Class Day Lecturer Larry Diamond at podium

'People around the world want to be recognized as having equal worth and basic rights,' social scientist Larry Diamond said at the Class Day Lecture. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Larry Diamond calls democracy a 'universal value' in Stanford Class Day Lecture

Drawing on Stanford's motto, "The wind of freedom blows," social scientist Larry Diamond traces the rise of democracy since the 1970s, arguing that freedom is a universal value.

Steve Fyffe

Senior class presidents lead the crowd at Maples Pavilion in a roll call for the Class of 2012.

A strange thing happened in the mid-1970s, according to social scientist Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

At that time, barely a quarter of the world's independent states were democracies. But today, the number is 60 percent. Moreover, nearly two in every five states can reasonably be called liberal democracies.

Just four decades ago, Diamond said, pundits predicted that dictatorship – rather than democracy – was the wave of the future.

What they failed to realize, Diamond argued during Saturday's Class Day Lecture, is that freedom and democracy are universal values sought by people worldwide.

Diamond outlined a transition that began with the overthrow of the Portuguese authoritarian dictatorship in 1974 and continued through the end of apartheid in South Africa. Like a relentless wave, democracy took hold and succeeded in every region of the world except the Middle East.

"People around the world want to be recognized as having equal worth and basic rights," he said. "In a world of broad access to FM radios, satellite television and mobile phones, even the poor come to know that only a free society can secure those rights."

Wind of freedom blows

Diamond, an expert on comparative democratic development, was chosen by members of the senior class to give their Class Day Lecture, a more than 40-year tradition on Commencement Weekend. Sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association, the talk drew thousands of graduating seniors and their families to Maples Pavilion. Diamond is also director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and co-faculty director of the Haas Center for Public Service.

Diamond's lecture, "Why the Wind of Freedom Blows," drew from Stanford history and the legacy created when David Starr Jordan, the university's first president, chose "The wind of freedom blows" as the school's motto. The motto was based on the words of German humanist Ulrich von Hutten, who risked freedom to defend Martin Luther's challenge to the Catholic Church in the 1500s.

In 1918, Jordan wrote about the selection of the motto, calling Hutten "a martyr to democracy" and predicting that – someday – the "wind of freedom" would "sweep over the whole earth."

"During the half-century after President Jordan offered his hopeful prediction, the global struggle for freedom waxed and waned in the face of tumultuous events – the Great Depression, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, a second world war, a wave of independence movements and wars of national liberation, decolonization, military coups, the Cold War, the Vietnam War," Diamond said.

But beginning in the mid-1970s, Diamond said, "people did not get the message that democracy was passé. A wide range of Ulrich von Huttens started popping up."

Universal value

In his lecture, which earned him a standing ovation, Diamond led the audience on a riveting historical tour of the world's emerging democracies since the mid-1970s.

After the military overthrow in Portugal, both Spain and Greece experienced democratic transitions. Following Europe's lead, democratic movements also mobilized in Latin America, partly fueled by Jimmy Carter's human rights policies. Next came Argentina and Chile, followed by Asia, with the People Power Revolution of Corazon Aquino in the Philippines. Shortly after in South Korea, students and organized labor rose up to demand democracy.

In the 1980s, Eastern Europe was the "crucible of dramatic gains in freedom that the world still largely enjoys," Diamond said.

Democratic transformations were led by such modern-day Huttens as Lech Walesa in Poland, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Yelena Bonner and Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union. When Hungary effectively opened its borders with Austria in 1989, mass demonstrations occurred in East Germany, leading to the collapse of communist authority and the fall of the Berlin Wall. That transition, in turn, influenced democratic reforms in Africa.

"By the time South Africa completed its democratic transition in 1994, the world was transformed," Diamond said. "Democracy had staked a significant foothold in every region of the world except the Middle East, and it had become the dominant form of government in all of Europe and in Latin America."

Yet Diamond noted that democracy is still a struggle in such countries as Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi continues to lead a campaign against a brutal military dictatorship, as well as in China, where repression continues despite economic gains.

In arguing that people hold freedom and democracy as universal values, Diamond cited public opinion data.

"In survey after survey, in Latin America, post-communist Europe, East and South Asia, even the poorest states of Africa and now the Arab world, popular majorities support democracy as the best form of government," he said. "People around the world want the right to choose and replace their leaders, and today democracy is the only form of government with broad international legitimacy."

Contributing to that perception is the corruption and abuse of power often seen in authoritarian rule. Even authoritarian regimes that fuel economic development eventually fail, Diamond argued, because prosperity leads to higher levels of education and social and economic integration with the world's democracies.

"People push for freedom because there is an innate human need and desire to be treated with respect and dignity, or in the Arabic, karama," Diamond said. "As much as anything, it was humiliation that drove the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi to set himself on fire 18 months ago to this day – an act that set the Arab world on fire, igniting mass protests that have so far toppled four Arab dictators."

Climate change challenge

Diamond reminded seniors that a Stanford degree comes with responsibilities and that the university was founded with the hope that graduates would be "of greater service to the public."

"There is no higher civic responsibility than to succeeding generations," Diamond said, urging graduates to turn their attention to "the gathering crisis of climate change."

The predicted impending environmental crisis, he said, will likely bring "widespread drought, famine, violent conflict and massive refugee flows."

"Meeting this nexus of environmental threats, and thus bringing our energy use back into more sustainable balance with nature, will be the overriding public policy challenge confronting your generation," he said. "How quickly and creatively you meet it will affect more than the fate of our democracy and our freedom. It will affect the quality and ultimately the sustainability of human civilization itself."