Dispatch From the Democracy Conference

Like great gushes of some exotic scent, lofty rhetoric wafted through the halls of Warsaw’s Parliament this week, as the Polish government welcomed a grand gathering of more than 100 democratic or would-be democratic nations, from Finland to France, Kuwait to Kenya, Mexico to Morocco. “Freedom is universal, democracy is universal,”said Bronislaw Geremek, Polish foreign minister, during a toast at the opening banquet. “We are here in Warsaw this week to affirm our faith in democracy’s promise,” said Madeleine Albright, U.S. secretary of state, as she was introducing a videotaped message from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The Warsaw Declaration, which had been prescheduled for approval at the final plenary session, borrows from the language of the American founding fathers, gloriously advocating government based upon the “will of the people,” along with “rights” to a free press, freedom of opinion, and equal protection under the law, among others.

Given the diversity of the gathering, the opening day of the conference was an impressive display: Precisely the sort of near-hysterical expressions of unity one normally expects from one of those EU summits that have, behind the scenes, actually devolved into a terrible brawl over gooseberry quotas or the British budget rebate. But this conference was different, or so it first appeared. Due to an unexpected stroke of luck, I found myself sitting in the far corner at one of the ministerial sessions chaired by Albright herself, and I can safely report that behind the scenes at this conference, there was … more rhetoric.

I suppose it’s natural, when you get 30-odd foreign ministers, deputy foreign ministers, and ambassadors in one room, that each should want to say his piece. It’s also probably to be expected that, at a conference devoted to reaffirming the value of democracy, every foreign minister should want either to elaborate on his own country’s heroic transition to democracy, or to point out the many ways in which his country supports the heroic transitions to democracy currently being undertaken by others. But given that each speaker also felt duty-bound to thank the government of Poland for its generosity, along with the convening nations—Poland, the Czech Republic, India, Chile, South Korea, Mali, and the United States—for their foresight, the speechmaking, at what was meant to be a relatively informal session, took quite a bit of time. Prizes for clarity go to the Hungarian foreign minister who, in gratitude for being allowed to speak before lunch, said he would “refrain from reading out my preprepared statement” and to the foreign ministers of Iceland and Finland who stuck to a few simple remarks in response to Albright’s proposals. After a few hours of all this, one begins to appreciate the small, unpretentious countries whose inhabitants have unpronounceable surnames.

This is not to say, however, that there was no agenda. Albright certainly had one, and she elaborated upon it both behind the scenes and very much out in the open. Aside from the usual affirmations and restatement of basic principles, the purpose of this conference, as the convening countries stated in their “concept paper,” was to create “mechanisms to coordinate efforts better among themselves” to promote democracy and to “form an informal caucus to work together in existing institutions”—i.e., the United Nations—”on issues critical to strengthening and preserving democracy.” On the face of it, neither is that bad an idea: There’s a lot of institutional duplication in the world of democracy promotion, which could be usefully simplified. Besides, pretty much everyone is sick of the old-fashioned, Cold War-era regional caucuses, whose members feel they have to vote in solidarity with one another whatever the cause. If African states can group together, periodically meeting to discuss what they have in common and how they should vote, why can’t democracies? Don’t the latter have more in common nowadays anyway?

Unfortunately, promoting democracy isn’t the same thing as eradicating smallpox, and it isn’t so clear that international institutions are particularly good at it. The United Nations, which also theoretically supports democracy (it’s in the U.N. charter), has given platforms to some appalling dictators. Horrific wars have recently broken out in the territory allegedly watched over by the benign eyes of the Council of Europe, an institution specifically devoted to the promotion of democracy and human rights. One of the West’s most active recent attempts to support democracy, mainly via the International Monetary Fund’s lending policy to Russia, has ended in what is best described as abject failure. In general, it seems that “support” given through small or private institutions works better than massive Western interventions; governments are notoriously clumsy when it comes to telling other governments what to do.

More worrying is the problem of who is in and who is out. While there is, more or less, an agreed-upon definition of who is and who isn’t an African state, there isn’t yet an agreed-upon definition of who is and who isn’t a democratic state—as the many months of angry negotiation required to put this conference together well testify. Note the presence of Algeria, where democratically elected Islamic fundamentalists were prevented from taking power. Note the absence of Iran, which just had rather successful elections, but is less than friendly to the United States. Note that Saudi Arabia requested to come and was hurt to be turned down, as was Libya. Note also the failed attempt to uninvite Peru at the last minute and the successful attempt to uninvite Fiji. And note that although the Russians did send a lowly envoy (who pointedly expressed the view that the United Nations ought to go on working just the way it works now) the Russian foreign minister refused to come on the grounds that his allies in Belarus—a country where opposition leaders have lately been known to disappear in the middle of the night—were not invited. Now imagine how much more difficult it would be to find even a single member of the United Nations that would willingly describe itself as “undemocratic,” and imagine the diplomatic nightmare of trying to determine who was allowed to be in the U.N. democracy caucus and who was not.

As far as this conference was concerned, someone had to draw the line somewhere, and the State Department drew it, much to the annoyance of most everyone else. One Western European delegate told me that his government had been angered by the “secretiveness” of the process—”We were kept in the dark until the last minute about who was coming”—as well as the apparent absence of consistent criteria. Alas, it appears that some even began to doubt the good will of our secretary of state: Suspicions grew that behind the open agenda lay another agenda, namely the creation not just of a democracy caucus, but of a pro-American democracy caucus. As the conference drew to a close, the French foreign minister in a fit of Gallic pique actually refused to sign the thoroughly innocuous, aforementioned Warsaw Declaration. Why? He told journalists that he opposed treating democracy as a “religion” to be imposed on others. An anonymous Polish diplomat told a Polish radio station that the French had in fact opposed the heavy “trans-Atlantic influence” at the conference. An equally anonymous U.S. official, on the other hand, blamed standard French orneriness, telling Agence France Presse that “[o]ne hundred and eight countries showed up to support democracy, but only 107 actually did.”

Never mind: It was nice for the Papua New Guineans to be included in something, and Mongolia’s foreign minister, along with Albright one of the few women present, made a very charming speech. Down the street, Freedom House, the American pro-democracy group, hosted a useful parallel conference for other pro-democracy NGOs: The guests included Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov and Alejandro Toledo, Peruvian opposition leader (plus, unfortunately, a very odd collection of Poles). I continue to feel slightly concerned that Albright, clearly a gifted leader of university seminars, had nothing better to do than listen to mini-monologues about the importance of democracy for an entire day—all the while lightly chiding her charges to stick to the agenda—but then this is a lame-duck administration, nothing much is going to happen in the Middle East until Syria settles down, and we aren’t actually at war with any of the future democracy’s caucus’s future enemies. Or at least not yet.