The Case for Democracy: A Book Review

Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, Pubic Affairs, 2006.

Books on world politics typically have a very short half-life; their relevance quickly diminishes as events overtake their analysis. That, however, is not the case for Natan Sharansky’s 2004 book, The Case for Democracy. In fact, this small book is just as relevant today as when it first appeared in print.

In addition to allowing Sharansky to outline his theory of democracy, The Case for Democracy is a memoir and a history of major world events. Drawing on his personal experience as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union as well as having served in two Israeli cabinets, Sharansky lays out in clear prose the distinction between free and fear societies and how championing democratic reforms can be used to advance the cause of human rights in repressive nations.

In addition to political theory, Sharansky provides useful criteria for judging whether a country is democratic as well as when a criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism in disguise.

What Constitutes a Free Society?

His first item of business is to clarify what constitutes a free society and why holding elections is not an adequate measure of whether a society is free. Without the four freedoms––speech, religion, assembly, and press––elections are meaningless. Nor does adding “democratic republic” to the name of one’s country make a society democratic or free.

Sharansky also challenges the political theory behind much of Western foreign policy since World War Two. In case after case, Western leaders have made deals with dictators, claiming that the stability they provided was more important than promoting the rights of those countries’ citizens. Followers of the “realistic,” or Kissinger, school of international relations typically distrust the people of countries ruled by autocrats and dictators. They claim pressuring those rulers to grant freedoms to their citizens will only destabilize those countries and could lead to worse conditions.

Sharansky takes the opposite view. He promotes the notion that all people––including those who have never experienced democracy––yearn for freedom and that the main reason the citizens of countries ruled by dictators aren’t campaigning for their rights is that they can’t. To voice dissent or call for change is a death sentence in many parts of the world. Few people of repressive nations feel free to speak out unless the leaders of the Western nations––primarily the United States––show they are paying attention and support their freedom movement. Failure to do so––such as when President Obama failed to support the protests against Iran’s autocratic regime––is a missed opportunity to help foster democratic reforms.

Realist School Corollary: Appeasement by any other Name

There’s a corollary to the realists’ thesis that the failure of people to speak out for change is because they like what they have and that to pressure those nations to grant democratic rights will only create chaos and possibly open conflict. Proponents of that school of thought argue that by dealing with dictators the West gives them room to reform their societies from the top. That is the rationale behind providing voting rights to every member of the United Nations even when they openly violate the membership vow to grant human rights to their citizens. That theory of reform failed miserably in practice. After seventy years, the autocratic members of the United Nations have shown little inclination to provide human and democratic rights to their citizens.

History as Teacher: The Soviet Union and Israel

The middle chapters of The Case for Democracy recount the experiential basis for Sharansky’s view that promoting democratic rights is the best weapon the free world has against countries that oppress their citizens and engage in hostile behavior towards other countries.

He reviews how an unheralded provision of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, which the Soviet Union signed because they needed technological and financial aide from the West to shore up their crumbling economy, required signer countries to uphold the basic human rights of their own peoples. That provision enabled proponents of freedom to rally behind Soviet dissidents. Sharansky reports when that link in the chain of oppression was removed, the volume of internal opposition increased exponentially leading in fifteen years to the downfall of the Soviet system.

The main lesson here is that dictatorships do not reform themselves willingly. Sharansky argues that societies that depend on fear for their survival need external enemies in order to justify repressive measures at home. Without external enemies the logic of internal suppression collapses. Citizens see that people in other lands have rights and ask why not us. Many realists, unfortunately, refuse to learn the lesson of the Soviet Union. As an indication of how far off course that outlook can take people, Sharansky quotes a U.S. state department official as referring to Iran as a democracy. No wonder the Obama administration thought Iran could be a reliable and honest partner to a nuclear deal.

Israel Also Failed to Learn the Lesson

Sharansky recounts how the Israeli government has failed over and over to put into practice the lesson learned from Helsinki. Israel’s biggest mistake was signing the 1993 agreement with Yasser Arafat in Oslo that not only failed to achieve peace, but also enabled Arafat to escalate his terrorist war against Israel. Sadly, prime minister after prime minister has mistakenly assumed they could trust Arafat and his successor Mahmud Abbas. Israeli prime ministers too often listened to U.S. presidents who preached the notion that dealing with the enemy you know is better than the one who might replace him. The one exception was George W. Bush’s standing up to Arafat in 2002 enunciating a statement of democratic principles that was later undermined by the realists in Washington and Tel Aviv.

History Lessons Not Known

What’s remarkable to me on a personal level is how little I knew of the history Sharansky relates despite the fact that I’ve been a moderately alert follower of world affairs since my college years. That suggests the American people are also largely uninformed about these events and about the crushing logic of Sharansky’s thesis that the ONLY way to defeat a country like the Soviet Union or its contemporary equivalents short of waging war is to require that they institute human rights reforms in order to partake in the benefits free societies offer the citizens of the world.

Thus, I believe U.S. must assert that products produced by slave or child labor cannot be part of any trade deals and must be embargoed. Further, trade deals should not be made with countries that repress religious or political dissidents. That would include China and most Muslim nations. To ignore slavery and the repression of religious and human rights strengthens dictatorships and weakens the West.

Here many readers will interject the realists’ arguments despite the fact that they not only failed to advance freedom in totalitarian countries, but also undermined the standing of the U.S. and other Western nations in the eyes of oppressed peoples. To cave to murderers like Yasser Arafat tells would-be protesters that their lives may be subjected to a trade to gain stability. The Neville Chamberlain story is not a one-time tragedy, but has been repeated over and over.

Realist theorists might also argue Moslem countries are different from the rest of the world in that there’s no indication that the average person desires freedom. Sharansky refutes that theory by listing individuals he has met and corresponded with who desire democratic change. He also could have cited cases of moderate Arabs murdered by the PLO for working with Israel, or the stories of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has spoken out on female genital mutilation and other issues despite efforts to shut her up and Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian whose father was one of Hamas’ founders and who became a Christian and a double-agent for Israel. Both have published easily accessible books.

The Case for Democracy appeared after Sharansky’s autobiography, Fear No Evil (1988), and preceded his long essay Defending Identity (2008). All three are essential reading. A fourth book, entitled Never Alone, is due out September 1, 2020. All can be read by teenagers and young adults who are growing up in a world where distorting the past is the means to controlling the present. People who care about world peace and democratic rights should take the time to read all four.

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