Athens Democracy Forum returns reinvigorated

Athens Democracy Forum returns reinvigorated

With emerging democracies backsliding into authoritarianism and those once considered established falling prey to populism, the need to assess the evolving state of democracy has never felt more urgent.

The Athens Democracy Forum, which started on Wednesday and ends Friday, promises to do exactly that. By bringing together senior New York Times journalists, international business executives, policy-makers and academics, the conference will explore democracy in its birthplace, but while focusing on contemporary challenges and the governance models of the future.

After four successful sessions, this year the Forum returns truly reinvigorated. It is now organized by the newly founded Democracy & Culture Foundation, an independent nonprofit which expands the conference’s scope while allowing it to retain a close association with The New York Times. The paper will continue to curate the Forum’s agenda and publish special reports.

At the same time, with a few controversial attendees including former White House adviser Steve Bannon, the 2019 Athens Democracy Forum lowers its defenses to populism and promises to engage with all points of view.

Kathimerini met with Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, president international of The New York Times Company, as well as Achilles Tsaltas, president of the Athens Democracy Forum, for a discussion on the structural changes to this year’s conference, the evolving state of democracy and how Greece’s crisis-ridden past decade has affected the Forum’s agenda.

After five successful years, this year the Athens Democracy Forum was taken out of the NYT conference division and placed under the auspices of the Democracy & Culture Foundation. Why is that, and what potential do you think that unlocks for the Forum?

S.D.J.: The Athens Democracy Forum has, from its genesis, been a very successful conference for The New York Times. Of course it has always been the brainchild of Achilles Tsaltas, but it is something that really resonated with us, particularly with the Opinion team in New York. At the same time, it’s a conference that is rather unusual for our portfolio, in that it’s very much an opinion-driven conference. Whilst we certainly wanted to maintain a very close relationship with it, we thought it would be better if it was driven as a nonprofit model as it would certainly give it more flexibility. Therefore we came to this arrangement with Achilles where he would set up the Democracy & Culture Foundation. This would allow us to remain strongly linked in terms of our journalistic involvement but also remain aligned with the values of The New York Times. This is an event, after all, that is not so much linked with any financial interest but rather an intellectual interest, around a subject which is hugely important and needs to solicit a broad perspective and set of views. It’s not about commerce but about food for the mind, and we thought this structure and format would allow it to develop and grow in a more interesting way.

A.T.: What Stephen says about the conference aligning with the mission of The New York Times and the role of the media is hugely important. As a foundation structure, we now have the flexibility to do a couple of things we weren’t able to do as The New York Times in terms of the advocacy and activism that inadvertently comes – and should come – with a conference like this. The new structure enables us to partner with “thinkers and doers,” to take the solutions that come out of the conference and to evolve them into something that has a consequence and an impact. I think that’s the most exciting change: developing an impact chain from “thinking” and “talking” to actually “doing.” The Forum provides the discussion part, but other organizations can help us achieve the outcomes we want from it, such as better governance and citizen engagement.

Among others, this year’s conference will feature former White House strategist Steve Bannon. As we move beyond a number of surprising events that have shaken democracies – Brexit and Trump’s victory to name two that he was personally involved in – do you think it’s time to reconcile differences and sit down at the same table?

S.D.J.: I think it’s hugely important that there is a wide array of views represented at any conference – let alone a conference about democracy. Many of us grew up assuming that liberal democracies have won as a governance model, and I think what has been happening over the last several years has really put that into question. You can now argue that liberal democracies are actually under threat, and though Europe remains a bastion, even across the European Union the concept is questioned on the fringes. So it certainly needs to be a debate, and we need to understand all legitimate points of view across the spectrum in order to create models that are consistent and work for people. Bannon might seem unorthodox in a conference like this, since he openly wants to tear down the walls of many of these institutions. But he represents a legitimate point of view that is shared by a significant number of people, a point whose origins we understand. From the perspective of the NYT, we are sometimes criticized for being an advocate for progressive liberal politics. Our mission is not to take a point of view and certainly not to be the opposition, but to try to seek the truth and be as independent as possible. The conference should reflect these guidelines.

A.T.: Indeed, dialogue is our primary focus. Putting Bannon head to head with public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy surely has a sensationalist streak, but the real aim here is to find the middle ground. One thing I’d like to pick up on, because it resonates a lot with our program director Serge Schmemann, is the idea of moving beyond the panic caused by the surprising events that you mentioned. When the conference started we were in a bit of a shock with a lot of developments around the world, and the first four years of the conference were rather defensive. Now, our thinking is shifting towards solutions and new models.

Over the years of the conference I have noticed that a lot of the topics reappear, albeit with a nuance or a new layer that each year’s developments add. Do you think the challenges that democracy is facing are new, or are they continuations of old ones?

S.D.J.: I think they are old problems with a new nuance. Take liberal democracies, for instance, that are mostly aligned with different versions of market economics. Nowadays we can definitely argue that capitalism in its free form is making sure wealth is gathered in the hands of the very few. Unless we focus on that, it is going to put huge pressures on our democracies, and we are already seeing that. The same applies to climate change, which will have an enormous impact – we know that by 2050 there are going to be 200 million climate refugees. Even leaders of some of the world’s biggest oil companies have argued that there should be a carbon tax, yet we still don’t have policies in place. Democracy has to be attentive to all these things if it wants to have a chance of survival.

A.T.: That is what has really driven the Forum in the last few years – the three broad challenges of inequality, climate change and a more intelligent use of technology. Those forces, effectively under the umbrella of globalization, are the pillars of our program. In addition to that, there are two sessions in this year’s forum that are of particular interest. The first explores the collapse of traditional parties, with reflections in the political landscapes of the UK, France and Greece. The other has to do with business with purpose – since policy-makers are not catching up with the pace of technological change, how can business help with more democratic societies and better governance?

Location also has a role to play in how dialogue is shaped. Being at the heart of the Democracy Forum, Athens imbues the conference with its connections to antiquity – being the cradle of democracy – as well as modernity, due to it cuurently being at the forefront of many global challenges, such as migration. How does Athens impact the agenda of this year’s Forum?

S.D.J.: We started in Greece partly because Achilles said it would be a good place to do it – and he was absolutely right! From a cultural and symbolic point of view there could not be a more apt place to dissect democracy. But beyond that it is also a neutral place and geographically central as well – in between West and East, North and South, and outside of the major centers towards which people often gravitate. It also sets the scene appropriately in that democracy is an evolutionary thing, so having a historical context to it is very important. Not to mention people certainly like going to Athens – it’s undeniably a stimulating place.

A.T.: The neutrality of the place is definitely very important. It is also interesting to note that the Athens Democracy Forum is the only one in the New York Times conferences portfolio that has the city embedded in the name. It was actually the editorial team that decided it should be the case, much to my delight. Gerald Marzorati in particular insisted we call it Athens Democracy Forum, because he argued that “Athenian democracy” is a brand, a concept in itself. It gives us the capacity to travel back to the basics, and treat democracy as a concept in evolution.

The last decade for Greece has presented an interesting narrative cycle for democracy. It started with an unprecedented crisis and the rise of populism, and now seems to be ending with what people have dubbed a return to normality. How do you think Greece’s modern experience relates to the conference and its themes?

S.D.J.: For the rest of us Europeans, I don’t think we understand in depth the extreme hardships that Greeks endured in the past decade. The perspective one has from the outside is that the crisis has indeed bottomed out, that there is a sense of optimism and upward trajectory. The question that I’m interested in is whether Greece has used the crisis well. There are always cycles that drive things up and down, but crises get worse over time when the wrongs of the past haven’t been corrected. Have there been meaningful reforms put in place that put Greece in a better founding as it begins its recovery?

A.T.: Beyond that there is another dimension, which has to do with what the world has to learn from Greece’s experience. Our own Roger Cohen penned a piece titled “Greece Is the Good News Story in Europe” precisely to make a point about how reports of democracy’s demise worldwide might be exaggerated. Whether it is or it isn’t is of course part of what we seek to explore in the Athens Democracy Forum, and it is out of a diverse dialogue that we can successfully answer these questions.

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