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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Freedom Cures All Pains

Not to trivialize freedom, but it's kind of like aspirin: good for a broad and constantly expanding range of conditions. You'd expect that freedom would be good for political rights and civil liberties, for instance. No surprises there.

Countries with some of it tend to get more of it: to move from simple electoral democracy to a richer liberal or free democracy with civil liberties, the rule of law, checks and balances, minority rights, a civil society and the rest. But Freedom House, a 50-year-old nonpartisan organization that produces a respected annual survey of how freedom fares around the world, now reports that this form of political aspirin serves other high purposes as well.

Take ethnicity and nationalism, widely identified as the twin curses of the democratic promise that emerged from the Cold War.

Freedom House, in an upbeat report written by its president, Adrian Karatnycky, suggests that monoethnic countries - defined as places where two-thirds of the population belong to a single ethnic group - are twice as likely to be open and democratic as multiethnic ones. Of the 88 countries the group labels as Free, fully 66 are monoethnic. Among the 117 counted electoral democracies, 78 are monoethnic and 39 multiethnic.

Such numbers have led students of the recent ethnic conflicts in Africa and the Balkans to focus on the destructive power of contemporary ethnic and nationalist passions.

Yet, says Freedom House, while countries are more likely to be free if they do not face significant ethnic cleavages, there is also "compelling evidence" that multiethnic societies can preserve a broad array of political and civil freedoms. These societies include old democracies such as Canada, Belgium and Switzerland and new ones such as Estonia, Latvia, Mali, Namibia and South Africa. Giant India's return in 1998 to a Freedom House listing of Free countries suggests to it that even in an ethnically charged setting, multiethnic societies can establish a climate of respect for personal freedoms, the rule of law and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.

It is painfully clear that in some political settings ethnic appeals can undo democratic systems. Yet the overall example of those 39 existing multiethnic electoral democracies indicates that it is possible - not ensured, but possible - to transcend ethnic appeals, to avert the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities and to establish durable democracies.

Freedom House reminds us that in the 1980s and 1990s, most successful ethnic struggles for national self-determination and even for nationhood have been peaceful, involving mass protests and other accepted forms of opposition activity. In the former Soviet bloc, such activism contributed to the downfall of oppressive regimes and the creation of free states.

But where nationalism has led to violence and bloody warfare, another factor has often been present: irredentism. In such cases (Bosnia's Serb Republic, Nagorny Karabakh, Transdniester, Kosovo, Congo), "what is at work may be support provided by an existing state seeking to extend its borders (or influence) rather than the aspiration to create a new nation-state." A country being invaded or subverted from outside is in a different - usually more dangerous - situation from one facing an internal challenge from a group of its own citizens.

Granted, the value of freedom or the challenge to freedom is not always determined by counting up examples of this and that category of experience. In real life, the success of ideas is measured not just statistically but intellectually and politically on a broad canvas. Yugoslavia's and Congo's agonies are not the less for unfolding in only two countries otherwise of lesser importance to the run of nations. Still, it is important for purposes of truth, morale and public policy to recognize that ethnicity is not always the harsh and invincible enemy of democracy. In a given ethnic conflict, freedom may falter. But democracy may also provide the combination of strength and flexibility that enables a state under ethnic siege to bend, adapt and endure.

From its conviction of the demonstrated superiority of the idea of freedom, Freedom House concludes that the best way to tackle "the successful management of divisive group conflicts" is to strengthen democracy. Freedom would be a good idea even if it were not useful in this context. Countries so involved would do well to take two aspirin and call Freedom House in the morning.

This comment was contributed to The Washington Post.