity and violence.

It was delusion to think our democratic systems could be exported, much less imposed by force. Democracy needs home-grown roots in the underpinning of a functioning civil society. Rapid change needs the cushion of the rule of law that, as Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on democracy promotion, put it, resides more within the “heads of citizens” than in freshly-minted statutes. It all takes time.

Meanwhile, dictators push back and kick down. George Kennan called “the rise to power of the most determined, decisive, and often brutal natures … the common condition of most of mankind for centuries.” Ordinary people in Myanmar, Iran, Cuba and Zimbabwe have ruined lives if they step out of line.

But if we’re not at war with their leaders, should other peoples’ lives matter to us? Don’t we need to tend to our own weedy democratic gardens, and lean on states abroad more for what they can do to cooperate on global peace and security than for what they’re doing to their citizens at home?

I believe other peoples’ lives do matter, because people “everywhere in the world,” including Russia, aspire to human rights we take for granted and look to democrats beyond their borders for solidarity with their nonviolent struggles to enlarge their democratic space.

As democrats — with humility about our own staggered progress toward fairer democracies that are still works in progress — we must support the legitimacy of these efforts.

An expansive nongovernmental sector welcomes the challenge of helping civil society build foundations for home-grown democratic governance, symbolized recently by George Soros’s $100 million gift to Human Rights Watch. But NGOs are increasingly harassed by authoritarian regimes. Democratic governments need to step up support for their right to support civil society in non-interfering ways.

Democracies have hesitated about organizing themselves for such an idealistic purpose, even though some, such as the European Union, the Commonwealth and now NATO, make democratic practice a fundamental requirement of membership. Until recently, the Community of Democracies, an intergovernmental organization inaugurated in 2000, was hobbled by mistrust of U.S. inconsistency and the interventionist agenda of the Bush administration.

But as the controversial invasion of Iraq recedes, the Community of Democracies can become a more effective declaratory channel for democratic responses to human rights abuse — not as a bloc hostile to authoritarian regimes, but as a free international association of democratic citizens and states.

In foreign policy, democratic states can handle interdependent interests and values at the same time, provided we are consistent. Our self-interest compels that we engage with key non-democracies. But political capital from those relationships can be deployed also to support the legitimate rights of civil society and embattled human rights defenders.

We can work with strongmen without coddling their corrupt relatives or their torturers on false grounds of security. Authoritarians have to know that we support heroes of conscience like Aung San Suu Kyi, Liu Xiaobo, Oswaldo Paya or Ayman Nour, and that the values we share with them are not negotiable.

Our real security will always reside in consistency with the values we believe define us, that Wells and F.D.R. judged were worth fighting for, and that people “everywhere in the world” are trying through nonviolent means to realize for themselves.

Jeremy Kinsman, a former Canadian ambassador who has supervised the Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support for the Community of Democracies.