Remarks by Carl Gershman at the Conference on “The United States and Global Democracy Support”

Does Democracy Matter?

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC

April 20, 2017

I want to start by congratulating Ambassador Adrian Basora, Agnieszka Marczyk, and Maia Otarashvili for publishing Does Democracy Matter? and for organizing this conference today, which presents a timely opportunity for our discussion not just about democracy assistance, but about democracy itself.  

As everyone knows, this has been a difficult period for democracy, something that is suggested in the title of the book. The short answer to the question of whether democracy matters is that of course it does for many reasons having to do with human well-being, international peace and security, and our fundamental national interests.  The fact that people are asking this question today, and that it so urgently needs to be answered with convincing arguments, is a disturbing sign of the times.

As it happens, the publication of this book and our conference today occur on the eve of the 35th anniversary on June 8 of Ronald Reagan’s Westminster Address, which remains the founding text for the democracy assistance effort – a little bit like what the Declaration of Independence is for our country.  There are many lessons for us in this Address, which was one of the great statements of the American belief in democratic universalism and of our country’s historic commitment to democracy for all people.

The period when the Westminster Address was delivered was also not an easy time for democracy.  The United States had just been through years of traumatic division associated with the Vietnam War that ended the Cold-War consensus on foreign policy and led to a rise in isolationist sentiment.  Still fresh in peoples’ minds was Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, in which he said that America faces “a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.”  The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, and less than 6 months earlier martial law had been declared in Poland, ending the brief period of Solidarity’s legal existence.  A sign of the times was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s statement in an essay written in 1976, on the occasion of the U.S. bicentennial, that “democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going.”

Thus, it was to rally the American people and the democratic world that Reagan went before the British Parliament to call for “a global campaign for freedom.”

In retrospect, of course, we can see that this period, troubled as it was, was less bleak than it appeared at the time.  The question is whether the projection of democratic confidence and vision had anything to do with the coming collapse of communism in the captive nations of Central Europe and in the Soviet Union.  It’s hard to know, but surely it can be said that Reagan had seized the rhetorical – and possibly even the political – advantage when he declared that “the march of freedom and democracy…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.”

It’s also true that what Samuel Huntington was later to call “the third wave of democratization” had imperceptibly already started when Reagan spoke, even though it still seemed a little far-fetched at the time to say, as Reagan did, that “around the world today the democratic revolution is gathering new strength.”  Huntington certainly believed that the international support for democracy, that was epitomized by the Westminster Address, was an important factor in contributing to democracy’s third wave.

The current period is of course very different than the 1980s, and we can’t know if there are any hopeful changes lurking in the shadows of resurgent authoritarianism, democratic backsliding, and the rise of illiberalism – all of which may reflect the counter-trend to waves of democratic progress that Huntington called “reverse waves.”  Still, there are things that Reagan said at Westminster that bear repeating and remain true, even in the midst of our general discouragement.  

For example, he said that “democracy is not a fragile flower” and that there is such a thing as democratic resilience, which we can see today in the robustness of civil society, even in some of the most repressive societies.  Of course, we also know that building the institutional infrastructure and culture of a liberal democracy is much more difficult than many of us once thought that it was.

It’s also still true, as Reagan said at Westminster, that “It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy,” even though it has become profoundly important to reaffirm the first principles of democracy and freedom that are so often taken for granted or dismissed with a kind of cynical, relativist pseudo-sophistication.

It’s also still true, as Reagan said, that “of all the millions of refugees we’ve seen in the modern world, their flight is always away from, not toward, the Communist [or totalitarian] world;” and that “Regimes planted by bayonets do not take root” and lack the legitimacy that comes with being freely elected, though that authoritarian regimes have learned to seek the appearance of legitimacy by organizing pseudo-elections monitored by what are called “zombie” election observers.

There are many other ideas in the Westminster Address that remain relevant today, but in closing these brief introductory remarks, I want to call attention to just one of them, which was Reagan’s commitment to what he called “the competition of ideas and systems,” and his belief that “the ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas, a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideas to which we are dedicated.”

We’re not doing very well today in this arena of competition, and therefore we have to think very hard not just about how to provide democracy assistance more effectively and efficiently, but about how we can reignite the flame of democratic conviction, especially among young people.

I’ll leave it at that for now and am happy to turn the floor over to my friend Christian Caryl.