Do we dare to hope? This was the question addressed to the 11th Athens Democracy Forum, against a backdrop of war in Europe, unchecked climate change, galloping inflation and the A.I. revolution with its specter of “robots with glaring red eyes,” as Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs for Meta, put it.
Mr. Clegg dismissed those sinister visions — A.I. can slice and dice vast amounts of data, he pointed out, and is adept at pattern recognition but does not even know the meaning of the words it uses. Fear has always accompanied the arrival of new technologies, but the worst is far from inevitable.
The Greek economy has surged from the desperate state it was in a decade ago. The weather was overcast and cool, with no hint of the climate extremes Greece has experienced of late. The war in Ukraine drags on and takes a terrible toll, but the front lines have scarcely moved in a year. Perhaps attendees of the forum could be forgiven for feeling intimations of imminent global cataclysm are overblown.
Still, there was no consensus on hope. Democracy has taken a beating in recent years with the rise of autocratic states and attacks around the world on a free press and independent judiciaries. Democratic societies have suffered from self-satisfied blindness to their eternal fragility and from acceptance of forms of injustice — especially growing inequality — that undermine consensus. Even the claim of democracy to the moral high ground is now questioned, a theme that was consistently aired in Athens.
“We do not define ourselves one way or another,” said Caroline Gaita, executive director of the Mzalendo Trust, a watchdog group in Kenya, a democratic state. “We look East at what cost? We look West at what cost? We have entered a world of multialignment.”
Even President Biden, who had made the “battle between democracy and autocracy” a defining theme of his presidency, has eased back from this ordering model in recent months. Unlike last year, he did not mention it to the United Nations General Assembly last month. His retreat reflects this “multialignment,” the fact that many countries — such as India, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa and Saudi Arabia — are prepared to work with Moscow, Beijing or Washington, depending on the issue.
The strong suggestion in Athens was that the West and the world’s democracies must take in this shift to be effective in a new world. There should be no assumptions of authority stemming merely from the pronouncement of words like democracy, freedom, human rights, the rule of law and a free press, however inextricable these principles are from the very idea of the United States or the European Union. Quiet pragmatism may serve democracy better than telling other people how they should live.
Certainly, a panel on Africa seemed to drive home this lesson. Adama Sanneh, the chief executive of the Milan-based Moleskine Foundation (and the only Black chief executive in Italy) noted how the minds of intelligent people shut down when it comes to Africa, how prejudice and stereotypes prevail, how the continent is always “somebody else’s object,” how “incredible the arrogance is of believing you are the center of the world,” and how even a descriptive phrase for Africa like “geopolitical hub” may contain its measure of contempt.
For Mr. Sanneh, who is of mixed Italian and Senegalese-Gambian descent, Africa is not a hub. Africa is not an object. Africa is, of course, not a country. In many ways, he argued, it may hold the hope of the future.
He cited the word “Ubuntu,” defined by Nelson Mandela as meaning “I am because you are” or “I am the other.” He also alluded to “teraanga,” the deep sense of welcoming in Senegal, a welcoming made possible by a culture where there is no “other.”
Two words, two ways of turning “other” into brother or sister. Two words to express the idea of taking the stranger in. War, on the other hand, is the demonization of the other. It is the endpoint of failure. It is the violence that lurks in our natures made manifest.
Certainly, in an age of rising nationalism and xenophobia, and of vast migrant flows driven in part by climate change, the idea of Ubuntu is scarcely ascendant. Even in Europe, the Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has built a fence on its southern border, and Mr. Orban has said “the best migrant is the migrant that does not come.” In Athens, he was represented by his political director, Balazs Orban (not a relation), who came under attack in a debate on why people can’t just get along.
Amos Gitai, an Israeli movie director and author, said that Israelis were in the street day after day defending their democracy and independent Supreme Court from attack by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He continued: “There is another person who is sitting here from Hungary who serves as a model of what we should not do: We should not go in a racist direction. We should not block immigrants who need shelter, we should not marginalize L.G.B.T.Q. people, we should keep democratic societies open.”
Mr. Orban was unruffled. He defended Hungary’s course, arguing that it reflected choices made democratically and that the world’s liberal elites should not impose their views on nation, family, gender and immigration, especially when a conservative backlash against this liberal consensus was evident in many parts of Europe, including Poland. The United States, of course, is also polarized.
Such sharp exchanges have been a hallmark of the Athens forum, which lives by the adage that civilized disagreement is the mark of any healthy society.
Nowhere is the standoff between democratic and autocratic models sharper than in the confrontation between the United States, the most powerful country in the world since the end of the Cold War, and a rising China. Rarely in history has a transition from one dominant state to another occurred peacefully.
But a debate on China reached a near consensus that war between Washington and Beijing is not only unlikely but also unthinkable, given the economic ties between the two powers. (Despite all the tensions, bilateral trade reached a record high of $690.6 billion in 2022).
“There’s always the chance of an accident, but my general view is that the United States and China are doomed to compete and doomed to get along ultimately,” said Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times columnist. The relationship had deteriorated, largely because of President Xi Jinping’s decision to limit “integration with the world for a greater level of control.” Still, Mr. Friedman continued, “I don’t think that has to lead to war between our two countries.”
Keyu Jin, an associate professor of economics at the London School of Economics, noted that one billion Chinese citizens still live on less than $300 a month. “Understand that currently there’s still the goal for the families to educate their kids, buy an apartment in the city, and peace is the fundamental condition to deliver that,” she said.
Peace in Europe, 19 months into the war in Ukraine, appears distant, however. Nobody in Athens predicted a quick end to the war that began with a brutal Russian invasion of its neighbor in flagrant violation of international law.
A panel on Ukraine revealed an overriding concern that Western unity may fray before the American election next year; that Donald J. Trump may win that election and tilt policy in a pro-Russian direction; and that a combination of stiffening Russian military resistance on the ground and Ukrainian determination to retake all its territory, including Crimea, will lead to a long stalemate.
Such a frozen conflict would suit the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, in that it appears to preclude Ukrainian membership of NATO. On the other hand, Russia is paying an enormous price for the war in lives, treasure, estrangement from the West and an exodus of youthful talent.
That Mr. Putin had to journey to North Korea last month to seek support for a long war was a measure of his humiliating isolation, whatever Russia’s ascendancy in Africa, where it has contrived to present itself as an anticolonial power even as it fights a form of colonial war aimed at reabsorbing Ukraine, or much of it, into the “Russkiy Mir,” or Russian world.
Ukraine, of course, is fighting for democracy, freedom, the sanctity of sovereignty and the right of a sovereign state to choose its strategic direction. This battle remains pivotal, as millions of people in the United States and Europe recognize. If the West, after sending weapons worth billions of dollars to Kyiv, has seen some fraying of its resolve, especially among Republicans in the United States, the consensus that Ukraine must not lose remains strong.
In Athens, as I kept hearing that democracy has lost its magnetism, and that “civilizational states” that value their own history and culture over Enlightenment principles are winning the day, I could not help wondering where the migrant crowds clamoring to get into China, Russia, Turkey and other authoritarian or quasi-autocratic states were.
Where were the hordes clamoring to live in a “civilization” rather than a democratic state with the rule of law (and surely Greece ranks high in civilizational terms)? Where were the 21st-century migrants with banners aloft saying “We Want to be Unfree!” or “Surveillance not Liberty!”? Where were all the people turning away from the West — a scheme for global takeover masquerading as a template for individual happiness — to embrace the joys of autocracy?
Funny, they were nowhere to be seen.
When people cannot vote with a ballot they vote with their feet, which is why they seek to build their lives in the United States, or the European Union, or Brazil, or Australia, for example. The human urge to be free is universal and unquenchable. Democracies have to adjust to a changed world, but the challenge before them is to do so without losing their essential values.
Democracy is imperfect, and in that imperfection lies its distinctive humanity, its beauty, its elasticity, the quality that every quest for utopia ends up crushing.
It is humanity’s last best chance but we must acknowledge that it fails at the point where the idea that “I am the other,” Ubuntu, disappears entirely from the discourse, buried under a mountain of selfies. The Athens forum dared to hope that this would not come to pass.