TOPICS: The debate over democracy promotion

The notion that democratic governments, including the United States, should promote democracy abroad has come under intense criticism. Critics write of the “folly of exporting democracy” or of the “failure” of democracy promotion. Others deride support for human rights advocates and press freedom in closed societies as incursions on sovereignty.

Some argue that America, especially, is naive to expect that its efforts can expand freedom’s

reach in authoritarian settings. Naive, because Americans do not recognise that for many people, security and jobs have much more value than electoral procedures or a free press. These arguments have a familiar ring.

Apologists for the Soviet system and proponents of Asian values have claimed that democracy was unsuitable for certain societies, by which they meant central European countries, such as Poland and Hungary, as well as societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin

America. Today, central Europe is solidly democratic, as is most of Latin America, much of Asia, and parts of Africa, too. As the late United States Sen Daniel Patrick Moynihan cogently observed: “There is no nation so poor that it cannot afford free speech...”

Listening to today’s demoskeptics, one could easily get the impression that the people of Iran, Belarus, or Zimbabwe are hostile to political freedom and opposed to assistance from the international community. In fact, the inability to move the democratic revolution forward in these and other societies can be traced to a familiar source: ruling elites who fear that change will jeopardise their power.

In the debate over democracy promotion, this point trumps all other arguments.

Today’s autocrats are less concerned with political dissidents than with civil society - the media, women’s rights organisations, minority rights groups, and think tanks that have blossomed in recent years. The rise of such groups has triggered a furious backlash. But the techniques used to muzzle them are more sophisticated than the brutality employed by the Soviets or South American juntas.

Regimes often act in ways that are superficially legalistic. In recent years, repressive regimes have outmanoeuvred the democracies to prevent criticism of their practices at the United Nations.

That’s why democratic governments must collaborate to launch an investigation into the global campaign against civic independence, and to reassert the universally accepted freedoms that are the foundations for the UN’s existence. More important, democracy’s supporters need to emerge from their current state of self-doubt.

We have an obligation to speak up for those who are being silenced, jailed, and murdered by their authorities. This is not the first time that freedom’s adversaries have taken the initiative. Current conditions may demand new strategies. But on the universality of freedom, there should be no second thoughts and no apologies. — The Christian Science Monitor