Conference on Democracy Promotion Provokes Discussion
Published: Thursday, April 19, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Democracy is the best form of government, and other countries should aspire to the same standard America has achieved — right? Participants at the second Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) conference last week tackled this question, with varied conclusions. The conference brought together policy-makers, diplomats and students in a three-day discussion of foreign policy, economics and history.
The conference opened on April 12 with a keynote address by Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the U.N.
On Friday, following morning remarks by former veteran diplomats Nicholas Burns and Elliott Abrams, members of the community attended panels like “Assessing the Arab Spring and Democracy in the Middle East” and “Is Democracy Promotion in America’s Interest?”
While panelists remained civil, there was one memorable argument at Friday’s Arab Spring panel. Responding to a comment from the audience challenging his description of various Afghani factions, John Agresto, a member of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Iraq, briefly argued with James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, about the need for American humility. Zogby said America has never been and still is not a perfect nation, and that democracy promotion efforts should be conducted with its own shortcomings in mind. Agresto disputed Zogby’s assertion that the history of civil rights in America was comparable to the turmoil and illiberality in other countries like Afghanistan.
Reactions to the conference were generally positive among students and faculty. “We got to hear from people from a wide variety of backgrounds, as well as a diverse array of ideological perspectives,” Jacob Smith ’12 said. “The receptions were also very good in that they were open to the campus community. It was very interesting to have the chance to talk to participants one on one.”
Jonathan Green ’14 was impressed by participants’ thoughtfulness in answering the conference’s central question.
“The panelists, for the most part, did an excellent job of acknowledging that their answer to the CSAD’s question depended on what they meant by ‘democracy’ and what they meant by ‘promote,’” Green said.
One noteworthy reaction to the conference came in the form of a brief all-student email argument between Professor of Religious Studies Vernon Schubel and Professor of Political Science Fred Baumann. Schubel sent an allstu reflecting on what he considered the harmful effects of Straussian neoconservative thinking, as advocated by some conference speakers like Abrams and Agresto. “Do the neoconservatives really believe in promoting democracy?” he said in the email.
Baumann responded by calling Schubel’s email an “effort to rekindle the culture wars at Kenyon.” He also said Schubel’s criticism of Straussian policymakers implicitly accused other proponents of that philosophy of dishonesty in their support for democracy promotion.
Director of the CSAD and Assistant Professor of Political Science Thomas Karako was pleased with the Kenyon community’s reaction to the conference.
“It went very well,” he said in an email. “We were very pleased at the sustained overflow attendance, the interaction by speakers with faculty, staff, students and the community — and by the buzz of a conversation that we saw before, during and after the conference. A number of speakers remarked on their interactions with students and how much they enjoyed visiting Kenyon.”