The G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, overshadowed the Conference on Democracy and Security that took place in Prague, June 4-8. But the meeting in the Czech Republic was, by far, the more interesting.
The annual G-8 gathering is an informal and largely formulaic meeting of world leaders that amounts to a great photo op for international cooperation.
The first-ever Conference on Democracy and Security, on the other hand, was breathtakingly unique, bringing together 32 dissidents from 17 countries to discuss the relationship between democratic institutions and secure and stable societies. The speakers in Prague are less well-known than the G-8 presidents and premiers. Their messages, chronicled by National Review's Anne Bayefsky, are profound.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a human rights activist in Egypt: "As freedom-fighters we ask you to stop supporting dictators in our countries. We ask Western democracies to stop supporting dictatorships and the darkness of theocrats in the name of stability and continuity."
Mudawi Ibrahim Adam has spent a good part of the past 16 years in Sudanese prisons: "Democracy is a universal human value, not a Western construct. Western states are sending the wrong message that democracy is primarily about elections, whereas it requires much more good governance, a free press, the rule of law."
Garry Kasparov leads the political opposition in Russia: "Russia today is a police state masquerading as a democracy where elections are theater. The problem is that the G-8 treats Putin as an equal, but democrats in Russia need the free world to treat him as a pariah."
Junning Liu is a Chinese political analyst: "Elections must be free and open to count, which is not the case in China. In China, a transition to democracy will not happen without external pressure."
Natan Sharansky, once a Soviet refusenik, is an Israeli politician: "The most dangerous thing for a dissident is to be ignored; only the solidarity of the world makes it possible for dissidents to continue their struggle. Today there are dissidents in many different contexts but the underlying battle is the same freedom versus fear."
The conference concluded with Sharansky, former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and former Czech President Vaclav Havel issuing the Prague Document, a 10-point statement calling for the immediate release of all nonviolent political prisoners, the advancement of human rights issues in all meetings with officials of nondemocratic regimes, political and economic pressure on governments and groups that abuse human rights and the isolation and ostracization of those that suppress their peaceful domestic opponents by force, violence or intimidation.
There was a time when the spirit of Prague infused the thinking of President Bush.
"Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe," he said in a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, "because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty."
The war in Iraq and a recalcitrant U.S. foreign policy establishment have, however, dulled democracy's luster at the White House. Stability actually, the illusion of stability has once again replaced democracy as the benchmark of security. In U.S. dealings with the governments of Egypt, Sudan, Russia, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, expediency has triumphed over democratic principle.
Before he went to the G-8 summit, Bush spoke to the dissidents in Prague. "Expanding freedom is more than a moral imperative. It is the only realistic way to protect our people in the long run. Years ago, Andrei Sakharov warned that a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respond to the rights of its neighbors. History proves him right."
To their ears, it sounded like the old freedom agenda. It sounded like he was rejecting expediency. May history prove his listeners right.