Sharansky—No Peace With Dictators

December 18, 2008

[First published January 13, 2005] Natan Sharansky (with Ron Dermer) has written an important and informative book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). I highly recommend that visitors to this website read it.

It is not my purpose to provide a book review. Here, I only want to hit the highlights that relate to this website. I add below more comments on the book by Cal Thomas.

Sharansky details his years as a dissident and prisoner in the Soviet Union, and especially focuses on what he learned after he was allowed to immigrate to Israel and participate in its government. But, this is not an autobiography. His personal background is only an introduction and context to his beliefs about democracy and the experiences he had in trying to persuade the West, especially the United States and Israelis, to act on them.

First, and most important, Sharansky well recognizes the democratic peace . He writes, “Democracies, it is often observed, do not go to war with one another.” This principle, now a law of international relations, is the foundation of the book. He provides no reference for it, and how he came to this principle remains an interesting question. I only was willing to assert it back in 1979 after tons of research and tests. Perhaps he came to it by observing history and international relations, which is quite possible once one thinks about it.

He presents a number of important ideas related to this democratic peace:

Promoting peace and security is fundamentally connected to promoting freedom and democracy. (p. xix)

“. . . awesome power of freedom.” (p. 10)

“No Peace With Dictators” (topic heading, p. 88)

“. . . nondemocratic regimes imperil the security of the world.” (p. 88)

“. . . the democracy that hates you is less dangerous than the dictator who loves you.” (p. 95)

“. . . it is the absence of democracy that represents the real threat to peace.” (p. 95)

Much of the book is concerned with how too many officials in the democracies are oblivious about this understanding. Especially, he shows how they are willing to accommodate and appease dictators. Stability, to them, is the heart of a foreign policy, and anything that upsets that is to be avoided — better the devil you know then what danger might arise from opposition to him.

Sharansky focuses on two ways this mentality has guided foreign policy. One was in the willingness to accommodate the Soviet Union, especially through détente. Reagan, he argues, threw this out, recognized the Soviet Union for the evil it was, and thereby hastened, if not caused, its collaspe.

Second, this mentality was shown in the democracies not only accommodating, but also working to strengthen and support Arafat’s creation of a repressive dictatorship over the Palestinians and making war on Israel. Sharansky’s description of the American State Department’s habitual cynicism about democracy in the Middle East, and specifically for the Palestinians, is what we see almost everyday in the American media.

His basic recommendation? He first describes how linking American trade benefits for the Soviet Union to its internal reforms and human rights helped down the communist system. Then, he argues that linking trade, aid, and other benefits is the way for democracies to do the same to promote human rights in the world’s nondemocracies. He also, as I have suggested , calls for the democracies to set up their own exclusive organization outside of the UN to help foster democracy.

Sharansky presents some useful concepts. One is that of moral clarity to see evil (p. xxii). We should clearly distinguish between the good of democracies and the evil of nondemocracies. In my terms, we should be willing to call a dictator a thug or murderer, which most are.

In pursuing this moral clarity, he introduces the characterization of nondemocracies as fear societies . This is useful, for it captures the basic ordering principle of nondemocracies. People obey for fear of the consequences. Opposite to this is the free society . And he sees this, appropriately, in black and white — there are only fear and free societies.

Finally, he tries to explain how fear societies work by the concept of doublethink . There is the very small minority of true believers who support a nondemocratic regime. There is also the small group of dissidents, who are willing to suffer imprisonment, and even torture and death, in order to speak out against the regime. And in the middle are the majority of doublethinkers, those who give their obedience to the regime, say and do what is demanded to them out of fear, while in their heart and mind they are dissidents.

Sharansky’s conclusion: “In the twentieth century, America proved time and again that it possessed both the clarity and courage that is necessary to defeat evil. Following that example, the democracies of the world can defeat the tyranny that threatens out world today and the tyrannies that would threaten it tomorrow. To do so, we must believe not only that all people are created equal but also that all peoples are created equal.” (p. 279)