DEMOCRACY AND THE INTERNATIONAL INTEREST
Remarks by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to the Denver Summit of the Eight Initiative on Democracy and Human Rights, October 1, 1997
Thank you, John (Shattuck). I'd like to welcome all of you to the
Benjamin Franklin Room. Old Ben, who is an observer of these
proceedings from the end of the room there, is honored on these
premises because, as Messieurs Causeret and LeFort surely know, he was
the first American Minister to France -- in fact, the first American
Minister to serve overseas in any country. On a personal note, I
identify with him because he was a balding journalist who, in
mid-career, successfully impersonated a diplomat for several years.
Secretary Albright sends her greetings to all of you. She's in New
York at the United Nations, so she could not be here herself; but she
has asked me to convey to you her personal commitment to the
enterprise in which you've been involved for the past two days.
When our leaders launched the Denver Initiative on Democracy and Human
Rights, they were adding a missing -- and I would add, sorely missed
-- piece to the mission that they had originally assigned themselves
twenty-seven years ago, when six of their predecessors met in
Rambouillet for the first of what became annual summits of the world's
major industrialized democracies -- and I emphasize the word
democracies. Before the Denver Summit, the eight countries represented
here did not have a mechanism for dialogue and cooperation on the
cluster of issues that you have been discussing. Over these
twenty-seven years, our colleagues from the finance ministries have
been in the habit of meeting with some regularity to discuss trade and
currency. Our political directors have years of experience planning
the diplomatic work of summits.
More generally, the advocacy and promotion of human rights and
democracy have too often been the orphans, or at least the poor
cousins, of our common agenda. I suspect that many of you have
encountered -- perhaps even within your own ministries -- the
perception that those issues are, at best, second-order objectives --
luxuries in which practitioners of "realpolitik" can ill afford to
indulge; a distraction of attention and a diversion of resources from
the serious work of foreign policy; or, worse, that they represent a
misguided, naive attempt to impose "our" peculiar standards and models
of governance on other political cultures, sometimes with disruptive
or even disastrous results.
John Shattuck and others of us who work in this building have from
time to time heard variations on these themes. Our answer to the
skeptics, the critics, and the self-styled realists is
straight-forward: look at history, and look at the world around us.
Democracy contributes to safety and prosperity, both in national life
and in international life -- it's that simple. The ability of a people
to hold their leaders accountable at the ballot box is good not just
for a citizenry so enfranchised -- it is also good for that country's
neighbors and therefore for the community of states.
The world has now had enough experience with democracy -- and with the
absence of it -- to have established a track record, a body of
evidence. That record shows that democracies are less likely than
non-democracies to go to war with each other, to persecute their
citizens, to unleash tidal waves of refugees, to create environmental
catastrophes, or to engage in terrorism. And democracies are more
likely to be reliable partners in trade and diplomacy.
That proposition holds with particular force in the increasingly
interdependent world in which we now live. With trade, travel, and
telecommunications linking our countries more closely together than
ever, each of us has a growing stake in how other nations govern, or
All of which means that there is a hard-headed,
national-interest-based rationale for weaving the promotion of human
rights and democracy into the fabric of our diplomacy as a whole. It
is, precisely, an imperative of "realpolitik," not just of
It is also an imperative of sound economics. That indispensable
companion of democracy -- rule of law -- helps enable a country to
attract foreign investment and develop a market economy. Secretary
Albright's commitment to this principle is personified by the
appointment of John's and my friend Paul Gewirtz as her special
counsel for rule of law.
Overall, the past two decades have seen extraordinary progress. For
the first time in history, the global community of democracies now
encompasses over half of the world's population. The wave that swept
away dictatorships in Portugal, Spain, and Greece in the mid-1970s
spread during the '80s to countries that many of us never imagined we
would live to see hold real elections. The end of the Cold War and the
democratic revolution in what used to be the Soviet world have removed
the last half century's one anti-democratic ideology with global
Yet, despite all these auspicious developments, there's a great deal
of pessimism and cynicism in the conventional wisdom these days. The
notion persists that some peoples are unsuited to democracy: that
Asians are predisposed to live under Confucian authoritarians, Latin
Americans under caudillos or comandantes, Africans under tribal
chiefs, Arabs and Persians under repressive theocrats, Russians under
czars or commissars or General Secretaries. Such stereotypes of
national character are not just simple-minded and demeaning -- they
are downright damaging in their effect on the countries in question
and dangerous to the international common good. Especially in an
interdependent world, our attitude toward other peoples has a
considerable effect on their attitudes toward themselves -- on their
aspirations and their apprehensions. Ethnocentric prejudices, like
prophecies of doom, can be self-fulfilling. Too much talk about -- and
too much belief in -- a clash of cultures can bring about just such a
clash. Again, for the most hard-headed of reasons, we should grant to
other countries both the entitlement to, and the capacity for,
political freedom if they are to have any chance of attaining it.
By the same token, it would be perverse in the extreme if we were to
consign whole nations to despotism on the theory that it is the fate
they deserve, or that it is somehow encoded in their genes.
Another theme of pessimism holds that it is the morning after for
democracy, that a hangover has set in, that the wave of good news from
the '80s is giving way to a counter-wave of bad news in the '90s.
Certainly there have been plenty of reminders in the last few years
that the transition is long and hard, especially for countries where
political progress is hostage to economic disadvantage. Poverty,
underdevelopment, and stagnation are by no means alibis for tyranny,
but they are, without doubt, obstacles to freedom and openness. In
many countries, the gap between the poor and the wealthy is widening
as the state undergoes a double transition -- from authoritarian to
democratic politics and from centralized to market economies. Some
regions have the added burden of unsustainable population growth. Even
with freely-elected and well-intentioned leaders, a country where a
rising birthrate outpaces economic growth and exhausts natural
resources is unlikely to sustain democratic rule.
In the post-Communist world especially, a sense of relief and
good-riddance over the dismantlement of the old, inefficient top-heavy
command system has, to one degree or another, given way to widespread
resentment at what often seems to be the cruelty and inequity of the
market, insecurity over the absence of a safety net and
disillusionment, not to mention dread, in the face of burgeoning
Another problem is that newly enfranchised citizens tend to have
unrealistically high expectations of what their elected leaders can
accomplish, how long it will take, and with what degree of attendant
hardship and pain. When those expectations are unmet, voters become
vulnerable to demagogues, to purveyors of foolish, even sinister,
nostrums based on the deadly combination of nostalgia for the past and
fear of the future.
To believe in democracy and the rightness of what our leaders have
asked us to do is not to deny any of these difficulties. Nor is it to
assert that there is anything foreordained about the triumph of
democracy on a global scale. In fact, it is precisely because the
future of democracy is not assured in much of the world that the
countries represented here must work hard to help nascent democracies
through their phase of greatest fragility. In many instances, our
support is absolutely indispensable.
And that support must be, to the greatest extent possible, collective
and coordinated. If we work together in the promotion of human rights
and democracy, there is reason to hope that the principle of synergy
will kick in -- that the whole will be more than the sum of its parts.
The influence of each of our countries -- and of the EU and the EC --
will be greatly magnified.
That is partly because, when we speak and act in concert, we are not
merely individual nations pursuing individual and therefore presumably
selfish goals; rather, we are a chorus of voices that can claim, with
credibility and efficacy, to speak for an important part of the
international community as a whole.
Another point: When we work together, we reflect not only values and
objectives we have in common, we also take into account the
differences among us. Let me elaborate. We have a lot in common. We
are united in our belief that people everywhere deserve the right to
choose their leaders. In your proceedings here at this meeting, you
have been hammering out a common approach to some of the key elements
of democratization: from promoting good governance and the rule of
law, to reinforcing civil society, to increasing the participation of
women in political life -- something of which my boss, Secretary
Albright, certainly approves -- and strengthening support for
democracy-building in the business and labor sectors.
At the same time, each of our states practices democracy in different
ways, in ways that are appropriate to its own national experiences.
There are differences in the forms, the institutions and the practices
by which we govern ourselves. We accommodate those differences in the
way we interact with each other. That is an important part of the
message we should convey to other states: Just as we respect our own
diversity, we respect theirs well.
Let me here raise a related issue that I realize is beyond the scope
of this conference or this initiative, but it's an issue that could
benefit greatly from the kind of honest and open discussion you've
been conducting here. I'll pose it as a question: Can we develop a
common approach toward the breakdown of democracy -- and toward states
that systematically defy the democratic values that we believe must
undergird the international order?
My own sense is that eventually the answer can and should be yes. In
this respect, too, global interdependence is a key factor. It gives us
powerful leverage against those forces that are resisting democracy or
seeking to rip it up by the roots. Just as interdependence increases
the incentives for states to participate fully in the international
community and the global economy, so it also raises the costs to be
borne by any state excluded to one degree or another from the benefits
of belonging to that community. The fact or even the threat of such
exclusion translates into potentially decisive pressure against
would-be dictators or putschists. When the family of democratic
nations responds in concert to the overthrow of democracy, the chances
of democracy surviving or being restored are much higher.
Let me cite an example from this hemisphere. Last week, less than half
a mile from here, at the headquarters of the Organization of American
States, the foreign minister of Venezuela deposited his country's
instrument of ratification, thereby bringing into force an amendment
to the OAS's charter called the Protocol of Washington. That agreement
gives the OAS the authority to suspend the membership of any country
in which a freely elected government is in jeopardy. It is nothing
less than a collective defense of democracy -- and a collective
deterrent against the enemies of democracy.
Even before the formal addition of this amendment to its charter, the
OAS successfully defended democracy against actual or threatened coups
in Peru, Guatemala, and Paraguay. And in Haiti, the OAS and the United
Nations together reinstated a democratically elected president. UNSC
Resolution 940 was a landmark: For the first time the U.N. galvanized
international action to restore democracy and authorized the use of
"all necessary means" in pursuit of that goal.
Another example of multinational cooperation in support of democracy
is more recent. About three weeks ago in Bosnia, the international
community supervised surprisingly successful municipal elections that
are a critical element of our collaborative strategy to help the
people of that shattered land continue the slow, troubled, uneven but
crucial task of constructing a stable, unified state.
Just the mention of Bosnia provides a potent reminder of how difficult
this whole subject is. I gather from John that in your own discussions
yesterday and today, you have spoken more about democratization than
about democracy. That is, I think, the right terminology. "Democracy"
sounds like an absolute, a state of grace, a destination at which one
has arrived. "Democratization," by contrast, sounds more like a
process -- a long and painful journey that requires patience and
persistence, fortitude and resilience, first from the democratizers
themselves, but also from those of us who support them. No society can
transform the way it governs itself overnight or in a year or even in
a decade. Democratization is the work of a generation or more. That is
in part because establishing a real democracy means more than simply
drafting a constitution and having a single election.
In this regard, and in conclusion, I would like to strike a note of
self-reflection on behalf of your American hosts. I know that we Yanks
sometimes talk and act as though we invented democracy -- that the
concept of a ballot box has a made-in-the-USA label on it, like a pair
of Levis or a can of Coke. That's not the way we really think about it
-- or at least it's not the way we should. Rather than seeing
democracy as an American idea that we Americans have vigorously
exported to the rest of the world, we should properly think of it as a
universal ideal -- an inalienable right and aspiration of men and
women everywhere -- that was largely in abeyance for more than two
millennia since the Age of Pericles, that then found a home on these
shores, and that has gone on to make much of the rest of the world its
home as well.
Certainly, that is the way Ben Franklin saw it -- along with his
colleagues Jefferson and Madison, who were also alumni of this
Department. And certainly our national experience here in the United
States bolsters the case for taking the long view even as we face the
difficulties of the moment. When we look at the many new democracies
in the world today, our determination to help is rooted in admiration,
not condescension. We look at how far they have come in a few short
years, and we think about how long it has taken us to get it even
approximately right here in the United States. We became a "new
independent state" 221 years ago, in 1776. It took another 11 years
after independence to draft a constitution, 89 years to abolish
slavery, 144 to give women the vote, and 188 to extend full
constitutional protections to all citizens. Even today we Americans
are still engaged in debates -- often quite rancorous -- about the
writ of the state, about the rights of the individual, and about the
role of community in a mass culture.
In short, democracy -- sorry: democratization -- is a work in
progress, for old independent states as well as new ones. And it's
work that we Americans are proud to be doing with all of you.
Thank you very much.
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