Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman to the Zagreb Youth Summit

Building a Youth Movement for Democratic Renewal

November 7, 2017

I’m grateful to Andrej Nosov, Anita Mitic, and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights for inviting me to address the Zagreb Youth Summit.  Our meeting today just happens to be taking place on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, an event that led to the creation of the Soviet Union and more than two dozen other communist countries; and that also led to many millions of deaths during the last century.  Democracy survived the rise of communism, and the Soviet Union and communist regimes in many other countries eventually collapsed.  But the threat to democracy has not disappeared, and that’s what I want to talk about today.  

Last May, Andrej and I joined some forty leading democracy advocates and intellectuals in Prague to discuss the organization of a new campaign to defend democratic values that are under greater attack today than at any time since the end of the Cold War.  The group adopted The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, a declaration that has now been signed by more than 200 prominent writers and democracy advocates.

The Appeal opens with the grave pronouncement that “Liberal Democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defense.”  It describes the threat as both external and internal.  The external threat comes from the expanding power of authoritarian and increasingly repressive countries like Russia and China that are “filling vacuums left by the fading power, influence, and self-confidence of the long-established democracies.”  The goal of these dictatorships, according to the Appeal, is “to create a post-democratic world order in which the norms of human rights and the rule of law are replaced by the principles of absolute state sovereignty.”

The internal threat to democracy can be seen in a number of troubling developments:

*the rise of illiberalism in backsliding countries like Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and Venezuela;

* the erosion of support for liberal values in many established democracies, especially among young people who have no memory of the struggles against totalitarianism;

*the declining faith in democratic institutions, leading to the rise of populist parties and movements in advanced democracies where governments seem unable to cope with the complex challenges of globalization and elites managing global institutions seem remote and over-bearing; and  

*a climate of fear created by terrorist violence that is used by populists and nationalists to justify restrictions on freedom.

According to Freedom House, political rights and civil liberties in the world have declined for eleven consecutive years, and in the organization’s latest survey, established democracies dominate the list of countries suffering setbacks in freedom.

The Appeal states that a campaign to defend democracy must begin with a reaffirmation of fundamental democratic principles.  These include the basic freedoms of expression, association and religion; political and social pluralism; a vibrant civil society; free and fair elections that are regularly conducted and genuinely competitive; a constitutional system of checks and balances involving a strong parliament and an independent judiciary that constrain the power of executive authority; a free and independent media; a market economy that is free of corruption and provides opportunity for everyone; and a culture of tolerance, civility, and non-violence.

The Appeal also urges that liberal democrats not surrender the issue of defending national identity to opponents of liberal democracy, whether they be authoritarian regimes that whip up nationalism because they lack political legitimacy, or illiberal populists who stir nationalist passions to gain power.  The paragraph that addresses this timely and critical issue is worth quoting in full:

“While democracy embodies universal values, it exists in a particular national context, what Vaclav Havel called the ‘intellectual, spiritual, and cultural traditions that breathe substance into it and give it meaning.’  Democratic citizenship, rooted in such traditions, needs to be strengthened, not allowed to atrophy in an era of globalization.  National identity is too important to be left to the manipulation of despots and demagogic populists.”

In keeping with the need to defend national identity, democracy advocates must reach out to ordinary citizens, many of whom have been alienated by globalist elites, and develop with them a common narrative that unites people on the basis of genuine patriotism and a commitment to universal ideals.

The Appeal called for the establishment of a new coalition that would wage an informed and passionate battle for the revitalization of the democratic idea.  Such a coalition will seek to shape the public discussion by fashioning persuasive arguments for liberal democracy, and also go on the offensive against the authoritarian opponents of democracy who oppress and steal from their own people even as they seek to divide and defame established democracies.  

It will also provide a forum to discuss the complex new challenges that democracy faces, from declining living standards and the backlash against immigration, to the rise of “post-truth politics” in an age of social media and the erosion of support for liberal values.

It would explain why the defense democratic values is not a purely idealistic undertaking, since democracy is a precondition for decent and inclusive societies, the framework for social and economic progress, and the foundation for international peace and security.

Last month in Prague, at the annual meeting of Forum 2000, the International Coalition for Democratic Renewal was formally launched.  It was agreed at that meeting to seek thousands of new signatories of The Prague Appeal, to create national and regional networks of democracy advocates, and to form working groups to address critical challenges, such as the rise of China and the dangers posed by the abuse of social media by illiberal forces.

I think there’s an important role for youth in this new movement.  They bring energy to the cause, they can act quickly to defend democrats-at-risk or to challenge regimes that are repressive and corrupt, and they have networks that can be mobilized in this struggle.

It’s sometimes hard to bring passion to the struggle for reason, pluralism, and tolerance, but I think that this is something that youth can do especially well.   Idoubt that this passion can come from the established democracies, where democracy is too often taken for granted.  It will come, in my view, from young people who are on the front lines of the struggle against authoritarianism.  In the words of The Prague Appeal, “Although democracy is often considered a Western idea, its most fervent defenders today are people in non-Western societies who continue to fight for democratic freedoms against daunting odds.”

That’s why it’s so important to start from here – in the Balkan region that has suffered so much from nationalism and illiberalism; and with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights that has built an effective regional network for freedom and that now serves as the secretariat of the World Youth Movement for Democracy.  So let us move forward together.

Let me suggest three core objectives for a new international youth movement for democratic renewal.  The first is to build grassroots pressure for democracy through citizen movements like Y’en a Marre in Senegal, one of whose founders is with us today – my good friend Thiat, who helped mobilize 700,000 young people in 2012 to oust a corrupt and ineffective president who wanted to perpetuate his power.  Similar movements exist in other African countries, including Le Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso, Togo Debout, and Struggle for Change (or LUCHA) in the Congo.  Such movements need to become an international force.

The second objective is to carry on after the protests, because building democracy takes a long time.  That’s why Y’en a Marre is active today throughout the schools in Senegal.  Their goal is to change a culture, not just to remove a failed leader.  That takes education, which is why I think a new youth movement for democratic renewal should mount a global campaign for civic education – a campaign that will help young people understand what democracy is and why it is so important.

That leads to the third objective, which is to orient and train young people to prepare themselves to become future leaders of governmental and social institutions.  If they’re going to change the system, they will have to move from protest to politics.  Protest movements are not enough.  What’s needed is a movement for a new society.

It is my hope that such a youth movement will give energy and momentum to the new International Coalition for Democratic Renewal.  I believe that such a movement will benefit from the connection that the Coalition can provide to some of the world’s leading democratic intellectuals.  The current crisis of democracy offers a unique opportunity to mobilize young people.  If they can find their voice on the importance of democracy to their own future and that of the world, they can help spark a revival of democratic conviction in the established democracies, including the United States.

The solution is not going to come from Washington or Brussels.  The talent, idealism, and experience to begin the mobilization of a campaign are right here.  NED can provide resources, moral support, and the networks that are part of the New Coalition and the World Movement for Democracy.   We can also try to recruit new donors and supporters from the established democracies.

But the leadership should come from the grassroots and from the young generation that represents the future.  It’s an awesome challenge.  But that should only increase your motivation to take it on.  I hope you will.

Watch ZGYS’ wrap-up video: