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DICTATORS AND DEMOCRATIC STRUGGLES

Eliot Cohen, in his review of William J. Dobson’s The Dictator’s Learning Curve, asks a pressing question: How should the United States develop and implement a freedom agenda that is practical and effective, and that does not involve a calamitous sacrifice of other interests? With authoritarians often using means of oppression such as shutting down local NGOs or kicking out US-based organizations, how should the democracy promotion community and supporters of liberty adapt to this new reality? To help launch Freedom Square, we posed the above questions to two prominent advocates for liberty. We hope you appreciate their answers as much as we do.

 

The questions Eliot Cohen raises in his review of William Dobson’s book “The Dictator’s Learning Curve” are very topical, and I want to address them from my Central European point of view. There is no doubt that the world has changed from the time of our own confrontations with Soviet totalitarianism until now. What we observe is not only a substantive redistribution of world power both between the West and the East and the North and the South, but also the emergence of new threats and challenges; the process which makes all members of the international community think through anew their priorities and revise their “national interests.” In 2013, we are living in the “post-European world,” and it leads some to turn to multicultural relativism or agnostic skepticism and others to revert to a fundamentalist defense of their own beliefs and values. One thing remained unchanged, however, between 1989 and now, and it is the issue for which today’s dissidents are willing to make great personal sacrifices: to pass up their careers, to put their families in danger, to go to jail, or even to die. It is the respect for the inherent dignity of mankind and universally recognized human rights and freedoms.

 

Whatever the international strategists in Washington, D.C. are proposing to do today in the complex relationships with all major US partners—such as the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), for instance—the situation of human rights defenders abroad and the legitimacy of their activities should remain one of the principal concerns of theUnited   States. The question of international human rights has acquired many unprecedented dimensions thanks in part to the information revolution we are experiencing with ever growing speed. It is imperative not to give up on these issues because of the complexities of our current world, but on the contrary to actively use them as a key orientation point to balance and harmonize, practically and effectively, all the components belonging to the aggregate called the American “national interest.”

 

The voices of dissidents today are very similar to those who were coming from my country, let us say, 25 years ago. The dictators of all shades of color and motivations are, indeed, learning quickly how to use today’s trends in favor of their ambitions and designs. What the United States should do—not only for the good of the world out there but to strengthen also the principles and values built into its own foundations—is to support by all available means at its disposal all the like-minded friends of human liberty; to use its robust power and authority in the world to enhance the “power of the powerless,” as the late Vaclav Havel put it; to stay firmly on their side, in spite of all the differences of their perspectives (geographical, cultural, historical) in their uneasy struggle. I am writing these lines on July 4th, and I am convinced that it is the noble cause of human rights defenders around the world that should also be celebrated on American Independence Day.

 

Martin Palous is a Czech diplomat and educator and was a former dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia.  He served as the Czech Ambassador to the United States from 2001 to 2005 and the Czech Republic’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2006 to 2011. Dr. Palous was one of the first signers of Charter 77 and a founder of the Civic Forum.  In 2011 and 2012, he was Director of the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague. Today he is President of the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in New York, Senior Fellow at Florida International University in Miami, and President of the International Platform for Human Rights in Cuba.