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Reaffirming US-European Commitment to Democratic Universalism

The following is a speech given by Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy, at The Europe-U.S. Dialogue on Human Rights in Prague on December 18, 2014.

Having been asked to speak about the dialogue between the United States and Europe on human rights, let me say right off that I don’t speak for the U.S. government but rather for a bipartisan nongovernmental organization with the mission, mandated by the U.S. Congress, of strengthening democracy around the world.  We have many European partners, including many Czech partners and now also the aptly-named European Endowment for Democracy.   We also attach a very high priority to the transatlantic partnership in aiding human rights and democracy.

But I regret that this partnership is not advanced by the way the invitation to this conference has framed the issue before us.  It reads more like an invitation to an academic seminar than to a policy forum intended to promote collaboration to achieve common objectives. The invitation states that when the protection of human rights becomes a goal of foreign policy, we’re faced with “a series of dilemmas.”  These dilemmas include the questions of what human rights “exactly…entail” and to what extent they are universal.  Further complicating the issue is the contention that during the Cold War human-rights advocacy was used to advance the strategic objective of “weakening the adversary.”  With these dilemmas in mind, we’re asked to consider the meaning of human rights in today’s world and how we can “reconcile different views on their content and promotion.”

Implicit in the way the invitation has posed the questions before us is the view that human rights, understood as basic civic and political freedoms as opposed to social and economic needs, are not universal, and that we should be on guard against those who would use human rights to advance political agendas.  Such advocates of human rights are allegedly guilty of what a Czech official has called “false universalism,” meaning that they wish to impose a narrow Western view of human rights on non-Western cultures and countries. The debate that is being posed today is thus between two points of view – one that proudly supports democratic universalism and the other that rejects it.  The latter point of view is properly termed moral relativism.

Just last month at a conference in South Korea, when I told a group of Asian democracy practitioners about this debate that is now going on in the Czech Republic, they immediately saw the parallel with a similar debate that occurred in Asia in the 1990s when Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, taking the relativist position, said that “Asian values” were inconsistent with democracy, which he called a Western idea that had no indigenous Asian roots. 

The opposition to Lee’s relativism was led by Kim Dae-jung, who later became South Korea’s president and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.  Kim made three basic points.  The first was that democratic ideals were rooted in Asian culture, and that two millennia before John Locke, the Chinese philosopher Meng-tzu had preached that “the will of the people is the will of heaven” and bestowed on the ruler a mandate to provide good and accountable governance.  The second was that Asia had many democratic traditions, among them the Confucian idea that opposition to an erring monarch is a paramount duty, a teaching that anticipated both the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the “people’s power” movement in the Philippines more than two centuries later.  And the third was that democracy would succeed and spread in Asia because its flame “continues to burn in…the aspirations of its people.”  Authoritarian rulers, he said, might claim to provide effective governance and economic development, but policies “that try to protect people from the bad elements of economic and social change will never be effective if imposed without consent; the same policies, arrived at through public debate,” he said, “will have the strength of Asia’s proud and self-reliant people.” 

The Asian-values argument in defense of authoritarianism never caught on, partly because democracy has sunk deep roots in Asia in India, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries; and also because Asians rejected the notion that democracy is a Western idea at a time when the desire for democracy was becoming a genuinely global phenomenon.  The worldwide spread of popular support for democracy has been documented in a profusion of public opinion surveys, known as “democracy barometers,” that have gathered data on attitudes toward democracy in every region of the world outside the West.  Summarizing these surveys, Larry Diamond has written that “Although there is wide variation across countries and regions, with low levels of trust in parties and politicians…, people virtually everywhere say they prefer democracy to authoritarianism.  What people want is not a retreat to dictatorship but a more accountable and deeper democracy.”

Given the popularity of democracy, it’s not surprising that autocrats today don’t reject democracy explicitly but rather redefine it by attaching to it an adjective suggesting that their form of democracy is culturally indigenous and not subservient to Western values or interests. Thus we have Bolivarian democracy in Venezuela, socialist democracy in China, revolutionary democracy in Ethiopia, Islamic democracy in Iran, and illiberal democracy in Hungary.  We also used to have sovereign or managed democracy in Russia, but Putin now seems to prefer “traditional values,” as expressed in the pro-authoritarian and nationalist writings of his favorite philosopher Ivan Ilyin.

What all these modified, hyphenated versions of democracy have in common is a contempt for real democratic values that presuppose respect for human rights.  The communists used to call this “bourgeois democracy,” and they offered as an alternative what they said was a higher and more egalitarian form of political organization called “people’s democracy” or “proletarian democracy.”  So none of this is new, and it should be very familiar to people in this country who lived through four decades of this Orwellian nightmare.

What is new and also troubling is that there now seem to be Czech advocates of a point of view that, while not favoring any of these hyphenated and perverted forms democracy, is neutral toward them because they feel that we shouldn’t presume to impose our Western values on non-Western cultures and political systems.

Let me be frank.  I don’t think we have come together on the third anniversary of Havel’s death to bury him for a second time.  I would rather affirm the universal values he stood for and discuss how we can work together to defend and strengthen them at a time when democracy and human rights are under attack from an ideologically assertive group of authoritarian countries.

I believe there would be a price to pay in abandoning this legacy.  Over the past quarter century, the Czech Republic has earned the respect of democrats around the world for its consistent and effective support of democrats in authoritarian countries.  Our Czech friends have been admired for wanting to share their experience in resisting totalitarianism and building a new democracy; and also for feeling an  obligation to share that experience because they themselves received help when they were in need.  In my humble opinion it would be a grave mistake to relinquish that esteem by adopting a policy of neutrality toward dictatorial regimes, which would effectively involve the abandonment of human-rights defenders who once looked to this country for support.  Adopting such a policy would also weaken relations with the community of pro-democracy agencies, organizations, political leaders, intellectuals and activists in the West who have worked closely with their Czech counterparts in the past.

The advantages of taking such a course are not clear to me.  The autocrats, in my view, are not potential friends or collaborators.  They don’t wish you well, and I believe that you would have as much difficulty as we in the United States have had in building political consensus for a policy of engagement with dictators that ignores human rights.  In response to those who argue that such a policy might remove a complicating factor in building trade relations with some countries, I would only say that it is important to weigh the short-term benefits, such as they are, against the long-term costs.  Selling one’s birthright for a mess of pottage is not, generally speaking, a wise course of action.

I understand that the Czech Republic is not a large country.  But as Jan Patocka once said, the Czech people have had a “Great History” and a powerful voice when they have creatively engaged in matters of universal significance.  It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the Czech Republic reaffirm its commitment to democratic universalism and forego the cynical siren song of post-modern moral relativism.  That would be the proper way, especially on the anniversary of Havel’s death, of honoring his legacy, which means so much to democrats throughout the world.                 

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