Prospects for democratic renewal 35 years after Reagan’s Westminster Address


Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned president in Czechoslovakia, had a unique ability to find hope in the bleakest of situations, notes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, that at the end of May a group of democratic intellectuals and activists from more than two dozen countries gathered in Prague under the auspices of Forum 2000, an organization founded by Havel, to consider how to reverse the alarming decline of liberal democracy in the world today, he writes for World Affairs.

The group issued The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal that has already been signed by more than sixty prominent figures from around the world, among them Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, Bernard-Henri LevyWilliam Galston, Francis Fukuyama, Anne Applebaum, Garry Kasparov, Amr Hamzawy, Sergio Bitar, Shlomo Avineri, Adam Michnik, Leon Wieseltier, Maina Kiai, and Yang Jianli.

There are three reasons to think that there is the potential for democratic progress in the period ahead, Gershman adds:

  • The first is the growth and resilience of civil-society movements around the world that are pressing for democratic accountability and promoting democratic advocacy and education. Such movements hardly existed when President Ronald Reagan delivered his Westminster Address  35 years ago [see above], but today they have effective and vigorous networks, extensive international support systems, and access to social media that gives them a communications and outreach capacity that is entirely new. Their influence has been a factor in the democratic advances that have taken place recently in countries like Argentina, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. …
  • The importance of such movements is the reason Russia, China, Egypt, and other autocratic governments have been passing harsh NGO laws and taking other measures to repress civil society and close off civic space. Their fear of what they call “colored revolutions” is a symptom of their own insecurity, which is why the possibility of authoritarian breakdowns is a second reason for cautious optimism. …
  • The third source of potential progress is the possibility that the rise of illiberal populism and the prospect of democratic deconsolidation in the advanced democracies will concentrate enough minds to spark a democratic renewal. In the words of The Prague Appeal “There is no excuse for silence or inaction.  We dare not cling to the illusion of security at a time when democracy is imperiled. The present crisis provides an opportunity for committed democrats to mobilize, and we must seize it.”

“The robust optimism of Reagan may not suit the times. But Havel’s more restrained statement of hope still resonates,” he concludes. RTWT 

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