The Struggle for Democracy

Article excerpt

PRESIDENT GEORGE Bush's promotion of democracy has become the unifying and driving principle of his administration's global foreign policy and the stated objective of the costly and controversial military effort in Iraq. The administration has talked about enfranchising individuals in all corners of the world, admittedly with a growing sense of unease, from Venezuela to Zimbabwe to Palestine.

Enthusiasm for democracy is not limited to the corridors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Many Americans have come to see the spread of democracy around the world as part of their national identity, even though that pursuit has never been the driving force of foreign policy in the past. A zeal for spreading democracy is the emerging zeitgeist of the 21st century, replacing the egalitarian imperative that prevailed in (and convulsed) the later 20th century.

Policy analysts today are less inclined to wander into tactical-strategic muddles in which "good" dictators are supported against bad ones and alliances with enemies of our enemies are promoted. The realpolitik approach has lost currency and is no longer the benchmark against which to measure foreign policy strategies. It is also being aggressively fought as an applied theory and as a cultural force.

And yet there is still no consensus, either within the administration or American society, about what constitutes a democracy. The world's only superpower is rhetorically and militarily promoting a political system that remains undefined--and it is staking its credibility and treasure on that pursuit. Little wonder that the administration's democratic strategy for establishing stability and equity in the Middle East invites confusion, if not outright derision.

Leading political theorists offer competing definitions of democracy--and there is much at risk in the competition. There is an implicit sense that policymakers will be guided and influenced by the most galvanizing definition of democracy. A widely accepted definition could be central to how the administration identifies its policy goals beyond Iraq in coming years. But the administration must be wary of limiting itself to a policy blueprint. It should draw from existing theories and definitions of democracy to guide, but not prescribe, policy.

WITHOUT QUESTION, the global struggle for leadership in defining democracy is as ideological as it is political or economic. Leading thinkers on democratic theory offer definitions that identify political, cultural and distributive paradigms.

Democracy as a "political thesis" is best and brilliantly distilled by the works of Robert A. Dahl of Yale University. Dahl's intellectual talents match his modesty. In a statement that appears in the Summer 2005 issue of Political Science Quarterly, he richly describes why political institutions are necessary for democracy. Dahl focuses on "effective participation", which puts him in the camp of the Enlightenment vision, in which legislation and education are fused as the source of democratic wisdom. In the classic tradition of the French Enlightenment, Dahl holds that legislation and education are the building blocks for democracy.

Dahl further insists that individual ability and the freedom to change the direction of events through political involvement--without incurring a retaliatory backlash from the state--is critical to democracy. He argues, though, that a democracy goes beyond the freedoms of street mobilization or electoral participation and requires also the building of democratic institutions. What is compelling in Dahl's formulation is its maintenance of democracy as a universal concept, rather than a nationalist belief in special conditions for democracy predicated on racial, religious or local criteria. In contrast, Middle East leaders do not deny or reject the idea of democracy; they simply qualify it with phrases like "Egyptian Democracy" or the "Muslim grounds for equality. …