Making Democracy Stick

By Alexander, Gerard | Policy Review, December 2005 | Go to article overview
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Making Democracy Stick


Alexander, Gerard, Policy Review


AN AMBITIOUS STRATEGY of democracy promotion is poised to be a major pillar of U.S. foreign policy for many years after 9/11, just as Cold War containment, trade liberalization, and development assistance were pillars of American policy in the decades after 1945. The strategy of democratization must begin with the moral proposition that "the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul," as President Bush said in his second inaugural address. But if the strategy is to succeed, we have to ask and answer some hard questions about what obstacles exist to achieving stable democracies and how they can be overcome. That the strategy faces challenges is not doubted, least of all by some of its leading advocates. Bush acknowledged "many obstacles" to democratization and called it the "concentrated work of generations." British Prime Minister Tony Blair has said that "democracy is hard to bring into countries that have never had it before." Even Natan Sharansky, author of a relentlessly optimistic appeal for democratization, says that in places like Iraq, democracy faces "a very difficult transitional period." (1)

But these champions of democratization emphasize obstacles to transitions to democracy rather than obstacles to the stability of democracies afterward. Bush and Blair and authors like Sharansky and Joshua Muravchik repeatedly reject the notion that fully functioning democracies may face more structural obstacles even after they are inaugurated. They especially reject two long-standing claims: that stable democracy requires certain cultural preconditions and that stable democracy is possible only above certain per capita income levels.

There are, indeed, solid grounds for rejecting both: Several democracies have endured in what are, by the standards of these claims, inhospitable cultural and economic contexts. But more often than not, the reasoning of the democratization advocates goes farther, implying that no societal attributes are necessary preconditions for stable democracy. Sharansky, for example, sweepingly rejects the "idea that certain peoples are incapable of democratic self-rule" and the notion that "there are certain cultures and civilizations that are not compatible with democracy." (2) Consistent with this, while some programs of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)--the main U.S. entity tasked with promoting democracy--also seek to strengthen existing democracies, most recent U.S. policies are designed to help tip countries from the authoritarian category to the democratic. (3) That tipping is seen as the biggest challenge.

These advocates offer a powerful justification for their optimism: the universal hunger for liberty. President Bush's letter introducing his 2002 National Security Strategy proclaimed that "People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please." At a November 12, 2004 press conference, Bush said he believed that successful democratization among Palestinians "can happen, because I believe people want to live in a free society." Standing at his side, Blair said that "given the chance, [Iraqis will] want to elect their leaders. Why wouldn't they? I mean, why would they want a strong-arm leader who's going to have the secret police, no freedom of speech, no free press, no human rights, no proper law courts? The people want the freedom." The NED'S "Statement of Principles and Objectives" states that the idea of democracy is "intrinsically attractive to ordinary people throughout the world ... an ideal that billions of people in all parts of the globe revere and aspire to." Sharansky says succinctly that "all peoples desire to be free." (4) These champions seem to be saying that where there is this much will, a way will be found to create stable representative institutions--indeed, that will may be the way, especially once people are offered the opportunity.

But there are compelling reasons to believe that certain structural conditions threaten democracies in ways that cannot be overcome simply by a desire for self-rule.

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