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They came from 34 different countries on six continents, drawn to the baroque Schloss Leopoldskron, once the home of the prince-archbishop, for a week-long conversation on the topic of "sustaining democracy in the modern world."

The independently financed Salzburg Seminar has been operating here for more than half a century, and its 22,000 alumni give it an outreach to new participants well beyond what the small staff here and at the Middlebury, Vt., headquarters could generate.

So the participants ranged from an expatriate American who, with her South African-born husband, runs a democracy Web site in the outback of Australia, to a manager of civic renewal programs in the office of the president of Ghana, to a Pakistani journalist expert on Afghanistan, to three each from the European Union bureaucracy in Brussels and universities in China, to a Macedonian publisher's assistant to a Maltese politician.

The faculty members, most of them diplomats with wide experience in both established and emerging democracies, were dazzled by the variety of backgrounds and the candor with which the "fellows," as they are called, described the challenges to human rights and representative government in their countries.

For an American reporter, thrown into the mix, it was a powerful learning experience -- in more than one way. The United States is a huge factor in all these countries, both with the policies it conducts and the lessons it teaches by example. The details of the last election -- especially the dispute over the Florida voting -- were familiar to everyone, and a topic for close questioning from citizens of countries where the legitimacy of elections is always suspect.

Even more persistent were the questions about the role the United States would play, under this new administration, in supporting democratic movements around the world. It is sobering to be reminded how often, during the long decades of the Cold War, this country backed (and in some cases, created) undemocratic regimes, simply because we thought military rulers and other autocrats were more reliable allies against communism.

The week of the Salzburg Seminar coincided with President Bush's first tour of Europe. He was a target of jokes and ridicule for many of the fellows as the week began. But the coverage of his meetings and, especially, his major address in Poland on his vision of Europe's future and America's role in it, earned him grudging respect.

Another great lesson for an American reporter is that the struggle to maintain the legitimacy of representative government in the eyes of the public is a worldwide battle. Election turnouts are dropping in almost all the established democracies, so much so that seminar participants seriously discussed the advisability of compulsory voting, before most of them rejected it as smacking too much of authoritarian regimes.

Political parties -- which most of us have regarded as essential agents of democracy -- are in decline everywhere. They are viewed by more and more of the world's people as being tied to special interests or locked in increasingly irrelevant or petty rivalries -- anything but effective instruments for tackling current challenges. One unresolved question throughout the week: Can you organize and sustain representative government without strong parties?

Meantime, even as democracy is tested everywhere from Venezuela to Romania to the Philippines, a new and perhaps tougher accountability examination awaits in the supranational organizations. The European Union has operated so far with a strong council, where each nation has a veto, and a weak parliament, with majority rule. But with its membership seemingly certain to expand, the age-old dilemma of democracy -- majority rule vs. minority and individual rights -- is bound to come to the fore.

The principle of federalism will be vital to its success. And, once again, the United States has important lessons to teach. But only if we can keep democracy strong and vital in our own country.

Washington Post Writers Group

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