- - Sunday, July 7, 2019



By Sheri Berman

Oxford University Press, $34.95, 545 pages

For purely personal reasons, Sheri Berman’s “Democracy and Dictatorship” is one of the few books that grabbed me with its opening paragraph:

“In November 1989 the place to be was Berlin. History was being made. Dictatorships were collapsing and, as George H.W. Bush put it, ‘America [had] won the Cold War.’ The bloody twentieth century with its horrible violence and titanic ideological battles was coming to a close. Liberal democracy was triumphant, and the West was about to lead the way towards progress and prosperity. Many felt in 1989 as Wordsworth did about the French Revolution exactly two hundred years before: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive./But to be young was just heaven.’”

In November 1989, I was a middle-aged 45, but I did happen to be in East Berlin. No one who was at ground zero as the Wall and the Iron Curtain came crashing down will ever forget those heady days. My only regret is that I didn’t buy a fragment of the Wall itself. At the time, I thought that souvenir-buying would cheapen the historic moment. Now I wish I’d yielded to the temptation.

But, even then — at least to a skeptic like myself with a fair amount of historical perspective to draw on — the death throes of the Evil Empire marked the closing of a chapter, not the end of a book — certainly not the much-vaunted “end of history” itself.

As I traveled to Poland and Hungary immediately afterward, meeting with government officials, pro-democracy leaders and ordinary citizens, it became obvious to me that each of the soon-to-be former Communist states would have to fashion its own distinctive future, and that future would be shaped in large measure by its own unique past, beginning centuries — sometimes millennia — before the rise and fall of communism.

It should have been obvious that believing that the last blow in the struggle against totalitarianism had been struck was as naive as assuming that all of the evil consequences of slavery had evaporated at the end of the Civil War with the freeing of the slaves. In politics, as in life, no victory is final, evil never surrenders unconditionally and democracy is always a work in progress.

One of the many virtues of Ms. Berman’s calm, reasoned, and well-informed examination of the (at best) checkered history of democratic institutions on the European continent is that she takes the long view and an evidentiary rather than emotional approach. Two quotes she cites in her opening overview capture the spirit of her own perspective.

When the Algerian government voided the results of a democratic election that “was about to be won by the radical Islamic Salvation Front (IS) in 1992,” she cites my old friend, the late Edward Djerejian, then-assistant secretary of State, explaining “that the United States favored democratization but did not support groups that believed in ‘one person, one vote, one time.’”

Or, as that flawed but far from stupid practitioner of practical diplomacy, Richard Holbrooke, asked before the 1996 elections in Bosnia, “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, Fascists, separatists? This is the dilemma.”

Knocking down walls and storming Bastilles, while good theater and powerful symbolism, are no guarantee of future freedoms. In the end, the countries that have enjoyed relatively stable free institutions are those that have managed to emerge from earlier struggles with a durable constitutional and judicial framework that allows for representative government with strong checks and balances. Surprisingly, this formula has met with its greatest success in countries with a secure sense of identity, and deep-rooted shared values as basic as a common language and a founding credo.

For all the blind adulation that today’s self-labeled “progressives” express for “diversity,” the sad truth is that “diversity” is all too often a euphemism for divergence and division, of alienation from shared core values and the civilized reconciliation of differences. The triumph of American constitutional government has been its ability to absorb people from diverse backgrounds into a society based on a single set of rules of fair play.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets this, as was symbolically revealed by that less-than-great communicator, Al Gore, in one of his presidential campaign speeches. Mr. Gore managed to simultaneously reveal his ignorance of Latin and his total misunderstanding of what makes America — and true democratic values — work. He quoted the national motto “E Pluribus Unum” and then mistranslated it as meaning “Many from One.” As with so much else, poor old Al had got it exactly backwards. The correct translation is, “From Many One,” the spirit that makes it possible for a diverse “many” to live together freely and peacefully under “one” national roof.

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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