THE CASE FOR DEMOCRACY: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror Natan Sharansky, with Ron Dermer New York: PublicAffairs, 2004. xxvi, 305pp, $37.95 cloth (ISBN 1-58648-261-0)
Natan Sharansky's compact little volume about democracy may well be the most influential book of the year. US President George W. Bush liked it so much that he invited Sharansky to the White House for a chat, then borrowed many of the author's thoughts for his second inaugural address, in which he declared that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." That was music to Sharansky's ears. He has been urging the United States to adopt just such a policy since he was a dissident in the Soviet Union 25 years ago.
Why is he suddenly being listened to now? And what is it about his book that has given it such impact?
The notion that democracy is a superior form of government is hardly original. Just about everyone agrees that free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary are better than despots, censors, and kangaroo courts. In the same way, just about everyone agrees that democracies are less likely to go to war than tyrannies and that the spread of democracy should make international conflict less likely. That idea has a pedigree reaching back to Woodrow Wilson and beyond.
What gives TAe case for Democracy its currency is the authenticity of its source. Sharansky is no remote scholar blowing smoke from his tower window. He saw communist tyranny up close, spending nine years in Soviet prisons because he pushed for the right of Jews to emigrate from the USSR. Since his release in 1986, he has been active in Israeli politics, most recently as a hawkish minister in the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. For that vantage point, he looked out on another land of tyranny: the Arab world.
He draws two central conclusions form these experiences. First, tyrannies never change. Even when they feign friendship with the democratic world, it is only to perpetuate their power. For that reason, it is futile to try to accommodate them or gently urge them to reform. second, all people are capable of building free societies. When he was in the hands of the KGB, Sharansky came to understand the surpassing power of freedom. Through all his years in the hands of the KGB, he never felt like a victim or a slave. His dissent had given him a sense of inner freedom that never left him and an appreciation for the ability of people to think and act for themselves.
What troubled him during those years of struggle and imprisonment was that few in the democratic world seemed to understand democracy's importance. "For many years, I have been asking myself why so many of those who have always lived in liberty do not appreciate the enormous power of freedom," he writes. Throughout the Cold War years, the conventional wisdom in the west was that, for all its failings, the Soviet empire was there to stay. The idea that the west could strive to end Soviet tyranny, much less hope to see a democracy rise in its place, was considered naïve and dangerous. Thus the policies of containment, which strove to limit the expansion of Soviet power, and détente, which sought to soften conflict between the superpowers. When President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," statesmen around the world shook their grey heads in consternation. Inside the KGB prisons, meanwhile, dissidents were nodding agreement. At last somebody got it! When the empire collapsed in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was shock all around. It seemed that Soviet tyranny was not forever after all and that-surprise, surprise-the people in its grasp actually did prefer being free.
Yet, according to Sharansky, the west quickly forgot what it should have learned from the Soviet experience. …