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JULY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 28 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

The Freedom Bloc
In the campaign to spread democracy, some words of advice

Some proponents of the "Community of Democracies" have big ambitions for the new global grouping of more than a hundred countries which signed a declaration in Warsaw last month. "The plan," says former U.S. envoy Mark Palmer, "is to eliminate all dictatorships by 2025." That iron-fisted gallery of nations without elections presumably includes nuclear-tipped China and Pakistan; absolute monarchies Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Brunei; and embargo-hardened Cuba, Iraq, North Korea and Myanmar. But since the world's democracies have gone from 30 in 1974 to some 120 today, the chances of 35 or so autocrats seeing the light or the exit seem good.

France opted out of the June 28 communique, saying that international pressure might not be the best way to promote freedom. Many in Asia would also be wary of a democratic bloc targeting dictators. For one thing, it could become a tool for a big power to pressure its enemies. That has happened at the U.N. Human Rights Commission, where the U.S. constantly lobbies to censure China, but never offenders it doesn't want to displease, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Moreover, multinational efforts to defend rights and establish democracy in recent years have had catastrophic results. NATO's Kosovo strategy ended in wholesale carnage by the Serbs, while the U.N.'s rush to hold an East Timor referendum last August led to an orgy of mayhem by pro-Indonesian militias. While Serbs and Indonesians are most to blame for these tragedies, NATO and the U.N. have to ask themselves whether their zeal for democracy may have blinded them to the risks that their actions would impose on the very people they aimed to protect.

One organization now questioning its past efforts to make countries adopt so-called globally accepted policies is the International Monetary Fund. After visiting Asia in May, new IMF managing director Horst KOhler said the Fund should focus on speedily restoring investor confidence during crises, instead of arm-twisting governments into drastic reforms with little relevance to their urgent financial woes. In 1998, an IMF bid to get Jakarta to dismantle state subsidies and crony capitalism helped create the economic disaster and ethnic strife which will burden Indonesia for years. KOhler is now more careful. "Some say that the Fund has acted like a Trojan horse to impose the economic system of the West," he said last month. "There may be more of a possibility [today] for countries to find their own path."

Besides tempering lofty ideals with on-the-ground realities, the emerging Community of Democracies should recall how their ranks swelled in the last quarter-century. Most threw out despots after years of growing prosperity, learning and interaction with the world through trade, travel and media. Those trends are liberalizing even a place like China, where affluence and education are making people more assertive. Hence, the freedom bloc should always think hard before imposing sanctions that condemn a country to poverty, ignorance and isolation. Democracy rarely thrives in such conditions.

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