Academic journal article Policy Review

The Roots of Democracy

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Roots of Democracy

Article excerpt

HAILED AS THE key to the solution of poverty, corruption, bad governance and, last but not least, terrorism, spreading democracy around the globe has become the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11. Unfortunately, however, this enterprise is at risk because most of our policymakers have a poor understanding of the economic and institutional landscape that is most favorable to the extension of political liberties and free elections.

The experience of the past two years in Iraq shows that simply removing the old governing elite and holding elections is unlikely to suffice to establish a peaceful democracy. On the other hand, realizing that political freedom will not happen at a snap of our fingers should not draw us into holding a fatalistic, and equally mistaken, view that democracy is impossible in that region of the world. There does not seem to be anything inherent in Islam or even Arab culture that blocks the introduction of free elections in the Middle East. It is worth remembering that not many years ago Catholicism was (wrongly) believed to thwart liberal institutions in Southern Europe and Latin America.

To make sense of the plight of Iraq, the Middle East and, for that matter, broad swaths of the developing world, we must understand first the nature of the democratic game. Democracy is a mechanism of decision in which, to a large extent, everything is up for grabs at each electoral contest. The majority of the day may choose to redraw property rights or alter the institutional and taxation landscape, thus dramatically reorganizing the entire social and economic fabric of the country. Hence, democracies survive only when all sides show restraint in their demands and accept the possibility of losing the election. In the Middle East, where inequality is rampant and wealth often derives from well-defined and easy-to-expropriate assets such as oil wells and other mineral resources, democracy poses an undeniable threat to those who profit from the authoritarian status quo. Not surprisingly, the minority in control of the state will be relentless in opposing the introduction of free elections. Thus, it is not nationalism or even religious animosities that explain the current violence in Iraq--but rather oil, its geographical distribution, and the loss of its political control by the Sunni minority that monopolized the state until two years ago.

This diagnosis has very straightforward implications for any democratization strategy. Since the absence of democracy in the Arab world and, for that matter, in regions such as Africa and Central Asia derives from a particular distribution of wealth and power, this distribution must first change (or be changed) for democracy to flourish. This in turn means that democratization is possible everywhere--that is, there are no inherent cultural, psychological, or national-character reasons that block the attainment of political freedom anywhere. But it also means that its success is much harder than many wish to believe.

Idealists versus realists

BROADLY SPEAKING, THERE are today two competing schools of thought on the underlying forces that have pushed for and delivered democracy around the world--and which, for the sake of brevity, we may choose to label as "idealist" and "realist." Both are, however, mistaken.

Idealists, who currently seem to enjoy the media's ear, explain today's democratic momentum in a way that is strikingly similar to how past democratization waves were portrayed by their contemporary publicists. The triumph of democracy, the argument goes, is rooted in a universal yearning, intimately connected with the best part of human nature, that should lead to blossoming liberal institutions once we knock down the stifling cliques and institutions of the past. To support their claim, they point to the impressive strides made by democracy in recent decades. By 2000 there were around 100 democracies--almost twice the number in 1989 and about three times as many as there were just after World War II (see Figure 1). …

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