Time to campaign for democracy

Time to campaign for democracy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s participation in the 10th anniversary meeting of the Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland, serves as a needed reminder of the parlous environment for democratic governance across the globe. Tom Melia of Freedom House says we are in the midst of "a global political recession." Secretary Clinton invoked Winston Churchill and said, "We must be wary of the steel vise in which many governments around the world are slowly crushing civil society and the human spirit."

This is in stark contrast to the heady days when the democratic wave that began in Asia, swept through the captive nations of the former Soviet Union, culminating in the Americas with the 2001 signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter which committed all countries in our hemisphere (save Cuba) to not only democratic governance, but protecting it wherever it was threatened in the region.

But, as we’ve seen, autocrats are an enterprising lot. They never went away; they either laid in wait or adapted. Especially in our own hemisphere, we have seen how autocrats like Hugo Chavez have used the mechanics of democracy to get elected and then run roughshod over democratic institutions that separate powers or protect the rights of the minority. They pervert the concept of democracy further, claiming that their victories at the ballot box (real or manipulated) somehow entitle them to rule as they see fit, as arbitrary and capricious as that might be.

But if Secretary Clinton wants to employ Churchillian rhetoric, then the Obama administration needs to commit to significant action in support of those words. Her announcement of $2 million to support the work of embattled civil society groups and nongovernmental organizations around the world today is a start, but it is simply not enough.

It is imperative that the administration apply the full measure of its political support to U.S. democracy assistance programs, which range from everything to electoral support and monitoring, to party building, to good governance programs that emphasize transparency and accountability. These programs are not without controversy in certain precincts and are attacked vociferously, mostly by the autocrats themselves, but also by critics who want to equate them with "interfering" in other countries’ affairs. Yet most democrats in dire situations abroad are desperate for the support.

Still, the career bureaucracy’s default mode is to avoid conflict and that is why the implementing agencies of U.S. democracy assistance programs — USAID and the State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor — need to know how important they are to the administration (increased budgets would also be a nice indicator) and that they are expected to get this support to those who need it most and without bureaucratic delay.

Of course there are risks, as last December’s arrest of American Alan Gross in Cuba attests, but the stakes are not insignificant. We support democracy abroad because it has proven to be the best system to maximize human prosperity and happiness, but also because it is in the interest of our own security. Freedom and opportunity tends to channel people’s energies to productive pursuits, not flying airplanes into skyscrapers.

It is therefore incumbent upon the United States to carry the democratic banner forward in this hostile world. Because if not us, then who?