Can democracy be promoted around the world?

Can the techniques of free elections be exported? Can democracy be promoted?

Men and women from 34 countries gathered in Washington for three days recently to consider these questions.

The occasion was the Conference on Free Elections, sponsored jointly by the Department of State and the American Enterprise Institute and held in the context of President Reagan's project for the promotion of democracy, first outlined in his speech to the British Parliament on June 8.

As one who had expressed some skepticism about the feasibility of government-sponsored efforts to promote democracy abroad, I attended the conference with questions in my mind. Would such a conference see the problem of creating democratic regimes only as United States competition with the Soviet Union? Would such a conference be prepared to face up to the challenges to democracy from both left and right? Would the spectrum of opinion be sufficient to generate genuine discussion on some of the basic issues involved?

My questions were largely answered - and answered positively. The conference brought together as participants and observers persons from both developed and developing countries including some from nations where democracy is currently imperiled. There were varied shades of opinion among those from nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, universities, and policy institutes. It was opened by Secretary of State George Shultz and addressed by the prime minister of Italy and the President of Costa Rica. The President of Nigeria sent a special message read to the delegates. President Reagan hosted a luncheon; Vice-President Bush spoke on the second day at a lunch on Capitol Hill.

Although there were technical presentations on the conduct of elections, the conference came to focus more on democracy than on elections. Attention was focused on countries such as Spain, Greece, Portugal, and Nigeria which had recently returned to democratic systems. If there was concentration on a region, it was on Latin America. Not only did many delegates come from that region, but there was a general recognition that some of the most difficult problems in promoting and preserving democracy are found in Central and South America. Representatives were present from Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand, but there was little discussion of East Asia.

A third-world delegate gave one of the most succinct statements of the requirements for democracy:

* The right of the governed to discipline the governors.

* A distinction between government and political parties.

* Acceptance of the impermanence of political authority.

* Preeminence of civil over military authority.

In discussing the transition from nondemocratic regimes, other delegates emphasized the need to have a desire for change, a belief in competition fostered by competition in other areas of life, and a social infrastructure with important groups that believe in democracy and have the courage and occasion to defend it.

The leaders of the conference stressed that the sessions were for ''exchanges of view'' and not for resolutions and decisions on action. Nevertheless, inevitably, the discussion turned to what could be done to promote democracy where it does not exist.

If there was an underlying consensus, it was that the promotion of democracy required time, sensitivity, and patience. Recognizing the delicacy of questions of intervention and sovereignty, speakers suggested that the process could begin by outside links with like-minded groups: labor unions, political parties, foundations. Such links should be in response to invitations. Help should, as much as possible, be rendered through promoting techniques, providing training, and, if necessary, caring for exiles awaiting opportunities for change.

Those within the government and in the nongovernmental institutions involved will now be examining what the US can do to further the objective of encouraging democracy. The conference has, in the minds of those attending, given momentum to the concept.

While not often expressed in the sessions, there was recognition among many of the delegates that the promotion of democracy will, if successful, ultimately lead to confrontations in some countries with those who are unwilling to put at risk their authority through free elections and free institutions.

The confrontation can be a serious matter. Democracy is not a gimmick, a concept to be taken lightly. Men and women can face exile, prison, or death seeking democracy. Hopes and expectations should not be lightly raised. Choices can be difficult for men and women as well as nations.

During the Carter administration, there were frequent charges of ''inconsistency'' in the implementation of human rights policies. Any campaign to promote democratic systems and ideals in countries where they do not exist will ultimately bring the US face to face with choices between the expression of American ideals and the protection of defined security or economic interests.

The full test of the credible effort now started will come when initiatives now undertaken face the same type of challenge. At that point, will the campaign for democracy falter - or stay the course?

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