Often the question of what is “democracy” is in the eye of the beholder, a third century BC Greek saying about “beauty” that has echoed down the centuries, acknowledging how the concept is largely subjective.
Whether one is thrown into jail in Turkey for making critical comments about Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan or held for extensive pre-trial periods in Poland, individual rights are eroding. Even in the West the movement is back toward more historically authoritarian governments in the traditional backwaters of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe.
The Soviet Communists turned tricked elections into an art form. And in many countries today, so-called free elections are not really a guarantee for individual rights, the ultimate test for democracy. One of the ironies of the current situation is that the more rigid tests applied to restrictions on personal freedom in the U.S., are being used by the opponents of freedom throughout the world. Their argument is the one so favored by children, which is if a companion is doing something, it shouldn’t be forbidden or punished nearer home. Naïve Americans who have not lived or traveled widely abroad, too, often suggest violations of freedom in the U.S. are the equivalent of repression in countries which have no tradition of individual freedom.
Pres. Barack Obama’s international strategy puts more emphasis on reaching agreement with traditional opponents while sometimes neglecting our friends. It intensifies this movement away from freedom. The Administration’s pursuit of a nonproliferation agreement with Iran, for example, made it the only issue under negotiation. Whether the agreement is successful, of course, remains to be seen – what with the Tehran mullahs going ahead with great publicity on an intercontinental ballistics missile program, the only use for which would be to deliver a weapon of mass destruction. But leaving this argument aside, it is an irony that Obama, the darling of American liberals, has place human rights on the back burner in all his negotiations with foreign governments, whether the Iranian religious fanatics, or the Castro Brothers’ continuing repression in Cuba.
It is true, of course, that a rational foreign policy must place high priority on attempts on reaching at least a working agreement with potential enemies. And it is also true that in the past and probably in the future American policy may have to swallow hard over domestic abuse in countries which are armed to the teeth – such as North Korea – in order to reduce the possibility of war.
Yet freedom of the individual is as necessary as other conditions in the U.S. for a continued opportunity for economic advancement, one of our cardinal sales points in the family of nations. Even Europeans, for example, are sometimes surprised at how easy it is to start a business in the U.S.
It is a cliché worth repeating, of course, that democracy is a way of life, revolving around an attitude toward living with fellow citizens as well as the more formal ingredients such as representative government, an honest and responsive executive and a balanced judiciary. It was this country’s great fortune that we inherited these values from the British, even fought the Mother Country when they were violated by it.
Today the democratic system is again in jeopardy in many of the countries where the U.S. and its allies imposed it after they won their cardinal victory against oppression in World War II. But when we Americans fall off the cliff – as when our universities refuse to protect and hear dissenting voices – we put in jeopardy not only our own democratic values, but we encourage the always present movement toward oppressive government lurking abroad.
There is little sign of it yet. But one can only hope that as the presidential campaign matures there will be in Abraham Lincoln’s plea at Gettysburg “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”, an effort to reframe and restate the American devotion to freedom always in jeopardy in a world so seemingly more complex.