There is nothing like an international meeting on democracy to allow us Greeks to mark the depth of the hole into which we have sunk and to consider ways to move ahead. Even though terribly self-absorbed, when we get the chance we are also open to messages from abroad and we show great empathy and understanding with regard to what is going on in the rest of the world. Now we must see what we can learn from others.
This year’s Athens Democracy Forum provided the opportunity to discuss great issues that the planet faces – such as growing inequality, Islamic fundamentalism, the line between privacy and cybersecurity. The annual forum convened by The International New York Times in partnership with the UN Democracy Fund, the City of Athens and Kathimerini also kept its focus on developments in Greece. In all, the meetings on Monday and Tuesday were a sophisticated and inspired conversation on the state of democracy around the world and in its birthplace.
Six years into our crisis, we Greeks are holding a second national election in eight months, after a referendum two months ago, playing with democracy’s most powerful “tools” instead of focusing on how best to end the crisis and strengthen our country’s position in the region. No one expects a clear winner on Sunday, raising hopes of a coalition that could instill a sense of stability and take steps toward economic growth. Something keeps holding us back: resistance to change, suspicion of our EU partners and of each other, a sense of victimhood.
It took a few sharp comments from a participant in a panel on Islamic fundamentalism to bring things into focus. Noting that Southeast Asia is home to a great number of Muslims and at the same time has seen relatively little extremism, Kishore Mahbubani, dean and professor at the National University of Singapore and a former diplomat, had two valuable messages for the audience in Athens and abroad. The “Western narrative,” in which 12 percent of the world’s population has set the framework in which the world is seen, is an aberration and is coming to an end. (The subtext being that discussions on democracy should not be self-congratulatory, that we should have a broader outlook on the world.) His other point concerned the rapid economic and social advances of several countries in Southeast Asia. The reason, Mahbubani argued, was that, unlike other areas such as the Middle East, people there did not remain fixated on colonialism and the ills that it had brought upon them. They decided to get over the past and build the future with confidence in themselves, he said.
Southeast Asia is a world away from Greece, and we like to consider ourselves special (for good or ill). But we are in a spot where we need ideas to enable us to move ahead. Seeing ourselves as part of a world that is larger than Greece and larger than the EU, setting aside past grievances and delusions of grandeur, choosing the best people to implement the best ideas that other countries have tried would not only be a good start, it would be a great achievement.