Democracy Equals Institutions Plus Culture
The changes that globalization has ushered into world politics in the last twenty years have dramatically reconfigured relations and affairs of states. Yet despite the fall of communism, expansion of European Union and revolutionary developments in the Middle East, despite the shale-gas shift in the economic paradigm and the strategic pivot to Asia, there is one constant on the world chess board, and it is the friendship between the United States and European Union. The friendship is constitutive. It is based on shared values that inform the liberal democracy. Though often ignored and overlooked as banal, these reasons are profound and more important now than ever.
The battle of the soul in the Ukraine these days is an expression of desire for such values among a significant portion of Ukrainians. Many of them see a better future for their children in the EU and are desperately trying against the merciless forces of political gravity to tear their country off from decay, corruption and malaise. A decade ago they seemed to have won during the Orange Revolution. That victory ended up in disappointment, but amazingly the people have not given up and are trying again.
What exactly hangs in the balance in this and similar struggles? It is the ability deeply to understand the importance of culture in institutions.
Jiří Pehe, a Czech political scientist, is fond of saying that Czech Republic is a democracy without the democrats. Not just free elections, free speech and the requisite political institutions guaranteeing the separation of powers make a democracy. Political culture—the key ingredient— is the necessary condition for the rule of law to prevail and society to thrive. It is about the willingness of the majority not to game the system, keep and protect its integrity and thus secure that we are governed by laws, not by men.
The following is often true in new EU members, formerly communist: while all the necessary laws are on the books and free speech is constitutionally protected, society is in fact manipulated, massaged and milked by utilitarian mafia-style brotherhoods.
Western European democracies are far from perfect. They are not immune to corruption and ugly xenophobic populism that occasionally slips into an outright racism against the new immigrants, fellow EU citizens. It is evident in France with the resurgence of the National Front and the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders is one of the most popular leaders. Still in the more traditional EU members the decisive forces and civil society understand these as a deviation, not the foundation of the system.
I am afraid we cannot say the same about the countries such as Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Yet despite the enormous difficulties these new EU members are traveling in the right direction. Chances are that in a couple of decades their democracies will be healthier. The Ukrainians in the streets of Kiev and other west Ukraine’s cities understand this perhaps instinctively but clearly.
The strength of European democracies would not have been possible without a close transatlantic alliance with the United States. There are good reasons for this partnership to continue. Some are entirely pragmatic, like the rise of Asian economies and growing instability in East Asia. What if China turns militaristic and nationalistic? One way to counter the would-be challenge is deterrence. Another, of course, is the spread of the liberal democratic values that helped stabilize and restart the European continent in the last 70 years. United States does more to promote these values, as it understands that they feed into its soft power. European Union on the other hand is lacking regarding the effective spread of such values.
One tacit reason for why Europe needs the United States is that the American society has become an important intellectual and cultural resource that shapes European culture. This is a relatively recent trend and a reversal of the original historical dynamic whereby America used to be shaped by Europe in a creative push and pull between opposition and emulation. Today much of the European technological, scientific, economic, political and cultural agenda is set by America. There is no other dynamic relationship that is more defining of the future in today’s world. The instantaneous digital communication of the last 15 years has reshaped our societies in many ways, both positive and harmful. Undoubtedly, it made us understand each other better. We now know how similar and different we are, and this knowledge is more nuanced and refined than ever before.
Since Europe is so closely influenced by America (to a lesser extent it also influences it), it needs to do a better job to cultivate the political relations with Washington. It must better explain that foreign policy is not just about firefighting and managing future strategic threats, but also about cultivating alliances.
In International Relations 101, students sometimes learn that the most effective short-term gain can be achieved by squeezing one’s allies rather than adversaries and enemies. It seems that recent U.S. Presidents have over-learned the lesson. And it is EU’s fault also. The fact that Washington takes Europe for granted and does not devote enough political resources to the transatlantic partnership can be mitigated and even reversed by a more assertive and strategic EU policy and communication offensive. American culture is famously open. Why not take advantage of it?
It is the culture of the future that will determine the quality of the institutions of the future. The transatlantic cultural exchange, broadly understood, is the most vibrant and most promising of all cultural exchanges currently going on in the world. Europe and America must work together more effectively for their own sakes, but also to the end of strengthening the forces of liberal democracy elsewhere in the world.
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