Materials of an International Seminar
Civil society and social development

Arnaud BLIN

What I would like to discuss with you today is the manner in which the process of democratization in the East is increasingly affecting our understanding of democracy in the West. Since this is a short presentation I will limit my discussion to the United States.
Until very recently, we in the West and particularly in the United States, saw the process of democratization as a one way street. For decades we tried to export a crude model of what we understood as "Western democracy", with mixed success and with variable political resolution on our part, to other areas of the world.
With the opening up of Central and Eastern Europe, many in America saw a unique opportunity to push the fledgling democracies towards a political system akin to ours. Most of us agree today that our belief in the rapid construction and spread of clones of American democracy was a bit naive. And since naivete often brings forth cynicism and with it disappointment, the critics quickly came forward to explain these disappointments with the same arguments we've heard a thousand times, namely the need for cultural compatibility with democracy and the necessity of having a historic tradition of democracy.
Now, for most people who argue along these lines, I think that cultural compatibility basically means the adoption of Western values, meaning an ethic more or less derived from the Christian tradition, with protestantism seen at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the catholic tradition and then perhaps the Orthodox. It is incredible how this belief can be resilient. Just ask most people in the West today if they think Islam and democracy are compatible.
This is a very old argument. Just a few decades ago, it was common wisdom that catholicism and democracy were incompatible. Now with the Iberian peninsula and most of Latin America embracing democracy, that argument is completely discredited. By trying to mirror image our perception of democracy, we tend to be a bit dismissive of cultures slightly different from our own and we tend to see ourselves as the chosen people of democracy.
Concerning the idea of a democratic tradition, I am a bit skeptical of this argument given that as recently as two centuries ago there were less than a handful of democracies and they were not very "democratic" at that, at least judged by today's standards. If the necessity for a democratic tradition were really true, the outlook for democracy in the world would be quite bleak, outside of places like Iceland and Switzerland perhaps. As you are well aware, this is an argument which is often heard with regard to Russia.
But, a decade or so after the opening up of Eastern Europe and Russia, our outlook is changing dramatically. Obviously, we learned a great deal about the process of democratization but we also learned or rediscovered a few things about democracy itself. We were reminded that democratization, even when it is successful, which it often is, is painful, difficult and slow and that our ability to accelerate it is not great. We were also reminded of the fact that all of us are in a continuing process of democratization, and that the economic and social transformation we are all undergoing today, in part due to globalization, are forcing democracy to re-invent itself everywhere. With this, we learned that democracy, as an ideal, does not belong to the West anymore. We used to think that democracy was both desirable and for the happy few. Now, we tend to see it as inevitable and accessible to all.
Indeed, there has been a major shift in our perception of democracy. We used to believe that a country needed to be fit for democracy before it could become democratic. Now we tend to feel that it is through democracy that it can grow to maturity. Not long ago, we tended to dismiss countries which lacked a strong civil society at the time of political transition as unlikely candidates for democracy. It is now evident that civil society can grow with and through democracy, and vice-versa. This changing perception means that we see the gates of democracy as open to everyone, thereby making it something universal rather than defined by and attached t



rather as a growing organism, in essence a perpetual work in progress. A society is either democratizing or de-democratizing, no matter what our definitions of "democracy' may be. Since no country in the world is even close to attaining an ideal of democracy, there is always room for progress, no matter how advanced we may be in this process. This also means that we increasingly accept the idea that a liberal democracy can develop into new forms and still be a liberal democracy. Since all our definitions of liberal democracy are open to interpretation, the margin of manoeuvre is wide.
Let me now quickly shift to how this relates to the idea of civil society. Most of you are no doubt aware of the fact that the last few years have seen an outpouring of articles and books on the subject of civil society in the United States. The pessimists have seen in the atomization of American society a failure of civil society which could ultimately threaten the very fabric of democracy in America. The optimists perceive a renewal of civil society, being a sign that democracy is entering a new age of maturity. In any case, both agree that civil society is important. How did this renewed interest in civil society come about? In many ways, your experience in the East during the last decade played an important role in this renewal.
With the booming economy which we have experienced in the United states over the last few years, there has been a tendency to see the market forces as the answer to everything, including those issues directly related to the good functioning of a democracy. With the "state" under attack from various forces, mainly conservative but not only, and with the market being clearly unfit to fix some of the many problems which affect modern societies, and which we sometimes try to downplay or even forget, the grey area in the middle, namely civil society, seems to be the focus of our attention these days. And, in this regard, the experience of the newly democratizing countries, particularly those which, like Russia, have had to make a sudden and complete transition from one political and economic system to another, has made us see more clearly than we could at home what the shortcomings of both the state structure and the market may be. This, at a time when we also have to make the transition to an economy transformed by the communications revolution. What some have called turbo-capitalism is having profound effects on our economic and social structures. And with that, we are gradually learning that civil society is not only a means to counter and limit the power of the state, but also, of the market.
It seems somewhat ironic that we could have forgotten the importance of civil society when the bible of american democracy, Tocqueville's De la democratie en Amerique, which is increasingly read and quoted, devotes such a large part of its analysis to civil society. I could go on quoting Tocqueville all day but let me just read you a short passage. I quote : "In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of all science...If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve among them in the same ration in which the equality of conditions is increased." (End quote)
Now, our rediscovery of the importance of civil society in the West, and especially in America, has not been triggered by a sudden and careful re-reading of Tocqueville. It has mainly come from the experience of the new democracies and from our interpretation of this experience. And this in turn is affecting the manner in which we are trying to push democratization in the world, principally through the many programs of democratic aid originating in the U.S.
Aid to democracy abroad is now one of the principal ways in which the United states is involved in the process of democratization. It falls within the realm of a foreign policy which sees the spread of democracy as a positive outcome for american security and for the general interest of the United States. It is loosely founded on the belief that a world of democracies is a world which is safe for America, a basic application of the idea that democracies are unlikely to go to war with one another. This new outlook differs slightly but significantly from the old Wilsonian ideal. Today, we look to make the world safe through democracy, rather than to make the world safe for democracy.
Democratic aid has been a growth industry in the last decade. The United states spends about 700 million dollars annually through its various programs of democratic aid. That may seem like a small sum compared to the 270 billion dollars spent on defense but it is still a substantial amount of money. All these various programs abroad involve many young people who in a few years will hold key positions of leadership in the U.S. Their experience abroad will undoubtedly affect their perception of democracy at home. It is difficult, however, to actually measure the significance of this. On the other hand, there are other ways to size up how much our attitudes towards democracy and civil society have changed.
The whole issue of aid to democratization is a good way to see the transformations that have taken place. Before the last decade, U.S. aid to democratization was principally allocated towards enforcing state institutions and gearing them for democracy, and, of course towards the electoral process, ensuring the smooth operation of elections. Starting with the Polish and Czech experience, as well as the Latin American experience, we began to see the bolstering of civil society as a third way to enhance the process of democratization, which went beyond the electoral process and which seemed easier to manage than the difficult task of preparing state institutions for democracy. As you know, Americans are natural born missionaries. If they believe in something, they feel that it is their duty to convert the rest of the world to their latest discovery, which can range from smoking prohibitions to the newest formula for economic success. The new enthusiasm for civil society is one of those things which Americans feel a strong desire to share with everyone. All the more so since they feel that it is a universal phenomenon which cuts across national and cultural boundaries.
No doubt, democratization through civil society fits well into the American ideal of democracy, different, say, from the French tradition which is more top down than bottom up. It is also convenient given the budgetary constraints since it is less expensive than state reforms. Financial help has been directed at young, small and dynamic Non-Governmental Organizations which resemble the type of associations we can find in the United States and which are far easier to work with than rigid bureaucracies entrenched in old habits.
It is through this physical encounter with civil society abroad that we rediscovered the place of civil society in the democratic equation. In turn, the "rediscovery" of civil society underscored and bolstered the role of advocacy groups in the U.S., which are in many ways similar to those born in the new democracies. In Washington, where I live, you can really feel the creation of a new mosaic which combines old and new associations.

Let me end this presentation with a few remarks regarding what I would call the globalization of international politics. Given the configuration of the "grand chessboard" today with the domination of one superpower and the withering away of balance of power politics, it seems that global security and democratization on a grand scale are understood to go hand in hand. Since, in international politics, the perception of reality is even more important than reality itself, this general outlook will shape the politics of the future. This linkage between security and democratization on a global scale manifests itself by the desire of the big industrial democracies of the West to extend the frontiers of democracy from its original core.
The main effect of globalizing democracy was already anticipated by Tocqueville. This effect is a fusion of societies which come to increasingly resemble each other, for better or worse, and which become interdependent in a variety of ways. True, with that can come a sense of loss of one's cultural identity and political independence. But it also means that everywhere, the process of democratization is accelerating. With it civil society is gradually occupying more space, most notably through its growing international networks. As such it is acting increasingly like an arbiter of the balance of power within democracies, seeing that neither