The Temptation of Reverse Gear

JONATHAN POWER

April 26, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

ROME. — Rome -- The emir of Kuwait has, at last, promised parliamentary elections for next year. In Algeria, a general election is in the works.

The democratic sweep that has taken the world from 1975, when only 20 per cent of its people lived in politically free societies, to this day when the free outnumber the bonded, is without historical precedent. If the Arab nations, long-time holdouts against democratic rule, begin to adapt their traditional ways, then perhaps we can really believe that mankind has passed one of those great developmental milestones as significant as mastering the written language or splitting the atom.

Besides the Middle East, only China and Africa weigh the scales significantly in the direction of authoritarianism. Indeed, if we could overlook the Chinese billion that by its very size skews the calculation, then we would see that a mere 14 per cent of the world's population is still living in totally unfree societies.

Yet we should be careful. Progress can slip very fast. This year, for the first time in Freedom House's annual reporting, one of the historic pillars of democracy, Britain, has dropped a point in its civil-liberties rating because of the revelations of forced confessions and faked evidence in the attempts to win convictions against suspected terrorists of the Irish Republican Army.

If an insurgency led by only a couple of hundred of men under arms can induce Britain to compromise its principles, why should we expect more of other countries with much more complicated internal problems?

Britain no longer ranks with the 25 countries that get the highest possible grades on both political rights and civil liberties. The U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Sweden are all still up there. So too are a number of Third World countries, including Costa Rica, Barbados, Cyprus and Trinidad.

Are we sure, then, that this world-wide democratic surge cannot lose momentum, even retreat? Rousseau and de Tocqueville began this line of questioning, wondering what conditions make democracy possible and what conditions make it thrive? Two hundred years later we only have an outline of an answer.

In modern history we can see three major moments when democracy took a great step forward. The first was set in motion by the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, whose inspiration led to the proclamation of free republics across Europe and Latin America. But then came Napoleon's military dictatorship, followed by the restoration of traditional monarchies in Europe, and in Latin America the coming to power of feudal oligarchies or the military.

A hundred years later came World War I and the collapse of the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Ottoman Turkey. Again there was a resurgence of democracy, only to be trumped by the rise of communist Russia and totalitarian Germany.

The blooming of democracy that should have followed Germany's defeat in World War II was thwarted by the advance of the Red Army into Europe, the ill-prepared decolonization of much of Asia and Africa and the furies of the Cold War.

If it hadn't been for the likes of Amnesty International and Congressman Donald Fraser, who first pushed America toward the high ground of human rights, and later Jimmy Carter, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and, finally, Mikhail Gorbachev, the tide would never have turned so sharply toward democracy.

But to mention Mr. Gorbachev is to underline both the ambiguity and precariousness of this historic development.

If the Soviet Union does regress into tsarism or anarchy, it will reinforce those -- many in the Middle East and Africa, and certainly the Chinese leadership -- who fear that democracy is a dangerous thing, that it is better to keep the lid tightly on. It will recharge the batteries of the discredited generals of Latin America, who will argue that the democracy of the last decade has achieved nothing except social discontent.

It could even persuade the world's largest democracy, India, that its problems are now of such a magnitude that the smack of firm government is necessary for a while.

Much hangs on this man Gorbachev. Unwittingly, he has been handed by fate the keys that unlock the door, not just to a democratic Soviet Union, but to a democratic world.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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