Balkan sons of liberty soldier on

(John Andrews abroad ) This week I had a couple of vivid glimpses of what it must have been like to participate in American political life in the first decades after independence. One was experiential, the other literary. Both confirmed my "Claremont conservative" conviction that the principles of the American founding lose none of their truth across time, geography, or cultures. The International Republican Institute, funded by USAID and dedicated to advancing democracy around the world, had invited me to Macedonia and Serbia to share the perspective of a think-tank entrepreneur and former legislator with leaders of center-right parties there.

The acclaimed biography of Alexander Hamilton [link] by Ron Chernow went along in my suitcase. After each long day of meetings in Skopje or Belgrade, unwinding at the hotel, I traveled back with Hamilton to New York or Philadelphia in the 1780s and '90s -- where one finds some notable parallels to the Balkan drama of today.

Marxism's demise after 1989 in the old Yugoslavia led to that war-torn federation's collapse and the shaky beginnings of a liberal political and economic order in its newly independent parts, two of which are now the republics of Serbia-Montenegro and Macedonia.

Social democrats in the latter, mostly ex-communists, lead a center-left governing coalition. Civil strife flared there as recently as 2001, initiated by Albanian Muslim separatists. IRI set me up for seminars on principles, policy, and politics with party leaders from the center-right opposition. The VMRO-DPMNE and VMRO People's parties, heirs of a century-old nationalist movement among the country's Slavic majority, along with the DPA and PDP Albanian-minority parties, each made several hours available.

Next moving north into Serbia, the heartland of bygone Yugoslavia, a proud but tragic country not yet healed from the ugly despotism of Slobodan Milosevic and the NATO war that helped topple him, I had another series of IRI-sponsored consultations with that country's center-right parties.

The Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, holds the prime minister's chair while their democratic near-twin, DS, is excluded from government. Serbian Renewal, SPO, is a splinter party helping DSS cling to power. I huddled with all three in turn. Another minor coalition member, the G17 Plus party of market-minded intellectuals, decided they were too busy to meet with the visiting American.

Somewhere around these various conference tables, I reflected, perhaps sat the Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, or Madison who will help the fledgling democracies strengthen, survive, and thrive. Or perhaps not. History is not automatic that way. Certainly no obvious George Washington figure has yet emerged to help inspire, unify, and stabilize either Macedonia or Serbia.

But at every meeting, I held up my Claremont Institute pocket edition of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution in one hand, a shiny CD-ROM disk in the other. America's eventual greatness lay in those foundational documents, I told the party leaders, more than in her natural endowments or in the statesmen of 1776 and 1787 -- and there lies the best hope for these struggling Balkan nations as well. Using the disk for analogy, I urged them to think of this little booklet as encoding the "operating system" of liberty for any people willing to adopt it.

Does the willingness exist? It will take years, decades rather, to tell. The early glimmerings of desire and the stubborn determination of effort are surely present, and already proven in sometimes heroic degree, I saw in talking to these earnest men and women -- vicariously reliving with them the region's stormy history since communism fell.

In a 1782 letter about his experiences as a revenue agent for the New York legislature, with economic chaos on the rise and civil war feared, Alexander Hamilton saw "reason for those who love this country to weep over its blindness." Statesmanship was rare among politicians of the day, he lamented. "The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people." The Union's very survival was in doubt; the Philadelphia convention scarcely yet dreamt of.

Our hindsight, with its easy assumption that victory "inevitably" crowned the Declaration of Independence, that the Constitution grew "naturally" from the Articles of Confederation, or that the peaceful election of 1800 was "destined," was a luxury not afforded Hamilton and his fellow founders. They could only proceed step by step on prudence, faith, toughness, and daring. So must the brave republicans and democrats of today's post-communist Balkans.

I came home to Colorado today full of admiration for Macedonia's VMRO and DPA and PDP parties, Serbia's DS and DSS and SPO parties, and for our dedicated fellow Americans helping these countries build self-government through missions such as IRI. I raise a prayer for all their success.