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Speeches and Interviews

Democracy and Why it is so Important for Ukraine

Ambassador Tefft delivers remarks at KPI

Ambassador Tefft delivers remarks at KPI

Student asks the question to Ambassador Tefft

Student asks the question to Ambassador Tefft

April 27, 2011

I want to thank Rector Zgurovskiy for inviting me to KPI to speak to you today.  My subject is democracy and why it is so important for Ukraine.  Now you might ask yourself why the American Ambassador is coming to the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute to give a speech on democracy.  As I hope to show you, I believe democracy is vital for this country in and of itself, but it is also vital for the development of entrepreneurship and innovation – for the economic future of this country.  And this is where you come in – the future technologists and innovators in this society.  I believe that your success and Ukraine’s success as a nation competing in the globalized economy are intertwined with the successful evolution of democracy and modernization in Ukraine. 

Let me try to explain by first painting a bit of the backdrop to any discussion of democracy today.  Some of you may remember that at the end of the Cold War, the American scholar Frank Fukuyama famously declared in a 1989 article that we had reached the “end of history.”  In his later 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama argued that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies was largely at an end.  Fukuyama predicted the eventual global triumph of political and economic liberalism.

He wrote:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

The very next year, 1993, another distinguished American scholar, Samuel Huntington of Harvard published an equally famous and controversial essay in Foreign Affairs called "The Clash of Civilizations?"  Huntington (who later expanded his thoughts into a book) argued that societies are divided along cultural lines - Western, Eastern, Islamic, et cetera – and that there is no universal civilization. Each cultural block adheres to its own distinct set of values.

Looking at this part of the world, Huntington believed that Ukraine and Russia largely belong to the same block of civilization and therefore were likely to find common cause, however uneasy, but also raised the question of whether the western parts of the country, with longer experience of Polish, Lithuanian, and Austrian rule might not belong culturally to the Western European block – and might even choose to split from eastern Ukraine. In the past two decades of Ukrainian independence, many have seized on Huntington’s analysis to suggest that Ukraine lies on some sort of fault line between the West and East, between democracy and a more authoritarian model. For many this school of thought suggests that Ukraine must either embrace the West and democracy or the East and fall short of democracy.

Huntington’s views have recently come back into prominence with the outbreak of revolution in many parts of the Arab world.  Many have now argued that Huntington was wrong – that the cultural context or civilizational choice is not the fundamental point.  The fundamental point is the desire of all peoples including people in the Arab world to live their lives in a free and democratic society.

In an excellent March 4 essay in the New York Times, the columnist David Brooks argued succinctly that Huntington was wrong.  Brooks wrote:
“In retrospect, I'd say that Huntington committed the Fundamental Attribution Error. That is, he ascribed to traits qualities that are actually determined by context. He argued that people in Arab lands… do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West.  But it now appears as though they were simply living in circumstances that did not allow… those spiritual hungers to come to the surface…  But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.“

I think you can make the same point about Ukraine.  Huntington’s artificial division of western and Eastern Europe was wrong.  Yes there are obviously historical differences and traditions.  But I believe that whatever Ukraine’s ultimate relations with its European Union neighbors to the West (and I am convinced the majority of Ukrainians want to be part of Europe and the European Union) and its Russian and Belarusian neighbors to the East and North, I think the Ukrainian people have made it abundantly clear that they desire freedom, independence, and democracy – in short, the universal right of all people to determine their own future.

And here we get to another fundamental point.  I think democracy and modernization go hand in hand.  Democracy and economic development go hand in hand.  This is as true in Ukraine as anywhere in the world.   In an important article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2009, two Professors, Ronald Inglehart from the University of Michigan and Christian Welzel from the Jacobs University Bremen argue that there is a growing body of empirical evidence, “which supports the idea that economic and technological development bring a coherent set of social and political changes. . .  and they also bring growing mass demands for democratic institutions and more responsive behavior by elites.  These changes make democracy increasingly likely to emerge, while also making war less acceptable to publics.”

 A little later in the article they argue:

“The desire for freedom and autonomy are universal aspirations.  They may be subordinated to the needs for subsistence and order when survival is precarious, they take increasingly high priority as survival becomes increasingly secure.  The basic motivation for democracy – the human desire for free choice – starts to play an increasingly important role.  People place growing emphasis on free choice in politics and demand civil and political liberties and democratic institutions.”
What does it mean for Ukraine to be a mature democracy? How would democracy benefit Ukrainians, in practical terms?  When Bill Clinton visited Ukraine as President of the United States almost eleven years ago, he spoke to a large crowd on Saint Michael’s Square words that still apply today:

“I know you have faced disappointments, and your dream is not complete. You have your vote, but you may ask, will it lead to have a real, positive impact. You have your freedom, but you may ask, will it lead to a better future. I ask you to look around you. From Lithuania to Poland to the Czech Republic, those who chose open societies and open markets like you, started out with sacrifice, but they ended up with success...

You are on your way. Ukraine has so much of what it takes to succeed in the global information age -- strong universities, an educated society and partners willing to stand with you. All you need now is to stay on course and pick up speed. Open the economy; strengthen the rule of law; promote civil society; protect the free press; break the grip of corruption.”

I would argue that many in that square listening to Bill Clinton got the message.  Of the requirements that President Clinton listed, one of the areas in which Ukraine has had the most success in the past decade is building a stronger civil society. NGOs and other civic organizations continue to offer influential voices in guarding freedoms and encouraging needed reforms. Thanks in large part to their efforts, government and opposition parties recently came together in a rare effort to draft and pass overwhelmingly a new law guaranteeing Ukrainians access to official information. Ukrainian civil society will have to remain engaged to ensure that this law is fully implemented, but it will be an important tool in the hands of journalists, NGOs, and all citizens to expose and help put an end to corruption and waste.

But clearly there are areas where Ukraine has not yet lived up to the promise of democracy sketched out by former President Clinton. And here we come back to our question of what democracy means for Ukraine today.   When I speak about democracy, I include the liberal values that we in the United States and in Europe associate with democratic institutions and norms.  These include:  freedom of speech and assembly, freedom to participate in fair elections, and freedom from unreasonable search of one’s home and seizure of one’s property.  These are among the basic requirements for all democratic societies, but they also are the elements of democracy that ensure those inalienable rights Thomas Jefferson wrote about in our Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I do not think you need me to elaborate further today on freedom of speech and assembly, as these issues are vigorously debated in modern Ukrainian society.

While it is clear that without rule of law, there is no democracy, I would argue that rule of law is essential to ensuring modernization and economic development.  Ensuring the sanctity of private property is essential to a modern society.  So too are independent courts.  They stand as a bulwark against arbitrary seizure, both the outright taking of freedom or possessions by authorities, or the more subtle theft of corruption. Returning to Jefferson, we have the following admonition:
“In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. An independent judiciary that will enforce the laws against the ruling class as well as the common man is essential in ensuring that government serves all people and not just those who can seize and exploit positions of power.”

When only corrupt politicians and oligarchs who can curry special favors benefit from the structures of authority that should guarantee the rights of all, they rob not only from the present, but also from the future. When Intel and Dell were looking for a base for their European production, they might well have considered the educated, hard working populations in Kyiv or Odessa; but they chose a similarly educated, hard working population in Lodz (wooj), Poland. Certainly Lodz enjoyed an advantage in that Poland is a member of the European Union. But another reason why investors place their money where they do is the calculation of which country was more likely to predictably protect contract rights. Foreign investors will avoid countries where there is a reasonable fear that their investments may be seized by politicians and their allies and contracts voided without recourse to law.

Similarly, and perhaps even more relevant to students in a leading technical university like KPI, is that independent courts and rule of law in a democracy will help protect intellectual property rights. This in turn will encourage those with patentable ideas or creative output they wish to copyright to pursue those activities here in Ukraine, rather than leaving for other countries. The phenomenon referred to as “brain drain” is not merely one in which the educated leave poorer countries for richer ones, but even one in which the educated leave one rich country for another that offers better opportunities to profit from their intellectual and creative endeavors.

In Lviv, there is the headquarters of a company called Eleks, which was founded in 1991, and now has over 450 people at multiple locations in Ukraine, Poland, and even several offices in the United States. The company is doing high-end software development for U.S. companies, including providing innovative technical support for various shows on Broadway and in Las Vegas. Oleksiy Skrypnyk, the founder and CEO, took part in a US government exchange program in the 1990s and has used what he learned from this experience to work with the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (supported by US Embassy grants totaling $200,000), the Lviv City Administration, and another Ukrainian entrepreneur to create and support an Innovation Center in Lviv to promote innovation and the commercialization of science. 

Examples like this should be the rule in Ukraine, rather than the exception. This is your challenge. Those of you gathered here should be enabled to help build the future of Ukraine, not driven to work in a foreign country. It is up to the current leaders of the country to encourage you to do so, by delivering on the promises of democratic reform, judicial reform, and the fight against corruption. And it is up to you to lend your voice to those other voices in society, demanding that the authorities keep their promises if they wish to keep their jobs. In a democracy, that is not just your right; it is your responsibility.

In saying this, I am well aware that many young people in this society are frustrated, and disillusioned by a society that does not seem to respond to them, by a society that educates them but does not provide good job opportunities.  I have talked to young people who see no hope here and are tempted to want to leave and make your life elsewhere.  Of course this is your choice.  But I would recall for you a speech that had a big impact on me when I was roughly your age.  Forty five years ago, one of the great American politicians of the past century, Senator Robert Kennedy, addressed students at Cape Town University in South Africa.  He urged those students, being educated in an apartheid society, to act on their ideals, to help the less fortunate, and to fight for democracy.  His words are inspirational:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

In preparing to speak to you here at KPI, I recalled what these words meant to me in my youth, the first time that I heard them.  They are written on Robert Kennedy’s tomb at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.  They helped inspire my long career in public service and I hope they will similarly inspire you to find ways to contribute to the greatness of your country; whether you work in the public or private sector, the choices made by your generation may prove decisive for the success of democracy, freedom, and prosperity for Ukraine. These things do require rule of law and the elimination of corruption, both of which require that the government be transparent and answerable to its people. Bobby Kennedy spoke to this in the same speech when he said:

The essential humanity of man can be protected and preserved only where government must answer -- not just to the wealthy, not just to those of a particular religion, not just to those of a particular race, but to all of the people. And even government by the consent of the governed, as in our own Constitution, must be limited in its power to act against its people… It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so…. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.

Government must ultimately answer to the people, and the people must not allow arguments that rule of law and democratic principles should be sacrificed for expedience, even if the stated goal appears desirable. As the great 18th century American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “the wise know that foolish legislation is a rope of sand, which perishes in the twisting; that the State must follow, and not lead the character and progress of the citizen… and they only who build on Ideas, build for eternity.”

While many of Ukraine’s educated youth have chosen to leave the country to seek their fortune, the bold choice is to stay and apply yourselves to raising the level of private enterprise, innovation, and rule of law here. Think of Taras Shevchenko’s Cossack who sought his fate abroad, only to be left longing for a way to return to his own land and people, watching with yearning the cranes flying over the sea toward Ukraine. Think of the educated Polish, Indian, or Taiwanese youth returning to their home countries to devote their energies and knowledge in high tech jobs and contribute to the growth of opportunity in the lands of their birth.

The choice lies before you.  The challenge lies before you.  I wish you all well, and hope for your success in a thriving, democratic society ruled by law.  Thank you.