Democracy: Up to the Challenge

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THE Britain whose government Margaret Thatcher was chosen to head in 1979 faced a host of intractable problems. The former prime minister might readily be indulged if she complained a bit about the ``terrible burdens'' she inherited. But in her recently published account of ``The Downing Street Years,'' she expresses more frustration with the defeatism she saw enervating Britain's leaders than with the problems themselves. Too many of the country's leaders, she wrote, had become ``determined to think themselves much weaker and more contemptible than was in fact the case.''

One could view Britain's steep slide from world power as a special circumstance. But other advanced democracies display much the same tendency to put the worst face on their condition. Unlike Britain, the United States has gained international influence and, with the Soviet Empire's collapse, unmatched ascendancy. Yet this hasn't prevented the ``end of the American era'' prophecy from gaining wide frequency.

Many analysts see signs of economic decline and a diminished international role. Even the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war are depicted as problem-causing. Post-cold-war challenges, like those in Bosnia and Somalia, are, we're told, frustratingly difficult to manage, compared with yesterday's simple bipolar struggle.

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In a July 18 article in The Times of London, Martin Jacques waxed pessimistic on ``the end of politics.'' The entire West, he wrote, was afflicted with a crisis driven by a ``growing mismatch between politics and society,'' and by a ``growing inability of the left-right polarity to act as the dominant organizing principle of politics.''

The cold war, Mr. Jacques argued, had propped up mediocre leaders. Now, these props - the easy legitimacy acquired from confronting a widely perceived evil - have been kicked out. Paradoxically, Jacques insisted, Western democracies are threatened more by communism's collapse than they had been by its aggressive interventions.

The post-cold-war world is far from problem free. But did anyone actually believe that the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR would result in the unchallenged advance of democracy? The Soviet Union's collapse is, in fact, an unqualified good. Communism's retreat is liberal democracy's advance. Still more slowly than we would like, much of the world seems clearly to be moving toward greater political individualism and freedom.

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