During the height of the Cold War, former President Ronald Reagan caused a firestorm of protest when he branded the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” Liberals and progressives spared no criticism of Reagan blaming him for increasing tensions between the U.S. and its communist rival.
Years later a different story emerged. Natan Sharansky, a Russian scientist serving a nine-year jail term for organizing critics of the Soviet regime, took Reagan's statement as the first crack of light exposing the communist darkness. Sharansky writes:
One day my Soviet jailers gave me the privilege of reading “Pravda.” Splashed across the front page was a condemnation of President Reagan for having the temerity to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan's “provocation” quickly spread through the prison. The dissidents were ecstatic. Finally the leader of the free world had spoken the truth—a truth that burned within the hearts of each and every one of us.
Sharansky argues that the critics were wrong because they didn't understand that oppressed people long for freedom. When totalitarian oppression is named as the evil that it is, particularly by the leaders of free nations, those under the tyrannic boot are infused with a hope that can vanquish opression.
Sharansky writes that generally there are two types of societies in the world: 1) societies where citizens can “express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or punishment; and 2) societies that prohibit the free expression of ideas altogether.
Fear societies always have a number of true believers, but mostly the fear creates a kind of “doublethink” where a citizen acts and thinks one way in public and another in private. The rulers maintain a constant state of anxiety by manufacturing external threats (North Korea or Cuba to the U.S., for example), in order to advance a climate of legitimacy for the regime.
Western societies can foster freedom and thereby ensure a more peaceful world by linking their diplomatic and economic initiatives to the internal workings of oppressive regimes, especially regarding human rights, Sharansky argues. He draws on his own experience as a Soviet dissident (“I owe my freedom to Ronald Reagan”) to argue that such linkage empowers the dissidents to start changing the regime from within.
Sharansky writes that because democracy is a morally superior form of government, free nations should encourage democracy around the world. Recognizing this superiority brings “moral clarity” into the relationships with non-democratic regimes.
This moral appeal is perhaps the most notable characteristic of Sharansky's book and where many critics raise objections. They argue that not all authoritarian regimes have expansionist designs and question whether countries with no democratic tradition can build democratic cultural institutions. They correctly note that Sharansky empasizes individual rights over the development of democratic institutions in his definition of democracy.
The democratic West needs to recover its lost faith in democracy and recognize that an absence of dissent does not imply acquiescence towards the oppressor by the oppressed, Sharansky warns. It must avoid the sins of such Western luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, or New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who praised the Soviet Union even as the bodies piled around them.
Sharansky will no doubt receive a fair share of criticism for its unabashed support of democracy. More discerning critics will examine how feasible Sharanky's thesis is in practice.
Nevertheless, the emphasis of The Case for Democracy on the moral superiority of democracy affirms the essential truth that freedom and morality work together. Morality cannot be separated from politics. Sharansky challenges the stupefying moral relativism that informs so many discussions about freedom and oppression with a moral clarity difficult to find elsewhere. Anyone who cherishes freedom will gain from reading it.