Promoting democracy: the West may not be ready

By , Thomas Stern, a former US foreign service officer, is an official of the Committee of Correspondence (D. C.) for an International Democratic Community, an organization affiliated with the Atlantic Council.

In recent days, President Reagan has cautiously planted the seeds for the growth of democratic societies in countries which today do not enjoy the privileges of free elections, free media, free unions, and all the other attributes of freedom that we cherish so dearly. He neglected, unfortunately, to examine the status of the product that he is packaging, not only in terms of what it has done for the current consumers but, more important, in terms of how that product looks to the potential new customers.

This is not an effort to examine the deficiencies of individual democratic nations. We are all too aware of these. We can and must, however, put ourselves in the shoes of those who are subjects of the competition of ideals and ideas. How do they perceive the West today? Can it provide the security and the economic improvements that are essential to the internal growth of a democratic society? Or does a large part of the world see, despite summit meetings highlighted by ceremony and massive media management, a democratic community which is splitting apart increasingly in the play of selfish interests, differing approaches to national or collective security, and divergent economic philosophies?

Jean Monnet, pioneer of European unity, once described how the ''community spirit'' works: instead of national delegates confronting one another around the green negotiating table, they should all join together on one side of the table and confront the problem on the other side. Many of the new Western institutions after 1945 embodied such a spirit and gave it practical meaning. Do they now? Do they still respond to the problems of the day? It is unlikely that they will be so perceived by those the President wishes to expose to democratic ideals and methods.

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Western institutions were originally built on a spirit of cooperation and common (''community'') goals. When they faced problems, they sought and often found solutions which expressed the common interest of all parties. The institutions built on those principles seem to be faltering today. Men and governments are gradually losing that concern for the greater good that once brought them together.

Whatever the reasons for this decline, it now seems clear that the tide of community building which led the West confidently toward security and prosperity , and which had protected its freedoms well, began to falter in the late 1960s. The democracies have begun to slip back into old ways - unilateral actions are becoming increasingly common and allies look to their ''national interests'' and define them narrowly. ''Sauve qui peut'' may well become the order of the day.

There is no question that the concept the President wishes to sell is powerful, necessary, and beneficial. The West has been far too defensive in advancing its ideals. But the pack-aging needs considerable work. At the moment, the wrapping is frayed and tattered; the tape is not holding; the customer will not taste until the externals are more presentable.

The world needs to perceive that democratic nations can meet their mutual challenges. A community process must be reestablished as the guiding principle for the democratic nations. We need a rebirth of mutual creativity to develop an effective community of democracies as a strong foundation for the competition of ideas that the President rightly seeks. There must be changes in attitude among the members of this community. There must be continuing, concerted attacks by the best minds on the controversial issues which challenge the present system. There must be a long-range effort made to improve and transform the institutional framework within which common problems must be solved.

These institutions should not only embody for all to see the resolution and spirit of the community of democracies. They should also be truly capable of dealing with common problems, of achieving common goals, and of expanding the scope of the democratic group to include those who wish to share its common ideals and goals. Such institutions might be developed along many lines and according to different concepts. The essential point is that a start must be made in addressing the issue of the revitalization of the Western cooperative spirit either through refurbishment of present institutions or development of new ones.

When the West can present a commonality of purpose and action, when it is perceived as an effective force in the world, and when it is seen as the wave of the future, then democracy will be accepted as the most desirable form of government by those who now do not practice it. Despite its foundation in mankind's best instincts, it cannot grow unless it promises a better tomorrow. Today, the established democracies would find it difficult to make a credible case. A lot of hard work faces the democratic alliance in the development of a credible package. The sooner it gets to work, the sooner the President's proposals can be brought to fruition.

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