When the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989 — 25 years ago — liberal democracy appeared triumphant over authoritarianism, and the West poured resources into Eastern Europe to speed what seemed an inevitable process toward democratization and the development of market economies.
The road to reform was difficult, with such major obstacles along the way as the Balkan conflicts. For the most part, though, progress remained the pervasive narrative, marked not only by successive states joining NATO, the Council of Europe and the European Union, but also by the promising color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Democracy also started to gain a foothold in other regions, from Brazil to Indonesia, and the Arab Spring brought hope that the Middle East would follow suit.
The American Bar Association proudly joined these reform efforts, launching its Rule of Law Initiative and marshaling scores of volunteer lawyers to advise on new laws and constitutions in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.
Today, however, as democratic progress is tested by Russia’s rollback of hard-won freedoms and as conflicts flare up from Donetsk to Damascus, the world’s 25-year democratization effort is under siege. Critics question what impact the assistance has had and whether it was folly in the first place. Policymakers divert resources to the urgent challenges posed by the Islamic State and Ebola epidemic, which seem to demand military and medical responses rather than governance interventions. Reflecting the mounting democratization fatigue, the United States Agency for International Development’s funding for efforts to promote democracy, human rights and good governance has plummeted 38 percent in the past five years.
Syndicated columnist Richard Cohen has argued that the “charming” U.S. belief in democracy and our efforts to promote it abroad have “landed us in no end of trouble.” A better approach, he urges, is a “realist’s vigilant cynicism,” or an appreciation that what works for us may not work for others and that in many parts of the world, democratization risks unleashing forces we do not like and cannot control.
The Nov. 9 anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall demands sober reflection about our democratization efforts — what works, what doesn’t and why. In democratization assistance, as in all other endeavors, we can always get smarter. And indeed, we have seen the assistance community respond to its critics by developing more effective strategies that emphasize bottom-up approaches, local buy-in and sustainability of reforms. We need to continue to evolve in our approach, to better understand the drivers of reform and the role that international assistance can play.
That said, let’s not confuse fatalism with realism. Just because something is hard and may take a long time doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, nor does it mean that the efforts of individual reformers are not critical and worth supporting. Any student of the United States’ own slow and uneven democratic evolution can appreciate that perspective.
A clear-eyed realist knows that bringing about democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights is both a long-term endeavor and profoundly in our interests. A full 225 years after our Bill of Rights was adopted, our work to secure these principles in the United States is far from done. On issues ranging from domestic violence to excessive police practices, we need only read recent headlines to know that persistent challenges remain.
Reformers the world over are at different places on the same arduous path, and they need and deserve our support and assistance, not because it satisfies some American fantasy about a well-ordered world but because good governance is also the key to solving other contemporary challenges. Health threats such as Ebola get the upper hand where governmental structures needed to respond are weak.
Destructive terrorist forces such as the Islamic State draw recruits from among those disenfranchised by authoritarian regimes, and they thrive in ungoverned spaces. Resurgent autocrats are emboldened when civil society is weak and the international community is conflicted about its democratization agenda.
In recognition of this reality then, let us mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a true realist’s take and recommit to steadfast support for others traveling on the long but worthwhile path to democratic freedom. Rather than a “realist’s vigilant cynicism” concerning democratization, what’s needed is a “realist’s vigilance” in pursuit of democracy and the rule of law.
William C. Hubbard is president of the American Bar Association.