KRAKOW, Poland—A riot of golden curlicues embellished the theater boxes. In the plush velvet seats below, ambassadors in saris crowded against activists in crumpled suits. On Saturday, it was standing room only for Hillary Clinton's speech at the 10th-anniversary meeting of the Community of Democracies, and the U.S. secretary of state had the crowd behind her. First she complimented her predecessor Madeleine Albright, who co-founded the community a decade ago with Bronislaw Geremek, who at the time was the Polish foreign minister.
Then she spoke, not about democracy, exactly, but about civil society, those "activists, organizations, congregations, writers, and reporters that work though peaceful means to encourage governments to do better." Along with representative government and well-functioning markets, civil society, she said, "undergirds both democratic governance and broad-based prosperity." Yet civil society is under threat, and activists are in prison in many countries, including some that call themselves democracies: Egypt, China, Burma, and Zimbabwe were mentioned, among others.
Behind me, a Kuwaiti diplomat scribbled furious notes in Arabic. Up in the balconies, delegates from Moldova and Mongolia leaned forward, trying to catch every word. But was anyone listening back home?
This is now the central question, not only for the Community of Democracies—an organization benignly neglected by the Bush administration and recently revived by the Poles—but for all advocates of "democracy promotion," of which I am one. American democracy promotion has taken different forms in recent decades, from the Reagan administration's covert support for anti-Communist dissidents to the relaunching of Radio Free Afghanistan in 2002. But right now, the whole concept is in trouble.
This is partly because—as Clinton and others have recently said—democracy itself is in trouble. By every measure, the world's autocrats have become more entrenched over the last decade. Countries as disparate as Russia, Venezuela, and Iran have even become adept at using the rhetoric of democracy—along with faked elections, phony political parties, even state-controlled civil society organizations—to deflect pressure for change.
But democracy promotion has also been unfairly discredited by the invasion of Iraq, a decision too often remembered as nothing more than a foolish "war for democracy" that went predictably wrong. The subsequent failure of Iraq to metamorphose overnight into the Switzerland of the Middle East is cited as an example of why democracy should never be pushed or promoted anywhere at all. This silly argument has had a strong echo: Since becoming president, Barack Obama has shied away from the word democracy in foreign contexts—he prefers "our common security and prosperity"—as if it might be some dangerous Bushism.
In fact, democracy promotion was not invented by a secret cabal of neocons; it is a long-standing tool of bipartisan American, as well as Western, foreign policy, one that has overlapped at times with both public diplomacy and foreign aid. The Germans have used their political party foundations to bolster democrats, especially in Eastern Europe; the British sometimes work through the Commonwealth, the organization of former British colonies and others in Africa and Asia. We Americans tend to spend money on media (Radio Free Europe and its modern offshoots), on training (for judges, journalists, and activists), and, yes, sometimes on covert funding of democrats in authoritarian countries.
Frustratingly—at least for those who fund these projects—none of them guarantees success, and many fail outright. Revolutions can be reversed. Good dissidents don't always make good presidents. Even established democracies require constant maintenance, and societies divided by bitter ethnic conflict or extreme poverty can be fragile.
None of which means that these tools don't ever work—they have in the past, and they can again—especially if, as Clinton suggested, we steadily focus on supporting the culture of free speech and free association, without which elections and political parties are mere farce. We cannot impose democracy by force, but we can bypass the United Nations and its corrupt Human Rights Council, perhaps using the Community of Democracies itself to monitor and investigate abuses of civil society. We can also join others, not only in Europe but also in South Korea, Indonesia, or Chile—newer democracies that cared enough to have sent senior ministers all the way to Krakow last weekend—in condemning the abusers.
And we can continue to fund those training programs and radio stations that might someday bear fruit. Clinton announced the administration's intention to contribute $2 million to a fund that would provide lawyers, cell phones, and quick support for embattled civic organizations. It wasn't much—a friend pointed out that some in the audience have more in their bank accounts—but these things don't have to cost a lot.
Besides, even that level of support requires somebody, occasionally, to say that it is necessary. Clinton did so on Saturday, and she won international applause. I hope she gets some at home, too.