Democracy isn’t only for the lucky few

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I sometimes cringe when politicians use arguments ranging from “cultural sensitivity” to “realpolitik” to say that America shouldn’t support the development of democracy in non-Western lands and cultures. In his famous speech before the British Parliament, President Reagan described such thinking as “cultural condescension, or worse.”

{mosads}For one thing, suggesting that setbacks and challenges in developing nations are proof of democracy’s incompatibility with certain cultures ignores how our own path toward a democratic ideal has often been slow and winding. We have made more than our share of mistakes, and have all too often delayed reforms that denied essential rights to many Americans.

More importantly, there are plenty of examples of democratic systems taking root in cultures very different than our own. Take the cases of Mongolia and Tunisia, active democracies that have emerged in very difficult neighborhoods.

Not so long ago, Mongolia was a Soviet satellite — the “Mongolian People’s Republic.” As Soviet communism began to collapse, the Mongolian people pledged themselves to multiparty democracy, and turned to organizations like mine, the International Republican Institute, for assistance and training. We worked with leaders and citizen groups to foster issue-based political parties and strengthen the role of women and young people in the political process. Last year, as Mongolia celebrated the 25th anniversary of its democratic transition, it announced plans to help other emerging democracies in Asia with their transitions. All of this in a country that has only two bordering neighbors: Russia and China.

Tunisia has also made dramatic strides toward multiparty democracy under extremely difficult circumstances. Since the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, Tunisians ratified the Arab world’s most progressive constitution, which enshrines the rule of law and respect for human rights. Despite numerous threats from extremist elements in the region, the country’s leaders have managed to hold credible democratic elections. The country faces a number of economic challenges, made worse by terrorist strikes, but it hasn’t wavered from its commitment to citizen-centered, responsive government.

These democratic transitions were not — and could not have been — “imposed” from the outside. A democracy can only hope to succeed if it is built from the grass roots, is led by citizens and civil society leaders, and taps into all of its people to build basic institutions. There is, however, an important role for friends of democracy — organizations like IRI and our sister organizations — to play. We should be ready to share lessons from our democratic experience, imperfect as it may be, and offer tools and resources to help leaders as they choose their own path.

Reagan called for countries in Europe and North America to take on this role. He said we should aim to “foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means.”

IRI will be hosting several educational events in Cleveland around the Republican National Convention. We hope to remind our audiences of Reagan’s deep abiding belief in democracy and human liberty, and his drive to make support for these values an important element of our foreign policy.

As President Reagan said to Parliament, “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” We couldn’t agree more.

Green is president of the International Republican Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of congress representing Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags Democracy International Republican Institute IRI Mongolia Tunisia
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