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Saturday, September 16

The Central Debate

Pundita is still on vacation. The following is abridged from the original essay published November 2004 and titled Two Very Different Views of the World.

China's leaders have a horror of being backward -- witness the new standard for intelligence in China : you must have a college education or be stupid (read, "backward"). So as long as America takes a two-faced approach to dealing with dictators -- well, that must be "modern." Then we wonder why Beijing sees nothing wrong with being two-faced on the subject of democracy.

But now we have a president who is reading Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy. Of course since 9/11 Bush has intuitively moved toward Sharansky's direction under Paul Wolfowitz's tutelage. But -- Sharansky! I've read that Bush's father dismissed Sharansky's ideas as naive and impractical as did earlier US presidents and a host of other national leaders; Ariel Sharon dismissed his ideas for the same reason!

I think Bush grasps what more ornate minds have not about Sharansky's message, which is that democracy is the only practical system of government. Indeed, 9/11 is a textbook illustration of the point. Every other door leads to tyranny, even if the tyrant wears a friendly face. That leads to oppression, which drains worker creativity and tax dollars. That in turn calls for more tyranny, which calls for more protest against tyranny, and it all finally ends in oceans of blood.

Yet the vision Sharanksy (and Bush) follow stands in opposition to the vision of Jacques Chirac and the school of geopolitics he represents. I am grateful to the
Belmont Club writer's Pro and Contra essay for clearly defining the two views:
History may remember Jacques Chirac as one of the most prolific institution builders of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The European Union and the United Nations are but some of the multilateral projects he sought to strengthen in the belief they would serve as a prototype for the future ordering of the world.

Wolfowitz's vision seems altogether more complex. He seems unwilling to speak of institutions outside the context of empowerment, as if to speak of instruments of governance without freedoms was tantamount to prescribing tyranny. Their difference of opinion may be rooted, not so much in an argument over bureaucratic arrangements, but in their view of the nature of man himself.
". . .as if to speak of instruments of governance without freedoms is tantamount to prescribing tyranny."

With those words, the Belmont Club writer nails the essence of the argument. If modern civilization is built on the concept of an alliance of cooperative nations, then tyranny can easily present itself as on equal footing with democracy, merely by making an appearance of cooperation.

The writer quotes Chirac as arguing for a new world order based on multi-polarity:
That of an order based on respect for international law and the empowerment of the world's new poles by fully and wholly involving them in the decision-making mechanisms.

"Only this path," [Chirac] added, "is likely to establish a stable, legitimate and accepted order in the long run."

The new "poles" [Chirac] spoke of are the emerging regional powers of the new century, including Europe, China, India and Brazil. . .

"It is by recognising the new reality of a multi-polar and interdependent world that we will succeed in building a sounder and fairer international order. This is why we must work together to revive multilaterialism, a multilaterialism based on a reformed and strengthened United Nations."
Now one may snort that Chirac's argument is self-serving but he has neatly articulated the ideas that give legitimacy to tyrannies in the modern era. The multi-polar order Chirac envisions is built on regional trading powers, not on the concept of an advanced civilization; i.e., one that does not govern by oppression.

Chirac's view is considered realistic; he accepts the world as he finds it. Sharansky shreds the belief that this view is realistic. Yet the facts Sharansky marshals are ignored in favor of branding his view "moralism" and thus, idealistic. And from there, backward-looking.

Wolfowitz and Bush (and Sharansky) are dismissed by their critics as impractical dreamers, as ideologues -- while Chirac's ideas are seen as practical, modern.

Through this inversion democratic governments must allow for the legitimacy of despotic governments. And further: democracy must stand on the side of an equitable sharing of the world's pie, not on the side of an advanced notion of civilization.

That's the argument to be tackled if this century is to be "liberty's century," as Bush envisions. It must be tackled outside the wonkish language and circles that the American public left in charge of the debate.

Americans inside and outside the Beltway must recognize that despite the criticism lobbed at America this nation is the standard of modernity for the world. How we treat tyrants, and the extent to which we're willing to look the other way in our diplomatic, foreign aid and business dealings, are emulated the world over. So Chirac's world view is our chickens come home to roost.

Americans who are cowed by the criticism that America is trying to impose democracy on other countries should take heart from an observation Wolfowitz made:
"The contradiction is to say that allowing people to choose their government freely is to impose our ideas on them. There was a wonderful moment at a conference here in Washington where someone said it's arrogant of us to impose our values on the Arab world, and an Arab got up and said it's arrogant of you to say these are your values because they are universal values."

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