Whatever the soil, democracy will sprout
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 October 2003)

Sweet are the uses of hypocrisy, and never more than in humanity's stumbling but persistent progress toward democracy. Naturally, we sneered at President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan when he bragged, in Ottawa, about some democratic reforms he's introduced. After all, he won't even say when he plans to surrender the power he acquired in the 1999 coup. Skepticism also greeted President Hu Jintao's speech in Beijing on Tuesday, when he said China will "enrich the forms of democracy" with elections. In truth, he rules by terror, and has announced no plans to close his dissident-crammed jails.

These are world-class hypocrites, but their very hypocrisy carries elements of hope. It acknowledges that they know they are expected to point their countries toward freedom. And the record shows that the more widely this is understood, the greater are the chances for freedom.

In recent times, arguments against democracy have withered. A few people still imagine, often for selfish reasons, that freedom remains a uniquely Western and Judeo-Christian ideal, not transferable to other ways of life. As Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, put it, "Asian societies strike a different balance between the rights of the individuals and those of the larger community." So therefore Singaporeans should not object if the government opposes chewing gum, judicial independence, etc. But these notions have turned out to be both provincial and wrong. They now seem as antique as the once-popular theory that democracy needs a background of Protestantism.

Forty years ago, some still argued that Latin and Roman Catholic countries didn't want democracy and weren't prepared for it. Look at Spain, people said. Look at Portugal. Look, for that matter, at Latin America. But in 1974 the Portuguese fascist dictatorship fell and, after 18 months of turmoil, democracy took hold. The following year King Juan Carlos began leading Spain out of fascism. Soon the generals in Latin America started handing over power to elected governments; by 1985 it had happened nine times. In 1986 democracy came to the Philippines, and in 1987 to South Korea. Then it began taking shape in Taiwan. The death of Moscow-directed communism brought more democracies.

It used to be said that only rich nations could afford democracy; impoverished countries in Africa and Asia required discipline, not freedom. In fact, the most deprived nations have a special and entirely practical need for democracy. Amartya Sen, the Indian-born Cambridge scholar who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics, argues that democracy is not a luxury that can await the arrival of prosperity. Famines, he notes, are usually caused by bullheaded and inflexible central governments, and are preventable by diffused power, local control, and scrutiny of public decisions. In his book Poverty and Famines (1981), Sen offered his simplest, best-known, and most breathtaking conclusion: No famine has ever occurred in a democracy.

For decades the United States and its friends accepted that certain countries would remain dictatorships more or less forever. That belief, unarticulated, lay behind Richard Nixon's detente policy toward the Soviet Union, and his successor, Gerald Ford, didn't depart from it. President Jimmy Carter, while ineffective in many ways, made a difference. Carter argued that moral pressure from democratic countries, linked at appropriate moments to trade and aid, could spread democracy.

Carter was right. His successors, while inconsistent and often opportunistic, kept his policy alive. Pushing for democratic change became a common thrust of politics in the West -- and, under George W. Bush, a major U.S. goal. Democracy became a condition of membership in the European Union, which meant that a lack of democracy would limit a country's economic future and regression to dictatorship would cost the dictator dearly.

Since 1974 (coincidentally, the year of both Nixon's downfall and the collapse of Portuguese fascism), humanity has slowly come to regard democracy as the norm, and with good reason. When the Portuguese began this process, 41 of the 150 states in the world were democratic. Today, according to impressive research developed by Freedom House, 121 of 193 states, or about three-fifths, are democracies, though of course imperfect. The campaign for democracy, conducted on many levels, has been working.

Even so, government-sanctioned thugs in Iran recently beat a Canadian citizen to death, government police in Saudi Arabia tortured another Canadian, and the Pakistani dictator dined in our capital with our Prime Minister. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are all dictatorships. We stand on one side of a great chasm of history, they on the other. How do we deal with them?

Loudly. Those advocating quiet diplomacy (the kind now favoured by Canada's foreign minister) used to warn that we would endanger dissidents in the Soviet empire by arguing their case, but no dissident ever took that position. We should make as much noise as possible and never cease to remind dictators that we consider their power illegitimate and temporary. In moments of frustration we should remember the lessons that Czechs, Hungarians and a multitude of others have learned. Events often turn the lies of hypocrites into truth, and in politics miracles do sometimes happen, with a little encouragement.

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