Democracy by example

Whoever is inaugurated as president in January will need to reconsider the emphasis that the United States puts on democracy and human rights in its foreign policy. He will not have thought about it a great deal, if we judge by what either of the two main candidates has said so far.

We get along better with democratic countries that respect human rights than with authoritarian countries that don't.

The question is how far we can go in pressing these values on other countries.

This needs to be considered in historical perspective. A dramatic example is provided by the recent canonization of a number of 17th-century Catholic missionaries to China. To the Vatican, the missionaries were Christian martyrs. To the Chinese, even after 400 years, they were Western imperialists. While there has been religious freedom in the US since the 18th century, we have not yet settled on where to place the wall separating church and state. Yet, Americans still complain about how the Chinese treat certain religious groups.

The US has been slow establishing for itself other democratic ideals and human rights that it urges on the rest of the world. There was slavery in this country until Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in the 1860s. Child labor was not abolished until the 1920s. Labor's right to organize and to bargain collectively was not fully protected until the Norris-Laguardia Act and the Wagner Act in the 1930s. The same decade saw the Wage-Hour Act establish for the first time a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour and a maximum work week of 48 hours. Women could not vote until 1920. There was racial discrimination in voting, as well as in public accommodations, until the 1960s. The idea of universal education was a farce until the Supreme Court's school-desegregation decision in 1954.

Several countries have won independence since America has secured many of these rights. But while independence alone is enough to adopt a democratic constitution, it is not enough to make the constitution work - witness Latin America.

For this, political and social institutions are needed to provide stability. A public consensus is necessary to provide the parameters within which these institutions will be preserved and beyond which dissidents will not go. The US was independent almost a century before it fought a bloody civil war to establish this principle.

Above all, an independent judiciary is necessary to enforce the commonly agreed rules, and it is necessary that the judiciary be so respected that it will be obeyed. Compare the public response in the US to the Supreme Court's school-desegration or school-prayer decisions and the response in Peru to executive usurpation of legislative power.

Under the auspices of the State Department and propelled by the enthusiasm of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, a group of 107 countries assembled in Warsaw last summer and signed the Warsaw Declaration in which they agreed to uphold "core democratic principles and practices." The signatories included Albania, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Croatia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Yemen, among others with dubious abilities to recognize, let alone apply, core democratic principles.

France, the only nonsigner present, has had valuable though sometimes painful experience with democracy and human rights. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was unruffled in his lonely dissent. Democracy, he told the press, "is not like instant coffee, where you just add water and stir." Others present in Warsaw were more blunt in criticizing the American approach. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the US "fuels growing hostility," and "is increasingly viewed as a government that preaches to the rest of the world."

The promotion of democracy and human rights (one cannot comfortably exist without the other) has not come lately to American foreign policy. President Wilson declared an aim of World War I to be to "make the world safe for democracy." In this, he failed spectacularly, but democracy has nonetheless made measurable progress in the world since then and especially since World War II.

This wholesome trend has had many sources of influence. One has been the United States, more by example than by exhortation. Another has been the political institutions left as colonial legacies, especially by Great Britain. Perhaps most important of all has been the contribution of indigenous statesmen, prominently among them Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Konrad Adenauer.

Pat Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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