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By Bronislaw Geremek

Bronislaw Geremek, the former advisor to the Solidarity movement, is Poland's minister of foreign affairs. On June 25-27, representatives from states around the world will gather in Warsaw to discuss democracy in the 21st century.

WARSAW -- Almost a hundred states -- democracies old and new, plus nations in transition -- will be taking part next week in the Warsaw conference "Towards a Community of Democracies.''

The fact that foreign ministers have decided to join in a debate on democracy, jointly proposed by Poland, the Czech Republic, Chile, India, Mali, the Republic of Korea and the United States, indicates that the post-Cold War world needs and is looking for new ideas that can give impetus to the establishment of a new international order.

If ministers from different cultures and religions in a world polarized by wealth and poverty have chosen to devote two days in Warsaw to discussing the condition and future of democracy, then democracy is an issue that is no longer the exclusive domain of the well-to-do world.

By the end of the 20th century, democracy had already become a universal value, one that nations could no longer ignore or treat as an "illegitimate'' subject of international relations. To an ever-growing degree, it is becoming an imperative, a focal point and precondition for solutions to other crucial issues, especially economic and social conflicts.

Two old catch phrases are now colliding, not within the narrow confines of nation-states, but on a global scale, and each is charged with a particle of human misery and hope. One is a cry of despair -- "Freedom without bread is a sham'' -- that all too often propels the downtrodden into the arms of dictators. The other -- "There is no bread without freedom'' -- is a signal of hope.

In today's world, the old-fashioned belief that stability and growth can be reconciled with an absence of democratic freedoms has dangerous practical implications. States that are authoritarian incubators of economic progress are throwbacks. Such illusions may still be harbored by countries that are isolated from the mainstream of international life. But every opening of the door to the main currents of economic life, every serious attempt to treat growth and well-being as a national imperative, is bound to advance the prospect of democracy.

The Nobel Prize-winner Amaratya Sen has persuasively argued that development comes from freedom. Indeed, there is still a timely ring in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville who, reflecting on the years preceding the revolutionary fever of the late 18th century, wrote: "In the long run freedom always brings to those who know how to retain it comfort and well-being, and often great prosperity.''

As we convene in Warsaw, there are two immediate issues:

The first is how to minimize the human costs of the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. To this question there is not, and cannot be, a single answer. But what matters is to see that the Polish, Chilean, South African, Iberian or like models prevail over the tragic and still unpredictable model of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

This is made all the more vital by the presence on the horizon of the challenges involved in the inevitable evolution not only of Cuba, but also of the fifth of humanity living in China and going through a traumatic process of accelerated modernization.

Second, if we believe in the future of democracy, it follows that we cannot treat it as an instrument of politics or reduce it to the economic dimension, letting the issue of freedom languish in the name of not disrupting economic growth.

Once again, de Tocqueville has a remarkably timely message: "Those who prize freedom only for the material benefits it offers have never kept it long.''

Political instrumentalization of democracy is equally dangerous. Sometimes we may be helpless in the face of gross abuses of human rights, that cornerstone of a democratic order. Autocrats are not noted for having scruples, and the tactical advantage this gives them may occasionally breed demoralization within the democratic community at large.

I understand and share the indignation of people who accuse democratic governments of failing to respond firmly to every violation of the ground rules of democracy and human rights, of being selective. Nor do I admire international businesses that flirt with autocrats. But I also know that every scrap of soil, and every person snatched from the clutches of dictators, brings us closer to our goal.

"All or nothing,'' of course, is not a recipe for effective action. We can, however, do something more than merely preach the virtues of gradualism and "responsibility'' in dealing with powerful or unscrupulous dictators. We can refuse to turn a blind eye to their misdeeds. Because despots are fond of looking in the mirror, we can make their lives in the international community less comfortable.

Every step toward the universalization of democratic values lessens the possibilities of exploiting them for instrumental purposes. To make this happen, we must seriously rethink the very fundamentals of a world system still rooted in the Westphalia order based on national sovereignty.

The Cold War may have ended a decade ago, but we are still at a crossroads. Reverting to the Westphalia rules would be a political disaster that would sow the seeds of new conflicts. But the idea that they can be scrapped overnight is utopian.

What is essential is to take a first step in a new, but not yet clearly glimpsed direction, without triggering anarchy, arousing apprehension among the weak or encouraging a sense of triumph among the powerful.

Democracy fills the bill -- but only if it is accompanied by a sense of shared responsibility, cooperation and solidarity on the international scale. Consequently, one of the major purposes of the Warsaw conference is to consider ways -- including within the framework of existing and often underutilized institutions -- to further cooperation among democratic nations and those states in the process of transition to democracy. We need a "democratic club'' of states that does more than worship the principles of national sovereignty and equality among states -- principles that often serve to mask contempt for international norms and to justify of violence in domestic politics.

If we want to preserve these principles in their positive, empowering sense and transmit them to succeeding centuries, forging a pro-democracy club will be the first step in the right direction. Its basic task is clear: to build a bridge between national sovereignty and global solidarity with those whose human rights are trampled on; and to consolidate a belief that right is, in the end, on the side of those who look to us for help and support, and who keep repeating, "There is no bread without freedom.''

(c) 2000. European Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

For immediate release (Distributed 6/19/00)

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