BRIAN ATWOOD, the director for the US Agency for International Development, recently said that "conflict prevention needs a strong civil society." He was closer to the mark than many who employ this popular new mantra for everything from being nice to one another to the notion of full-blown political democracy. Yet "civil society" can be defined in a way that links it to the conflicts that bedevil the post-cold-war world. Indeed, the concept of civil society goes to the heart of the historic struggle between self-government and tyranny.
Civil society is what occupies the space between government at the top and the atomized mass of individuals at the bottom. What distinguishes democracy from fascism, communism, and other totalitarianisms are the key structural components of political opposition, independent judiciary, and free media. But equally important is the network of private voluntary groupings, associations, and coalitions that - as that keen observer of early America Count Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1832 - do much of our society's work. His observations of US civil society even then led him to conclude that "not a man can be found who would acknowledge that the state has any right to interfere in their town's affairs." (Today's Libertarians are not so original after all.)
What a stark contrast with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Communist Russia, where the master strategy was to prevent any uncontrolled institutions from competing with their monopoly of civil space. Non-democracies still try to strip civil society of any but a controlled and sycophantic role. Beijing's frantic efforts to isolate the parallel nongovernmental forum at last year's UN women's conference illustrated the need of tyrants to monopolize the process and keep any free-wheeling social element from slipping through the cracks.
There is a strong connection between civil society and warfare itself. It is generally agreed that democracies do not fight one another. One reason is that democracies are open societies where the nongovernmental sector is a major source of information. Saddam Hussein's Iraq could not have gotten as far with its nuclear and chemical arms programs if a nosy equivalent of the Federation of Atomic Scientists had been allowed to function there. True, that same uncontrolled public opinion - "the fatal artillery of public excitation," as British Prime Minister George Canning once called it - also makes it hard for democracies to get out of a war once in one. But it was the private sector that finally forced change in US Vietnam policy, not so much the marchers in the streets as the announced opposition of CBS's Walter Cronkite, who symbolized much of the disillusioned middle class, with an added impetus the financial markets' fear of instability.
What about the 95 percent of today's conflicts that take the form of mayhem within a state's borders? What is often found wanting there is yet another central feature of civil society: a commitment to settle differences, not by civil war, but by compromise and by empowerment of a majority that respects minorities. The sad fact is that factions which share the same space in central Africa, the Balkans, and the former Soviet Union know little or nothing of that essential quality of civil society. In some of those places the uncompromising ruler was a communist party; in others it was European colonial administration.
In both cases the ruler's survival required monopolistic control organizations and information that kept a healthy sociopolitical infrastructure from developing.
WHAT do we see ahead? The good news is that progress toward democracy with a functioning civil society is happening in some pieces of the old communist empires as well as in some former colonies. In the future, non-governmental groups will have an increasing role in shaping policy outcomes everywhere as conflicts threaten over such people-related stresses as overcrowding, deforestation, fresh-water scarcity, and cross-border pollution.
The bad news is that the process of democratization itself can generate instability as it upsets an established sociopolitical order before habits of diversity and tolerance are established. All types of civil society are not necessarily benign. For example, powerful private German corporations were harnessed to Hitler's aggressive national ambitions.
Some argue that the United States has no business poking inside repressive societies such as China and Nigeria so long as they trade fairly with us. But in the end it is only mature democratic governments, responsive to pressures from their civil societies, that can overcome the moral and political weaknesses which still tear at the fabric of peace around the world.