- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 21, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and delegates from 140 other countries met earlier this year in Santiago, Chile, to discuss international efforts to promote and strengthen democratic institutions.

Before we read too much into the “Community of Democracies” initiative, however, we should remember an important lesson: Such efforts are needed because many of the same governments represented at the diplomatic gathering restrict their citizens’ freedoms. They give with one hand while taking away with another.

Founded in 1999 in President Clinton’s second term, the little-known Community of Democracies forum initially had just 10 members: Chile, the Czech Republic, India, Korea, Mali, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, South Africa and the United States. Today, it has nearly as many members as the United Nations. But there’s a notable difference: Despite the admirable U.N. Charter, even thugs and tyrants can claim seats at the world body, so long as they hold “legitimate” power. To join the Community of Democracies, leaders must hold more than power; they must at least endorse certain beliefs.

While the Community of Democracies is a worthwhile forum, and should be enthusiastically supported by the United States as part of its expanded global outreach effort, experience shows governments can only do so much. They can encourage and assist development of democratic institutions — open and transparent government, free elections, a free press, religious tolerance, competitive enterprise, and an independent “civil society” — but the heavy lifting must be done by the people.

Despite the sterling rhetoric we typically hear from national leaders, we know from history that governments are much better at erecting barriers than tearing them down.

The world norm are laws, regulations and red tape that impede commerce, restrict speech, shackle the press, and make it more difficult than necessary to earn a living. Indeed, throughout history, from the ancient Israelites’ 40-year exodus from Egypt to the storming of the Bastille and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, the story of democracy has been written by the people, not their governments.

Like most other things in life, however, democracy doesn’t just spring from the ground; people must build it.

Here in the U.S., democracy is supported by a vast coast-to-coast network of private and nonprofit organizations. Ideas used by politicians to craft their national economic policies and frame the rules of law essential to a democratic society often come from these organizations, particularly the “think tanks.”

Until recently, public policy think tanks were relatively unique to America. No more. From Mongolia to Nigeria, Bulgaria to Pakistan, Serbia to South Africa, the American experience is replicated elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why the Community of Democracies has grown so rapidly.

My own institution established less than 25 years ago now works with more than 200 such policy institutes around the world, whose sole mission is building democratic societies in their countries. Granted, that’s not many, considering there are at least that many think tanks in the U.S. alone. But it’s an important start, and a huge increase from a few years ago.

These local efforts are having significant effect. In Bulgaria, for example — which had one of the most secretive and repressive Cold War governments — the Access to Information Program (AIP) Foundation spearheads a nationwide campaign for “open, transparent and accountable government.”

AIP efforts already have produced dramatic results: a Freedom of Information provision in the country’s post-Cold War constitution. In India, Parth Shah left a comfortable job teaching at the University of Michigan to establish the Center for Civil Society. CCS’ “Liberty & Society” seminars have reached thousands of Indian students. And Ghana’s indigenous think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), has taught free-market economics to nearly a third of that country’s lawmakers and ministerial officials.

Initiatives like the Community of Democracies forum are important. But the story behind the story is the grass-roots freedom movement that has been taking hold in the most unlikely places. That’s where the real action is.

Alejandro Chafuen is president of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.

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