Undiplomatic ambassador for democracy

Breaking the Real Axis of Evil

January 28, 2005

This is a confident book, written by a confident man. Both his publisher and the US State Department, which still carries his biography on its webpages though he has long ceased to be a US diplomatic officer, address Mark Palmer as "Ambassador", and indeed he displays many of the characteristics of some ambassadors. Being the head of a diplomatic mission can lead to delusions of grandeur. Being addressed as "Excellency", driven around with your country's flag flying on your car and featured in the local and perhaps your own national media, with people taking note of your views and opinions, can induce a strong belief in your own importance.

Given that Palmer has also been speechwriter to the president of the US and helped to bring down the Communist regime in Hungary, it is easy to see why he seems convinced that he has the solution to solving most of the world's problems. In fairness, he also brings a long and honourable record of accomplishment of pursuing human-rights issues in the US to this attempt to write a policy agenda for international activity against dictators.

The book's target is primarily policymakers in the West. As with the now-notorious British document justifying the war in Iraq, the book shows the weakness of many documents that seek to justify rather than argue a case. Palmer's basic point is that most of the world's problems stem from the existence of dictatorships. If these were replaced and people allowed to practise democracy, famine, shortages, war and most other problems facing human beings would disappear. Therefore, he seeks to bring democracy to the world's remaining dictatorships.

How is this to be done? Although Palmer approves of the decision to overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein and does not rule out the use of force against other dictators, his favoured approach is by peaceful means, albeit somewhat aggressive peaceful means. In particular, he sees the roles of ambassadors and embassies from democratic countries in quite a different fashion from what they have been hitherto. Rather than being the representative of Country X in Country Y, the modern ambassador should be a determined advocate of democracy. He or she should not sit idly by when demonstrators are arrested; rather he and his staff, wearing appropriate button badges, should be active supporters of groups such as Falun Gong in China, if necessary going to the parks and taking part in the exercises practised by its followers. Embassies should provide internet cafés where dissident political figures could gather to communicate with like-minded groups elsewhere. The guest lists for diplomatic receptions should not be confined to the leadership or those chosen by the leadership. Embassies must insist that opposition figures and dissident groups also attend.

Palmer is no isolationist. He argues, for example, that Western democracies, including the US, should be represented in the North Korean capital as a means of bringing pressure to bear on the regime. (He seems unaware that a number of Western countries are already there, but that is a minor point.) He favours buying out dictators or even perhaps establishing a retirement home for them, though he also favours their ultimate trial and condemnation by the "community of democracies".

This book is not an impartial study of world affairs. It is not surprising, therefore, that the underpinning is somewhat weak. Palmer did not do his own research but relied largely on others to do it. And, as he explains in the heading to the notes to the chapter of sketches of the last remaining dictators, they have "relied in significant part on their own knowledge of these countries and dictators". The result is a series of shallow studies of the last 45 dictators, in some cases out of date even when written, and all highly partial.

The book is confined to the world since 1945, so the long history of the problems faced by human beings is largely ignored. But in any case, Palmer does not argue his position; he is convinced that most of the world's past problems arose because of the lack of democracy rather than from other causes. Yet at no point does he explain how he, a former appointed US official, has the right to decide how another country is to be ruled. He does not say why George W. Bush, elected President of the US at best by the narrowest of margins in 2000, can tell the leadership of the People's Republic of China that they must accept the views of the West on how China should be governed. Substitute "Christianity" or "cleanliness" for "democracy", and we have a 19th-century tract justifying Western interference in barbarian countries. Despite Palmer's claims, there is more than one way to political legitimacy.

James E. Hoare is a freelance writer and a former British diplomat, whose last appointment was as charge d'affaires in Pyongyang, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in 2001-02.

Breaking the Real Axis of Evil: How to Oust the World's Last Dictators by 2025

Author - Mark Palmer
Publisher - Rowman and Littlefield
Pages - 348
Price - £20.99
ISBN - 0 7425 3254 2

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