Letter: Democracy Is Hard, Not Easy

To the Editor:

When I was a new Foreign Service Officer, I had an experience that taught me an important lesson which, if I can tell it right, may be equally useful for readers.

It was Seoul, Korea, 1981. Ronald Reagan was president, and had decreed that the U.S. Embassy could not talk to dissidents in that authoritarian allied country. But diplomats always talk to dissidents. Their job, after all, is to understand the host country.

So, I and two other junior officers drew the duty of maintaining contact with the representatives of dissident leaders Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam. We had many conversations, over spicy Korean meals and many bottles of Johnny Walker Red. I grew to admire our contacts very much. They had all spent time in jail, and were risking their futures for their beliefs. We talked about democracy. And here’s what I learned.

People who haven’t experienced it make two mistakes about democracy: They think it’s easy, and they think when they have it, everything will go their way. We who have enjoyed democracy for over 200 years know how hard it is and realize that bitter compromise is at its core. Korea is a democracy now, having achieved that status gradually in the early 1990s — nearly 40 years after the Korean war. But Korea had many advantages. It‘s a homogeneous, unified country. There are no important ethnic or religious differences. And virtually every citizen wanted democracy.

But imagine how much more difficult the process of evolving into a democracy is for the countries of the Middle East. The societies in these countries are all deeply divided. They are condemned by a zero-sum culture, where any gain by an opponent is an unacceptable loss. Worst of all, deadly violence seems always to be an acceptable option. These countries are important to us, if only because their angry citizens see us as one of the causes of their problems. We need to deal with them. But this problem is going to last a long time. We need to be patient, understanding and wary.

Stephen R. Rounds