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A nation must think before it acts.
On Monday, October 20 the FPRI Project on Democratic Transitions achieved a very big first: our “Does Democracy Matter?” conference was broadcast live from the Kennan Institute on C-SPAN 2 as well as being covered in a full webcast. The conference revisited the strategic case for U.S. support for democracy abroad, and it critically examined the efficacy of our current approaches to democracy promotion. Dr. Larry Diamond, the preeminent scholar on democratization, gave a magisterial keynote address analyzing recent democratic regression as well as making the case that we can and should “Chase Away the Democratic Blues.” Diamond’s remarks are available in full on the Foreign Policy and FPRI websites.
More than 130 experts, practitioners, journalists and students packed the auditorium, while hundreds of others watched the live stream on C-SPAN and webcast, and many participated in a vigorous debate on Twitter throughout the conference. In fact, #democracymatters, the conference hashtag, was one of the most popular hashtags of the day.
Longtime president of the National Endowment for Democracy Carl Gershman opened the first panel, arguing that the problem now is not overreach, but rather a lack of US engagement. The World Bank’s Barak Hoffman zeroed in on Americans’ lack of faith in their own institutions and over-emphasis on military approaches to national security. Nikolas Gvosdev of the Naval War College argued that if we misapply the 1990s European post-communist democratization model to other places today, we are in for a disappointment. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia pointed out that supporters of democracy are up against much more determined opponents now than in the 1990s, and that democratic change must come primarily from inside countries themselves.
Sarah Bush of Temple University and FPRI provocatively opened panel two by asking if we can’t promote democracy effectively, should we be doing it at all? But she then cited a large body of scholarship on democracy promotion that concludes that it is, on balance, effective. The new democracies of Central Europe, reported Tsveta Petrova of the Harriman Institute, have started successful newer democracy promotion efforts based on what worked in their own transitions. Michal Kořan with the Prague Institute of International Relations made the case for greater US engagement within the community of democracies. Drawing on examples of failed programs, FPRI’s Melinda Haring argued that the models we use to deliver US assistance are crucial to effectiveness, and some of these models do not work in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian countries. We should thus spend democracy promotion funds on countries that really are in transition.
This sketch is a reduced summary of the rich arguments that our scholars made at the conference, and we welcome our readers to watch the conference panels, read the keynote address, and glance at our conference photos. A full conference report is forthcoming soon.
It is our sincere hope that this conference will stimulate greater thought and reflection on how the US can more effectively support democracy in the world in ways that promote both our own national security and a more promising world order.
About the Foreign Policy Research Institute
The Foreign Policy Research Institute was founded in Philadelphia in 1955 on the premise that “a nation should think before it acts,” as founder Robert Strausz-Hupé put it. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, FPRI is devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests. We add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical, cultural, geographical context of international politics. In the area of education, FPRI sponsors the Marvin Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy and the Madeleine and Keen Butcher History Institute. FPRI publishes Orbis, a quarterly journal of world affairs.
Next year, FPRI will celebrate its 60 anniversary.