Nov 19th 2021

Can The Retreat Of Democracy Be Reversed?

by Alon Ben-Meir

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is an expert on Middle East politics and affairs, specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. For the past twenty five years, Dr. Ben-Meir has been directly involved in various negotiations and has operated as a liaison between top Arab and Israeli officials. Dr. Ben-Meir serves as senior fellow at New York University's School of Global Affairs where he has been teaching courses on the Middle East and negotiations for 18 years. He is also a Senior Fellow and the Middle Eastern Studies Project Director at the World Policy Institute. Dr. Ben-Meir hosts "Global Leaders: Conversations with Alon Ben-Meir," a series of debates and conversations with top policy-makers around the world. He also regularly holds briefings at the US State Department for international visitors. Dr. Ben-Meir writes frequently and has appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites including the Middle East Times, the Christian Science Monitor, Le Monde, American Chronicle, the Week, the Political Quarterly, Israel Policy Forum, Gulf Times, the Peninsula, The Jerusalem Post, and the Huffington Post. He also makes regular television and radio appearances, and has been featured on networks such as CNN, FOX, PBS, ABC, al Jazeera (English and Arabic), and NPR. He has authored six books related to Middle East policy and is currently working on a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dr. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. He is fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew.



The Summit for Democracy that President Biden is spearheading in December, at which scores of countries will be in in attendance, is certainly timely and necessary. I do not expect revolutionary and immediate measures to be adopted at the summit to save democracies from their rapid erosion in so many countries. The fact, however, that such a summit is taking place at this particular juncture is extremely important. Democracies around the world are facing great challenges and are in retreat. Authoritarian leaders are exploiting the frustration and the deep polarization of their populace where democracy failed to deliver. Even America’s 240-year-old democracy was under ominous assault on January 6, which demonstrates how fragile democracy can be and how difficult is to sustain it, given the insatiable thirst for power by authoritarian-minded leaders.

Regardless of how many good ideas emerge from the democracy summit, there are three other issues the summit must address: first, organizations such as the EU and NATO, which are based on the principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights, should not allow member states such as Poland, Hungary, and Turkey to violate their charters with impunity. Second, the US must end the practice of forcing democracy down the throats of any country. Third, the US and the EU must lead by example and encourage other countries to emulate them and provide them with incentives to adopt democratic principles.

The EU has in fact been struggling with Poland and Hungary, whose leaders became notorious abusers of human rights and openly defy and undermine the EU’s legal structure which is based on human rights and the rule of law.

In Poland, the Constitutional Court ruled that Polish laws has primacy in some areas, which is a direct challenge to the EU as all its members must treat EU laws as supreme. Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, told the Parliament that “This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union. It is a direct challenge to the unity of the European legal order…[and] has serious consequences for the Polish people…without independent courts, people have less protection and consequently their rights are at stake.” Indeed, Poland continues to severely violate human rights, limiting the independence of the media and egregiously infringing on the rights of women, LGBTQ+, and immigrants.

Hungary’s President Viktor Orban, who is clearly charting his own new course toward illiberal Christian democracy, came out in support of Poland’s rejection of EU supremacy. He stated that the EU must “respect member states’ sovereignty,” as if domestic human right abuses have nothing to do with the EU’s charter, which views universal human rights as the crown jewel of the Union. Hungary, like Poland, does not fall short in its abuse of human rights, harassment of liberal organizations, rejection of migrants, and outright discrimination against minorities while centralizing power and control in the hands of the ruling conservative party.

At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes.

Turkey as a NATO member state under President Erdogan has crossed every red line in its treatment of its citizens and relations to NATO. Erdogan’s human rights abuses go beyond the pale of moral bankruptcy. Since the presumed failed coup in July 2016, Erdogan has gone on a rampage against his own people, incarcerating tens of thousands of innocent individuals, including women with their children, shutting down the free press, subjecting his critics to criminal indictment, waging a merciless war against his own Kurdish community, and making the parliament nothing but a rubber stamp. Indeed, nothing is left of Turkish democracy. All the while, he continues with his Islamization campaign, thinking of himself as God sent to restore the “glory” of the Ottoman Empire.

On foreign policy, it suffices to quote former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, who said “Erdogan has long lost the trust of Europeans. There is no shortage of subjects of tension between the EU and Turkey, such as the question of refugees, the future of Cyprus…the exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkey is in competition with Greece, Syria and Israel.” In addition, Erdogan’s coziness to the West’s foremost adversary, Russia’s Putin, and his purchase of the S-400 air defense system which compromises NATO’s defenses and intelligence, raises major concerns among NATO member states.

The Summit for Democracy should also remind the US in particular that it is time to cease and desist any effort to export the US’ form of democracy to foreign countries through the use of force; Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya offer perfect examples of America’s failures. The US should show in words and in deeds why democracy is the best form of government that delivers for the people, protects human rights with zeal, and indiscriminately provides the opportunity for every individual to grow and prosper by working hard and adhering to the rule of law.

During deliberations at the summit, Biden should admit to the US’ past mistakes and send a clear message to the whole world that the US stands ready to aid any country whose people are yearning for freedom and democracy and offer to provide economic and technical assistance as long as their leaders fully adhere to universal human rights, the rule of law, and governing with the consent of the people. This applies to US allies as well. The US should not ignore the fact that many of them, especially in the Gulf, are autocratic. In these instances, the US should use its soft power to entice them to open their societies.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of leading by example and demonstrating how democracy functions and why it requires constant nurturing. The January 6 insurrection demonstrated in no uncertain terms how democracy can be ominously undermined when the country’s elected leaders are authoritarian by their very nature. A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego.

America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law. Yes, America still can lead by example, but the Biden administration must simultaneously and systematically attend to healing the country of the terrible wounds inflicted on America’s democracy so brazenly by the previous administration.

For the Summit for Democracy to succeed, the US must work closely with NATO and the EU to take concrete measures to stop the erosion of democracies first from within. Otherwise, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the US and the EU to help repairing ailing democracies outside their own orbits. Leading by example and demonstrating that democracy can deliver to the people should become the hallmark of the Summit for Democracy.



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Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.


alon@alonben-meir.com  Web: www.alonben-meir.com

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More Essays

Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."