Reagan's crusade for democracy

The study is now going forward to put flesh on the idea of ''fostering the infrastructure of democracy'' proposed by President Reagan in his speech to members of the British Parliament.

This is a tempting idea, often discussed in the past. If the Russians can promote Marxism-Leninism, why can't America promote democracy?

As noble as the objective may be, will those studying the initiative really ask the hard questions? They can begin by questioning three assumptions on which the promoters appear to be basing their proposal:

* That the Soviets are successful in promoting Marxism-Leninism.

* That the United States is not currently promoting democracy in the world.

* That the Republican and Democratic parties in this country can establish links abroad on the model of the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in West Germany.

Soviet successes outside the immediate orbit of their military control have come about far more as a result of calculated support for movements and governments through financial, state police, and military aid than through any popular acceptance of Soviet philosophy. We need not move into a new official initiative because we think the Russians are winning the ideological battle.

It is equally questionable to suggest that the US is not currently active in promoting democracy. The very existence of this country, the widespread knowledge of its history and its ideals have created far more demand for democracy than we can ever support.

Regional organizations of the AFL-CIO have long taught - with minimal US government backing and occasional opposition within administrations - the basic elements of democratic practice in third-world countries. Two of their workers were killed in 1980 promoting rural democracy in El Salvador.

Private voluntary organizations such as the Overseas Education Fund of the League of Women Voters have taught women in developing countries the basic practices of democratic action. Committees of prominent lawyers have funneled funds and talents to those suffering oppression in other countries. Media executives have led the fight for the free flow of information.

Student exchanges - maintained in this administration at a respectable level only through a congressional revolt - are a major channel for disseminating knowledge of democracy. US lecturers under government auspices carry the message of our society.

The links of the Christian and Socialist parties of Europe with other fraternal parties in neighboring countries and abroad have existed for a long time. These links have been largely accepted by the politically active elements of other countries as a natural tie of parties with clearly similar philosophies.

Our political parties have neither the coherence of philosophy nor the comparable history and experience of overseas ties. Each of our parties is essentially a coalition of divergent views. How could the Democrats, for example , reach agreement on a party to support in El Salvador? That is much less of a problem for a European Socialist.

Further, the involvement by parties of the US in the domdstic affairs of other countries with obvious official blessing is likely to be seen quite differently from the involvement of European parties. Whether we wish to admit it nor not, many societies still watch US activities with suspicion and apprehension.

Then the question must be answered, which countries? Is this solely, as it seemed to be in the President's speech, a move to promote democracy in Eastern Europe? Are we really prepared to raise expectations once more that we can roll back Soviet control in Eastern Europe? If that is our objective, if we are seriously establishing as a national goal the undermining of the Soviet system, we can only heighten Soviet paranoia without great hopes of success.

If the targets are third-world countries, are we prepared officially to encourage the opponents of authoritarian rule in Argentina, Chile, Pakistan, the Philippines? If we are not, there will be many in those countries who will question the genuineness of our initiative. They will discover what many already suspect: the promotion of democracy and our national interests may not always coincide.

The meeting on free elections and the conference on constitutionism and self-government which the President mentioned in his speech represent activities of a kind constantly being undertaken by our private institutions.

It is when we move out from the campuses and the think tanks within this country to the rhetoric and guided programs of a government-financed effort abroad that we increase the risks and lose credibility.

Any plans for the official promotion of democracy would involve a Congress and an executive where elements recoil at the word ''socialist'' and many appear to feel our national interest rests with selected authoritarian regimes. Perhaps it is better to let democracy spread and flourish through the power of the concept, unencumbered by an American official initiative in which our support for freedom of choice in other countries may still be in conflict with our perceived national interest.

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