NY Times Athens Democracy Forum Shines a Light on Dark Happenings

September 20, 2018

ATHENS – The hometown of democracy’s greatest heroes – Pericles and Cleisthenes, and critics – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, was the scene of the sixth New York Times Athens Democracy Forum September 16-18.

Scholars, business leaders, policymakers and journalists predominated, joined by numerous Greek officials, and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt was present at several of the events centering on the beautiful Zappeion exhibition hall.

At the opening ceremony Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos serious meetings about the growing threats to democracy and human rights are important, echoing The Times’ website: “With emerging democracies backsliding into authoritarianism and others falling prey to populism, there has never been a more urgent need to assess the evolving state of democracy and its impact now, amid rapid global change…Delegates from different countries and industries will collaborate to identify concrete actions for governments, businesses and citizens to take to preserve a free society.”

One of the highlights was a session inside the magnificently restored Stoa of Attalos which featured welcoming speeches by Mark Thompson, President and CEO of the New York Times Company, and Athens Mayor Georgios Kaminis.

Thompson noted that recent events have shattered the myth that the spread of democracy “was irreversible and that once established, it would be impossible” to be dislodged “or replaced by dictatorship and repression. But the founders of democracy in this city 2,5000 year ago knew better. For them, democracy was turbulent, fragile, always contested,” and tested by populism and demagoguery.”

Some members of the panel moderated by Times Op-Ed columnist Roger Cohen that followed suggested prevailing contemporary models of how democracy works are flawed.

Dr. Karolina Wigura shed light on the authoritarian pressures rising in Poland, and on a lighter but insightful note said attention must be paid to modern electorates’ desires to be entertained – the rise of President Donald Trump was noted – adding that moderate parties with “boring leaders” are problematic. One guest said the new populist leaders are simply more likable, with supporters bonding as if they were best friends.

A vital Asia perspective in a gathering seemingly dominated by Americans and Europeans was provided by Professor Kishor Mahbubani, former President of the UN Security Council, who also addressed economic sphere. He said people must think about the consequences for the dollar and democracy when China becomes the biggest economy, while other speakers examined the role of widening wealth gaps in the West.

Feelings of optimism and pessimism ranged as widely as political ideology.

Mahbubani, from an India whose huge middle class is pacing a thriving economy and whose democracy has deep roots, is optimistic. He notes that over time, more people will receive university educations, creating hunger for the benefits of open societies. On the other hand, he is no longer sure that the ever growing Chinese middle class will necessarily pressure the Communist Party for radical change.

In general, he warned about democratic complacency, even the worship of democracy. “Democracy is not a god, it is a challenge, and it requires daily care.”

Domestic authoritarianism and bullying on the international front raised concerns, and during the Q&A that followed Ambassador Pyatt noted the importance of the allied relationships of the U.S. “which developed voluntarily” and which foster internal and external stability.

Differing views were offered about a world that will be dominated for decades by the US-China rivalry. Mahbubani feels the two will find a way to manage it and noted differences with the Cold War, saying that Chinese pragmatism and exceptionalism means that Beijing will push commercial, not ideological exports.

Cohen turned to the Greek situation and noted that the country has gotten through the worst of the crisis without extremist parties like Golden Dawn making gains, but some observers noted that Greece’s situation is still fragile and that a reconstituted far-right movement with a more attractive face still poses a threat if it takes much longer for the average Greek to feel the recovery.

The companies with the strongest presence and the biggest spotlights on them were the old and new media firms and lively discussions accompanied presentations by people like Richard Allan, Vice President for Policy Solutions at Facebook. He spoke passionately about the need both for independence for companies and discussions with government.

At such conferences, some of the best conversations occur on the periphery, often on peripheral subjects, during lunch or walking to and from special events like tours of the Athenian Agora and the Pillars of Olympian Zeus.

Jonathan Charles, Managing Director of Communication for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Dimitri Zenghelis, visiting Senior fellow at the London School of Economics, led an informal lunch table talk about the economics and pragmatics of alternative energy projects in Greece and other countries.

When the discussion turned to attracting foreign investment it was noted that special economic zones are a well-rehearsed means for overcoming investor fears in a number of areas, from surprise jumps in tax rates to Greece’s plodding legal system, since parties can agree to resolve disputes in external courts, for example, under English law.

Achilleas Tsaltas, VP of International Conferences for the Times, is responsible for special events outside the U.S. He told The National Herald the Forum was inspired by the UN’s international Day of Democracy which is held annually on September 15 and which was an initiative of the late Secretary General Kofi Anan.

Athens, he said, was picked for obvious historical reasons, but also because participants are interest in learning how Greeks have faced the crisis.


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