'Civil Society' Strengthens the Fabric of Peace

Article excerpt

BRIAN ATWOOD, the director for the US Agency for International Development, recently said that "conflict prevention needs a strong civil society." He was closer to the mark than many who employ this popular new mantra for everything from being nice to one another to the notion of full-blown political democracy. Yet "civil society" can be defined in a way that links it to the conflicts that bedevil the post-cold-war world. Indeed, the concept of civil society goes to the heart of the historic struggle between self-government and tyranny.

Civil society is what occupies the space between government at the top and the atomized mass of individuals at the bottom. What distinguishes democracy from fascism, communism, and other totalitarianisms are the key structural components of political opposition, independent judiciary, and free media. But equally important is the network of private voluntary groupings, associations, and coalitions that - as that keen observer of early America Count Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1832 - do much of our society's work. His observations of US civil society even then led him to conclude that "not a man can be found who would acknowledge that the state has any right to interfere in their town's affairs." (Today's Libertarians are not so original after all.)

What a stark contrast with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, or Communist Russia, where the master strategy was to prevent any uncontrolled institutions from competing with their monopoly of civil space. Non-democracies still try to strip civil society of any but a controlled and sycophantic role. Beijing's frantic efforts to isolate the parallel nongovernmental forum at last year's UN women's conference illustrated the need of tyrants to monopolize the process and keep any free-wheeling social element from slipping through the cracks. There is a strong connection between civil society and warfare itself. It is generally agreed that democracies do not fight one another. One reason is that democracies are open societies where the nongovernmental sector is a major source of information. Saddam Hussein's Iraq could not have gotten as far with its nuclear and chemical arms programs if a nosy equivalent of the Federation of Atomic Scientists had been allowed to function there. True, that same uncontrolled public opinion - "the fatal artillery of public excitation," as British Prime Minister George Canning once called it - also makes it hard for democracies to get out of a war once in one. …