Politics & Policy

Freedom’s Prospects

The march has stalled, but a former president can give us hope.

Twenty-five years ago this week, President Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most significant speeches of his presidency. Standing before the British parliament in the historic Westminster Palace nearly a decade before the demise of the Soviet Union, he offered the vision of “a plan and a hope for the long-term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

Although Reagan knew that “by denying human freedom and human dignity to its citizens,” Communist regimes ran “against the tide of history,” he knew the struggle for both would not be easy. “Optimism,” he said, “comes less easily today, not because democracy is less vigorous but because democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression.”

Today, throughout the world, political repression is once again on the rise. In its latest annual survey, Freedom House highlights a “developing freedom stagnation” that includes setbacks to freedom in the Asia Pacific region and Africa, as well as “an entrenchment of authoritarian rule in the majority of countries of the former Soviet Union.”

Take the case of Le Quoc Quan, a mild-mannered Vietnamese lawyer who came to the U.S. last year to conduct independent research on civil society as a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. Upon his return home this past March, Quan was arrested and charged with conducting “activities aimed at overthrowing the Government.”

Vietnam is a particularly revealing example. Granted Permanent Normal Trade Status by Congress late last year paving the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization, it is a test case for the idea that opening markets leads to political liberalization. But as James Mann points out in The China Fantasy, the notion that economic globalization automatically leads to liberal democracy is a mirage: “Chinese leaders are entering the globalized economy as rapidly as possible while maintaining controls on the news media. So far, they have managed to achieve both objectives at once.”

Following Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, many observers forecast a new democratic wave — coming, as the Kiev events did, in the wake of democratic upheavals in Serbia and Georgia — and hopeful signs in other regions, including 2005’s “Arab Spring.” But for many of the region’s rulers, the “colored” revolutions served merely as a wake-up call. Most notably, Vladimir Putin’s “managed” democracy has cracked down on dissent while muzzling independent media and closing independent non-governmental organizations.

Putin’s brand of authoritarianism is by no means unique. From Central Asia to the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, including countries where political space had been opened enough in previous years to allow independent voices to be heard, authoritarian leaders, sometimes working in concert, have found new means — from the crude to the imaginative — to constrict the boundaries of civil society. A prime example is the Mubarak regime in Egypt, which forced through a series of constitutional “reforms” last March that entrench the security forces’ powers to monitor private communications and send suspects to military courts. In Venezuela, President Chavez has sought to emulate his role model Fidel Castro by nationalizing industry, militarizing the government, and silencing political opposition, while in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has turned peaceful demonstrations against his destructive policies into bloody police riots.

Twenty-five years ago, freedom’s prospects looked similarly bleak. Surely, few if any Soviet experts would have agreed with President Reagan that Communism’s days were numbered. What was the basis for his optimism? Can it offer any hope and guidance for the victims of repressive rule today and those of us who are concerned about them?

Three themes dominated President Reagan’s Westminster address: the instability of authoritarian regimes, the power of democratic conviction, and the importance of long-term democratic institution building.

As Natan Sharansky points out, what the experts did not appreciate about the Soviet system was that, because it was forced to devote an increasing share of energy to controlling its own people, it was — not unlike contemporary autocracies — highly vulnerable to internal decay. With the Soviet people forced to bear the burden of economic failure, the result, according to President Reagan, was a “great revolutionary crisis” that placed the system on the wrong side of history. But the Soviet system was hardly alone in fearing its own people, since “any system is inherently unstable that has no peaceful means to legitimize its leaders.”

To illustrate the power of democratic conviction, President Reagan offered the example of over one million Salvadorans refusing to be intimidated by guerillas seeking to prevent them from casting their first vote in a democratic election. He might well have pointed to Czechoslovakia, one of the most repressive of the Communist regimes, where a group of dissidents had come together five years earlier under the banner of Charter 77. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, Charter 77 not only helped bring about the Velvet Revolution, but today serves as an inspiration for dissidents from Cuba to Burma to North Korea.

President Reagan realized that those who struggle to bring about democratic results can benefit from the support and shared experiences of those who already derive its benefits. Thus, he believed the time had come for the U.S. to become involved in the worldwide “campaign for democracy.”

The practice of international solidarity has an honorable history. One example is the American trade-union movement, which has a long tradition of assisting its international counterparts. World figures such as Garibaldi, Kossuth, and Sun Yat Sen have sought American support for their causes. President Reagan took note of the fact that the political foundations in West Germany, originally established to help rebuild post-war German democracy, had provided vital democratic assistance to counterparts abroad to help bring about peaceful and democratic progress.

In endorsing the recommendations of a study group considering ways to give the U.S. the capability to join this movement, President Reagan put his stamp on a bipartisan idea that had been percolating in Congress since the 1960s. Knowing that democracy is, above all, a long term process of institution building, he described his objective as follows:

“…to foster the infrastructure of democracy — the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities — which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

Within a year-and-a-half, the National Endowment for Democracy would be privately incorporated with a bipartisan commitment in Congress and the support of the administration to providing funding to fulfill the vision of its founders to support democratic initiatives overseas. Twenty-five years after the Westminster address, its work is the embodiment of the idea that, as President Reagan expressed it, “freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” Established democracies such as Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Australia, as well as new democracies such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Taiwan, have since developed their own democracy assistance institutions.

No one should be under any illusion that today’s dictatorships will soon give way to democracy, or that emerging democracies will be easily consolidated even where breakthroughs have occurred. If we have learned anything over the past few years, it is that the development of democratic values and institutions require patience, hard work, and environments free of ethnic and religious hatred. But committed democrats, who can be found in even the most repressive countries, fortified today by new information technology and greater access to international support networks, should take heart in the ideas articulated by an American president a quarter century ago. He was correct: they are on the right side of history.

– David E. Lowe is vice president for government and external relations at the National Endowment for Democracy.


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