Throughout his entire presidency, George W. Bush has been talking about promoting democracy around the world. Many people think of the pro-democracy work as occurring only in Iraq and Afghanistan, places where the results so far have been slow and uneven.
Also, some critics question the concept of spreading democracy because they were opposed to our initial involvement in Iraq or because they are displeased with the way we have handled the situation there-- even if they initially supported our use of troops against Saddam Hussein.
However, it would be a mistake for our nation to back away from the concept of spreading democracy around the world simply because of our experience in Iraq.
Our efforts to promote democracy have been successful in a number of countries, and these successes clearly are in our own national self-interest.
As has been noted by the State Department: “Democratically governed nations are more likely to secure the peace, deter aggression, expand open markets, promote economic development, protect American citizens, combat international terrorism and crime, uphold human and worker rights, avoid humanitarian crises and refugee flows, improve the global environment, and protect human health.”
The State Department recently issued a 272-page document, “Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2005-2006.” It details U.S. efforts in 95 countries around the world where the United States spent a total of $1.4 billion during fiscal year 2005 promoting democracy and human rights.
This happens to be a subject I knew something about. From 1990 to 1995, I chaired a special House of Representatives Task Force set up to assist the parliaments of Eastern and Central Europe in the transition to democracy after the Berlin Wall opened. We helped parliaments in nine countries, and democracy is still in place in each of those nations today. And equally important, those nine countries are pro-American.
Recently, I traveled to the Central Asia country of Kyrgyzstan, previously a part of the old Soviet Union, to assist their parliament with the transition to democracy. I spent seven days meeting with members of parliament and other high ranking governmental officials on a visit sponsored by the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
Shortly after returning to the United States, I traveled to Columbia, S.C., to spend most of a week with members of parliament from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia who were learning about state government. The delegation was brought to the United States by the House of Representatives Democracy Assistance Commission, a recently constituted committee to build on the work that my task force undertook in the 1990’s.
The delegation from the Republic of Georgia was joined by delegations from Macedonia, East Timor and Indonesia, who were also in our country at the invitation of the House Democracy Assistance Commission. The first meeting in Washington was spent at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars where I currently am serving as a Public Policy Scholar
All these countries have one thing in common: a thirst to learn more about democracy and an admiration for the United States.
NDI and its sister organization, the International Republican Institute (IRI), are involved in democratization work in these and other countries on grants from our state department.
Let me discuss my experience in Kyrgyzstan first.
Like many portions of the old Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan has gone through a period of rule by a strong president with a relatively weak parliament. Many current members of parliament understand that true democracy means that the legislative branch should have a stronger voice and are right now in the midst of constitutional reform that could alter the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
It is likely that a national referendum will be held on this subject this fall, though the outcome is far from certain.
During the past 10 years, NDI has conducted a program to teach local citizens about democracy and civic involvement. A program operated by young people from the United States and from Kyrgyzstan has taken root and is playing a significant role in conducting basic education on democracy.
Georgia had a peaceful revolution but still must sort out its relationship with nearby Russia as it tries to improve its economy and streamline its parliament. The other three countries taking part in the House Democracy Assistance project have their own unique problems with their democratic transitions but the fact remains that they are looking to us for inspiration and help.
The American system of separation of powers between a strong president and a strong Congress can’t be transported in its entirety to other countries. Some will prefer a parliamentary system like Great Britain, where the majority in parliament selects a prime minister who serves as the country’s chief executive. But the exact form that democracy takes is not the point. What matters is that there is a popularly elected government that reflects the will of the voters, that there is a free press and an independent judiciary that administers the country’s laws fairly.
Not every country is following our lead to democracy, but the number is growing. Let’s keep spreading the word.
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