Open Societies. Liberty

Are Free and Open Societies in Retreat?

The Economist has a thought-provoking article in this week's edition which discusses the findings of a new Freedom House report, "Freedom in the World 2010: A Global Erosion of Freedom."

The article has this compelling passage:

For freedom-watchers in the West, the worrying thing is that the cause of liberal democracy is not merely suffering political reverses, it is also in intellectual retreat. Semi-free countries, uncertain which direction to take, seem less convinced that the liberal path is the way of the future. And in the West, opinion-makers are quicker to acknowledge democracy’s drawbacks—and the apparent fact that contested elections do more harm than good when other preconditions for a well-functioning system are absent. It is a sign of the times that a British reporter, Humphrey Hawksley, has written a book with the title: “Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About the Vote?”.

A more nuanced argument, against the promotion of electoral democracy at the expense of other goals, has been made by other observers. Paul Collier, an Oxford professor, has asserted that democracy in the absence of other desirables, like the rule of law, can hobble a country’s progress. Mark Malloch-Brown, a former head of the UN Development Programme, is still a believer in democracy as a driver of economic advancement, but he thinks that in countries like Afghanistan, the West has focused too much on procedures—like multi-party elections—and is not open enough to the idea that other kinds of consensus might exist. At the University of California, Randall Peerenboom defends the “East Asian model”, according to which economic development naturally precedes democracy.

Whatever the eggheads may be saying, there are some obvious reasons why Western governments’ zeal to promote democracy, and the willingness of other countries to listen, have ebbed. In many quarters (including Western ones), the assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and its bloody aftermath, seemed to confirm people’s suspicion that promoting democracy as an American foreign-policy aim was ill-conceived or plain cynical.

In Afghanistan, the other country where an American-led coalition has been waging war in democracy’s name, the corruption and deviousness of the local political elite, and the flaws of last year’s election, have been an embarrassment. In the Middle East, America’s enthusiasm for promoting democracy took a dip after the Palestinian elections of 2006, which brought Hamas to office. The European Union’s “soft power” on its eastern rim has waned as enlargement fatigue has grown.

But perhaps the biggest reason why democracy’s magnetic power has waned is the rise of China—and the belief of its would-be imitators that they too can create a dynamic economy without easing their grip on political power. In the political rhetoric of many authoritarian governments, fascination with copying China’s trick can clearly be discerned.

I have believed for some time now that the way the world was developing would inevitably force President Obama and his Administration to become much more spirited global advocates of political freedom and liberty than was their initial instinct. Why?

For the great political dynamic of the early 21st century is what Fareed Zakaria has called "the rise of the rest" - or the increasingly rapid rise in power and socio-economic status twenty years of globalization has brought to many developing nations.  In these nations there are billions of similarly "rising" people, individuals and families who though this process of modernization have seen a dramatic rise in their affluence, education levels and access to information.  It seems inexorable that these rising citizens, tied to the world through the rapid beat of global technology, media and commerce, will increasingly demand greater openness, transparency, accountability and democratic institutions from their leaders.  They will want more than affluence and stability - they will want the political self-determinination and freedom they see in other nations.

As I have written before, I think the emerging ideological struggle in the world today is more open society versus closed, than it is a replay of the 20th century construct of left and right.  As this Freedom House report reminds us, it is at this moment in history, when so many nations and peoples are rising and reinventing old and less modern societies, when America and its ideological allies must make their case for their vision of how humanity will best prosper together in a very different century ahead.  We really don't know how the 21st century will turn out.  But with the world being so young now, and with so many nations going through profound transformation, we have to see this struggle to ensure successful transitions of these rising nations to modern, democratic, and free countries as the next stage of the great battle we waged to defeat totalitarianism, communism and fascism in the 20th century.  Our work, my friends, is not yet done.

In that regard I think it is critical, essential, required that this President and this Administration make it crystal clear to the people in these rising nations that America stands with them and their aspirations; that we want to work side by side with them in forging better nations with greater opportunities and freedom; that we will be patient but resolute in our commitment; for at no moment can an authoritarian government which denies basic freedoms to their people ever be considered better or even an acceptable alternative to well constructed democratic societies which offer liberty, democracy itself, free markets and the rule of law.

Of course we cannot be foolish in how we advocate for this traditional American creed in the new world of the 21st century, but nor can we ignore it.  Too many people across the world are waiting to hear from us.  And I dismiss the idea that this discussion is about "human rights," or "universal rights," as if these things are somehow secondary to the important things great powers discuss when they meet.  The firm and resolute advocacy of open and free societies has to be the very cornerstone of America's foreign policy at this critical - and exciting - juncture in human history.  It is not something left to the coffee after the diplomatic main course.   There has been no moment in our history in fact when so many people and so many nations have had the chance to rise to the level of freedom and self-determination the 21st century offers; which is why the effort to help them achieve it should be seen as the great geopolitical opportunity for America of this new era, one which must be enthusiastically seized.

We will get a sense of the state of the Administration's thinking on all this Thursday, when the very able Secretary of State will deliver an important speech on internet freedom.  My hope is that she goes big, is bold, and makes clear what is at stake, and helps us all understand the historic opportunity in front of us today.

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