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Advancing Democracy

Advancing Democracy

Mini Teaser: Despots have long formed coalitions on the international stage. Democracies are finally responding.

by Author(s): Paula J. Dobriansky

In the Summer 2004 issue of The National Interest, Adrian Karatnycky called for "an effort to press democracy's expansion" that would take advantage of what he described as

"an opening in history when there is a chance utterly to vanquish and banish the worst forms of tyranny and autocracy and replace them with an order rooted in the rule of law and democratic accountability before the people."

He is correct that the end of the Cold War and the attendant U.S.-Soviet nuclear stand-off have created a geostrategic landscape in which there is an unprecedented opportunity for the promotion of democracy. In fact, the United States is already pursuing this course. As President Bush stated in his introduction to the National Security Strategy released in 2002, America seeks "to create a balance of power that favors human freedom" and "will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world."

President Bush is committed to these objectives because they are the right thing to do: The advent of democracy--backed up by the rule of law, limited government and civil society--advances human freedom and human dignity while empowering individuals and societies to reach their greatest potential.

The United States has a moral imperative to advocate that individuals around the world have the freedom to pursue their dreams in a secure, prosperous and peaceful environment. Promoting democracy also advances other important interests worldwide. Most immediately, it is an indispensable component of any viable strategy for winning the global war against terrorism, which poses a grave threat to international security in the 21st century. Democracy facilitates the establishment of legitimate and law-based political systems in states that may become sponsors or havens for terrorists, creates peaceful channels to reconcile grievances that can otherwise fuel bloody and destabilizing conflicts within nations, and instills hope, replacing the sense of powerlessness and despair that sometimes transforms ordinary people into willing terrorist recruits. It can also contribute to broader prosperity, which enhances stability and creates opportunities to expand trade and investment ties between nations.

Democracy-building is a protracted process, and one or two free elections do not a democracy make. A mature democracy requires far more than periodic holding of even free and fair elections. It calls for limited government, with many of the economic, social and cultural issues being handled within a private sphere. The rule of law is another must, with a particular emphasis on ensuring governmental accountability. Even though building a mature democracy may take a long time, we should pursue such a goal with vigor and dispatch.

While we believe that our constitutional structure and political philosophy contain unique insights into how to build and manage a multi-ethnic and diverse democracy, and while we are happy to share our experience, promoting democracy does not mean imposing the American political and constitutional model on other countries. On the contrary, citizens in emerging democracies must be free to develop institutions compatible with their own cultures and experiences. The desire for freedom, the rule of law and a vibrant civil society, and for a voice in one's government, is universal, but the specific institutional expressions of democracy will naturally vary by country.

Under this administration, U.S. efforts to promote democracy have taken several forms. Indeed, they have been as comprehensive and varied as the numerous challenges involved in democratization. One of our most exciting--and perhaps lesser known--endeavors is the Community of Democracies (CD), an unprecedented network of over 130 established and emerging democratic countries committed to strengthening democratic institutions and spreading democratic values worldwide. At its founding meeting in Warsaw in June 2000, an extraordinary group of ministers affirmed these principles in the Warsaw Declaration. Two years later, at the subsequent Ministerial Conference in Seoul in November 2002, the CD moved from affirmation to action, devising an ambitious and practical blueprint for its work. Known as the Seoul Plan of Action, this document spells out concrete areas for cooperative action among the participants, ranging from developing regional human rights and democracy-monitoring mechanisms, to promoting good governance practices and responding to threats to democracy.

Some recent activities of the Community of Democracies illustrate its practical approach and underscore its tremendous potential and growing impact. In June 2003, for example, government officials and NGO leaders from 14 African, Latin American and Caribbean democracies, as well as representatives of the African Union, the Organization of American States (OAS), and other regional organizations, met in Miami to discuss how they could most effectively address local threats to democratic governance. One of the most compelling moments during this gathering was a ten-minute speech by El Salvador's then-president, Francisco Flores, who movingly enumerated his country's enormous achievements during the last 15 years and described them as

"eloquent proof that El Salvador has discovered the path to defeat poverty and to attain prosperity. This path is called democracy, and it is based on this essential concept: that Salvadorans know how to resolve their problems; they just needed a chance to do it."

It is one thing for American officials to deliver this message, as we often do, but it is something else entirely for leaders in developing democracies to hear it from their peers. This discussion has intensified in the Western Hemisphere, where leaders of OAS member states participating in the special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, earlier this year explicitly recognized the Community of Democracies' work and urged the body to continue its efforts to strengthen democratic institutions.

A May 2004 initiative to assist East Timor in developing its nascent democracy likewise illustrates what the Community of Democracies can do to assist other countries. In this case, the CD sent a multinational delegation of local and national officials experienced in the nuts and bolts of democratic institutions to share the challenges they overcame and the lessons they learned in building and practicing democracy in their own countries. In addition to a Chilean public defender and an American judge (from American Samoa), the group included, among others, an Australian police official, a Cape Verdean election commissioner, and an Israeli local governance expert.

Beyond being action oriented, the Community of Democracies is distinctive and valuable in several other respects. First and foremost, unlike virtually all international organizations, it is not based on the principle of universal membership. Dictators and rogue states "need not apply." While the aim of the CD is to be inclusive rather than exclusive, participants and observers must make a demonstrable commitment to democratic governance and democratic values. Only countries with shared values are able to work together effectively to advance them.

Second, the CD is structured as a flexible network, not as a traditional international organization with an elaborate bureaucratic structure. Indeed, it does not even have a permanent staff. Its objective is to facilitate purposeful interaction among interested participants. The Convening Group, a core group of ten especially committed and active governments, is a coordinating rather than a governing body. Discussions on expanding this body and rotating the participating countries are now underway.

Third, the Community of Democracies is guided by a multinational group that represents the economic and regional diversity of the democratic landscape. It is not an American-run effort. The United States is an active member of the Convening Group; Poland, South Korea, and now Chile--which will host the 2005 meeting--have chaired it.

Fourth, by its very nature, the Community of Democracies inherently recognizes--even celebrates--the many forms that successful democracies can take. It does not promote one particular model of democracy, but instead seeks to strengthen democratic principles and institutions that reflect them.

Finally, by linking these diverse democracies, some mature, with centuries of democratic experience under their belt, and others quite new, the Community of Democracies not only allows for exchanges of views and information between new and established democracies, but also creates unique opportunities for newer democracies to share experiences with one another. This interaction among governments that in some ways have more in common with one another than they do with older democracies can be extraordinarily valuable, as these states often face similar challenges--and their leaders often have to make similar tough decisions.

The Community of Democracies is also working to have a wider long-term impact, by influencing efforts to promote democracy and human rights within the United Nations and its component parts. Working closely with Chile, Poland, Italy and others, we are gradually building a caucus of democracies within various UN bodies. This democracy caucus has established a network in which democracies can coordinate their support for resolutions and initiatives and work together to elect more democracies to lead or participate in relevant institutions. We view this as an essential component of broader efforts to reform the UN, bolster the influence of democratic voices within international institutions and diminish the influence of non-democratic states.

These efforts are already bearing fruit. During the annual session of the UN Commission on Human Rights earlier this year, members of the CD's Convening Group and other democracies joined forces to support a resolution emphasizing the importance of good governance in protecting and promoting human rights. This group also backed resolutions on the incompatibility of democracy and racism and the need to strengthen the role of regional organizations in promoting democracy. Although many governments regularly support their neighbors (or avoid antagonizing them) and align along socioeconomic lines, the emerging democracy caucus has established a complementary mechanism that, while respecting existing institutions, can also advance democratic values as a basis for cooperative action. Increasing coordination among democracies--and persuading them to vote together as democracies--can make a difference.

Essay Types: Essay