5 July 2005 - Tuesday

Notes on CfD: Introduction

Having been urged by not only the president of the United States but also my mother to read The Case for Democracy (Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer), and even having been given a copy of the book by the mother of a friend, I have decided to inaugurate a series of blogposts about it. I will try to cover at least a chapter each week.

I hesitate to ignore the preface and introduction to the book; they set the tone for the rest and provide an abstract of Sharansky's ideas:

I believe that all people are capable of creating a free society. I believe that all free societies will guarantee security and peace. And I believe that by linking international policy to building free socities, the free world can once again secure a better future for hundreds of millions of people around the world. (xxv)

However, it would be difficult to appraise these ideas without being able to examine specific examples. I think most modern people, from communists to Islamists, would agree that it is good to be "free" and that governments should try to advance the cause of freedom. If you don't believe me, find the writings of any anti-American; you won't have to look far to find terms like like "liberation" and "oppression." Therefore, I will critique only two aspects of the introduction before moving on to the first chapter.

The introduction is an ode to the "power of freedom." Sharansky hails freedom as a far mightier force than most diplomats realize. While policy wonks in the West fret over its limits, freedom bursts into bloom even in the harshest climates. He even suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not only imminent but "inevitable" in the 1980s. Soviet dissident Andrei Almarik predicted this at the time, but was scorned by Western skeptics (8), who failed to recognize "the fundamental weakness of a state that denied its citizens freedom" (11).

I find this problematic. First, I dislike talk about inevitability. It is impossible to prove the inevitability of anything, while a single counterexample disproves it. For all we know, if Gorbachev had run his country the way Kim Jong-Il runs his, it would still be a communist nation today. Yes, North Korea is "fundamentally weak," but that doesn't mean it is going anywhere anytime soon.

More importantly, I see this as a self-contradiction by Sharansky. If freedom is so powerful, why does Sharansky think it needs so much help from the West? He conflates a "spectacular victory in which an empire crumbled without a shot fired or a missile launched" (13), with the military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (14-15). I think it could just as easily be argued that the latter represents a lack of faith in the power of freedom as it displayed itself in the USSR. Certainly, those invasions do not follow logically from Sharansky's proposition about freedom's power. There is a fundamental difference between revolution and invasion. He does not explain his equivocation here.

On the other hand, I think there are good ideas in this chapter. If Sharansky would stop treating regime change as if it were part of the same idea as "linkage" (requiring a nation to improve the treatment of its own people in order to improve its relationship with the West), his arguments for linkage would be a lot stronger. They would also be more relevant, since Sharansky could address obvious gaps in Bush's pro-freedom campaign, such as our coziness with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Uzbekistan .... Instead, he praises Bush in glowing terms and only weakly hints that "even within the Bush administration, the president's words, expressing a profound faith in freedom, are not always translated into policies that reflect that faith" (15).

By blurring such distinctions in this introduction, I think Sharansky has reduced it to a vague bit of cheerleading, an appeal for thinking warm thoughts about liberty. Granted, this is only the introduction to the book.

| Posted by Wilson at 19:56 Central | TrackBack
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