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One on One
December 3, 2004

Carl Gershman

Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy
Democracy for All?

Paul Gigot speaks with Carl Gershman, President of The National Endowment for Democracy

PAUL GIGOT: As we've seen in the last couple of weeks in Ukraine, and for that matter in Iraq, nobody ever said that democracy was easy. Few people know that better than Carl Gershman, president of a bipartisan organization called the National Endowment for Democracy which tries to spread democratic freedom around the world.

You've been following events in Ukraine. Let me play devil's advocate for a second. A lot of people say it's not in the U.S. national interest to try to worry about how foreign peoples elect their governments. Why should we be promoting democracy around the world? How do you respond to that?

CARL GERSHMAN: Well, in the first place, countries that are democratic tend to be friendly to us and tend not to produce a lot of war and conflict. They tend to be good trading partners. Historically the U.S. has always been friendly to democracy. We were the first democracy. George Washington himself talked about the future of democracy resting on the success of our experiment, and we've always believed in these things, and now, they are spreading.

GIGOT: It's part of our kind of national character in other words?

GERSHMAN: Exactly.

GIGOT: Deeply rooted in what we are...

GERSHMAN: The American ethos, the American creed.

GIGOT: Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin wall, we've had some success with the expansion of democracy in the former eastern Soviet bloc. How would you rate things overall in that part of the world?

GERSHMAN: Well, look, there have been successes, and frankly there have been a lot of problems. Central Europe is doing fairly well. There have been some breakthroughs even in the more difficult places like Slovakia and Croatia. There was an important election four or five years ago in Yugoslavia, Georgia more recently and now the events in the Ukraine are really historic. This is arguably the most important thing that has happened in that part of the world and maybe even globally since the great events of the period of 1989 to 1991. We have the birth of a new democracy in a very very significant country in that part of the world. in a sense it tips the balance between democracy and autocracy. It doesn't mean that the countries further to the east are going to become democracies overnight. It takes a long time. It's very very tough, but this gives everyone a better chance.

GIGOT: Where have the setbacks been, because I know that there have been some in Belarus, and some people are arguing right now that Russia itself has been slipping back away from the move towards democracy back towards an authoritarian government.

GERSHMAN: Belarus is really a dictatorship right now. There's still some openings, but it's a very authoritarian country, and Russia is becoming that way. But in the long run, the future for the people of Russia is in democracy. Vladimir Putin is really not offering very much. They hoped that they could keep Ukraine in their camp. Ultimately, people want to be part of democracy, part of Europe, part of a modern democratic civilization. If Putin has an alternative vision to offer, I'd like to hear it. But in the long term, I think -- even though it's going to take a long time -- I think the future for Russia is democracy.

GIGOT: Well when you look at a country that's been successful in its transition, like Poland, versus a Belarus or even a Russia, what are the factors that influence just how successful, or how fast, a country can move to a democracy? I'm talking about the culture, the institutions, the traditions.

GERSHMAN: The historical experience, the proximity to Europe -- there are a lot of factors that influence that and certainly the countries that are furthest to the West have done better.

GIGOT: Is it proximity to the West that does it?

GERSHMAN: Well, it's proximity, it's religion, it's culture. I mean, there are many, many factors. It's the economy. It's frankly, in the case of the Soviet Union, the countries, it's how much suffering they endured under Stalin. You know, Stalin killed millions of people. He eliminated entire intelligentsias and middle classes -- it's very difficult to recover from a period of terror such as Stalin inflicted upon the peoples of the Soviet Union. It's going to take time to recover. It's not an easy process. It's a gradual process, but I think it's moving in the right direction, even though we can argue that Russia is moving in the wrong direction. I think the pressures are going to grow now for democracy in Russia. It may not happen in the next decade, but it's going to happen.

GIGOT: Let's broaden the scope a little bit. President Bush has a very ambitious pro-democracy agenda for the Middle East and the Muslim world, and he's talked about it for Afghanistan and Iraq, but there are those on the right and left -- George Will I can think of, the columnist -- who say these countries are not ready for democracy because they have no tradition. Islamic culture is not supportive of it. So the U.S. is really pursuing a fool's errand as it tries to promote democracy in that part of the world. What do you think about that argument?

GERSHMAN: Well first of all, there are a lot of Muslim democracies like Indonesia and Bangladesh, a number of African countries. It's not Muslim culture. There is a problem in the Arab world. I mean, the Arab world is the only major region of the world that still doesn't have an electoral democracy, but that's where the great challenge lies. I think President Bush is right to put it on the table. There were people who said after World War II, Japan couldn't become a democracy, Germany couldn't become a democracy, Catholic countries couldn't become democracies. We've heard all that, and now they're saying Arab countries, Muslim countries, and so forth.

I don't think any of that is really true. But one just has to give this time, because ultimately what's happening, it's a process of globalization. It's a process of the spread of modernity. If people want good lives for their children they're going to ultimately have to be part of the modern economy. To be part of the modern economy you need to be a democracy.

GIGOT: James Q. Wilson, the eminent political scientist, has argued that while democracy may be desirable, in some of these countries it may be a bridge too far, that the candidates and free and fair elections might be hard to get, especially in the short term. What we should accept is maybe expanded area of freedom -- freedom to worship, for example, or freedom of the press. If that's what we can get out of a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, that will lead us eventually to a more democratic road. What do you think of that distinction he makes?

GERSHMAN: Well, we're just not in a historical period where we can sequence everything according to some perfect analysis as to what works best. It is best to build the liberal institutions and then have elections. In a lot of countries that had gone through terrible tumult where dictatorships have fallen, you need to have a government and that government needs to be legitimate. Governments today are not legitimate unless they're elected. If they are elected, if there are elections which are reasonably free and fair, there are certain freedoms that go along with elections. In other words, you have to be able to get out your message, you have to be able to organize freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of media. There are freedoms that go along with this. But as we know, there are a lot of problems with elected governments. I think you're in a better position of moving toward democracy if you have an elected government than if you have a dictatorship.

GIGOT: All right, Carl. Thank you very much.