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September 24, 2006

Democracy after Bush: 10 Lessons for Progressives
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

One major piece of fallout from the Bush foreign policy era is the discrediting of America's role in promoting democracy around the world.  A few days ago, I heard a Senate candidate recounting what I assume was a line he uses on the stump; something to the effect that by making the mistake of holding elections amid a population that suffers from poor education, an absence of civic institutions, and no tradition of the rule of law, you will wind up with Hamas in power.   

While Americans are right to conclude that elections alone do not a democracy make, this does not mean its wrong to support free elections in places that fall well short of the criteria for full-fledged democracy.   Here are 10 conclusions I draw after 10 years of democracy promotion the Bush way:

1.  The U.S. must remain at the forefront of promoting democracy worldwide - The hangover of the Bush years will lead many to urge retreat from efforts to advance democracy in farflung places, on grounds that such work is costly, dangerous, and bound to fail.  While the impulse is understandable, this would be a huge mistake.  America's role in fostering democracy and aiding democrats the world over helped fuel us to superpowerdom during the first half the twentieth century, and keep us there during the second.  This drive was behind many of America's greatest contributions to the international system - including the creation of the multilateral order and the rise of great democracies on all continents.  We cannot throw the baby of democracy promotion out with the bathwater of Bush Administration policies.

2.  Democracy is not the same as pro-Americanism - One of the rationales behind American support for democracy is the idea that Democratic regimes are more inclined to support the US.  While this is true in the long term, the effect is neither immediate nor universal, as we've learned the hard way in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and - arguably - Iran.  Where there are longstanding grievances, immediate resentments, and/or political elements who rally support based on anti-Western and anti-American agendas, the democracy won't necessarily temper these sentiments.  Americans need to understand that fostering democracies around the world will benefit US interests over time, and not to expect immediate gratification in the form of pro-US governments.

3.  Democracy delayed will be seen as democracy denied - The US cannot afford to take the position that where democratic elections may result in the rise of extremist or anti-US elements, such elections should be indefinitely postponed.  If there are reasons to believe feasible, relatively quick steps can be taken to foster more free and fair elections, there may be nothing wrong with advocating that those happen first.  But a position that only once US-friendly parties are poised for victory does a population deserve to elect its own government will be seen as self-serving and hypocritical. 

4.  Elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy - Rather than downplaying the importance of elections, US policymakers should place more emphasis on dimensions like the development of democratic institutions; the building of an independent judiciary; freedom of the press and of expression; civic education; a firm state monopoly on the use of force, and more.  These get short shrift because they take more money and time, and don't provide the same photo ops as peasants waving ink-stained fingers in the air.  In Eastern Europe and elsewhere, the US, other Western governments and international bodies have gained experience promoting a full range of democratic accouterments.  We need to get to work as energetically in these areas as we do in the business of holding elections.

5.  Pro-democracy and anti-corruption must go hand-in-hand - The big lesson of Hamas' victory is not that elections were a bad idea, but that West's erred glaringly in failure to ensure that the previous Fatah-led government provided adequate levels of law and order and social services to sustain its hold on power.   By most accounts, Hamas' win reflected less popular extremism than abject frustration with the corruption and ineptitude of the Fatah regime.  Similar tendencies are reportedly behind Hezbollah's popularity in Lebanon.   It is no surprise, and is laudable, that voters prize competence and reject corruption.  The West needs to do what it can to ensure that they don't need to vote in violent extremists in order to get them.

6.  Democracy must be seen as homegrown - It seems obvious that a system of self-rule cannot be imposed from the outside, though evidently not so to team Bush.  Democratization processes that start with invasions and occupations risk tainting the gift of the democracy as something that's being rammed down a society's throat.  The challenge, admittedly, lies in situations where local democratic advocates are so weak and/or repressed that there are few avenues for channeling aid and support to engender democratic progress under an existing regime.

7.  You can't eat political freedom, nor hide behind it - Populations that are hungry, destitute, or terrorized by violence may well have priorities that come before political freedom.   If democratization fails to address people's most basic needs, they will be miserable and restive irrespective of the sanctity of their right to vote.  If those promoting democracy, including the US, are oblivious to issues of popular welfare, their political agenda will be suspect.  This is not to say they are worse off because of democracy, but rather that irrespective of the indicia of democracy, their political system and social fabric will remain deeply vulnerable until these fundamental needs are met.  This is why President Bush's constant mantra about the march of democracy in Iraq rings so hollow.

8.  Democracy must coexist with, not trump, cultural and religious heritage - Tricky but true, if democracy is seen as overriding deeply-held cultural and religious beliefs, it will be rejected in many quarters.  In places ranging from South Africa to Afghanistan, clever innovations have been developed to envelop tribal and religious leaders into democratic governance structures, so that democracy is viewed as compatible with traditional beliefs.  By showing that we understand this, we can make American-supported pro democracy efforts better accepted.

9.  Populations that resist authoritarianism at home will reject it on the world stage as well - The same instincts that lead populations to overthrow dictators and demand a say over their affairs cause them to resent American policy diktats in the global arena, and to insist on more multilateral approaches.  The rise of democracy around the world, and the importance of the US being seen at the vanguard of spreading democracy mandate corresponding shifts in our foreign policy.  For more on that, read this. 

10.  Proponents of democracy will see their own democracies held up to scrutiny - Ever since the US began assertively promoting the spread of democracy, skeptics around the world have pointed to flaws in our own system.  This happened during the Eisenhower era when American policies on race were exposed as an affront to our own professed values, and more recently in the scandals that have surrounded Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Hurricane Katrina.  To serve as a beacon for democracy around the globe, the US must be prepared to hold itself to a higher standard at home.  Fortunately, most Americans would prefer to hold to such a standard anyway.

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The underlying assumption here, again, is that "the USA knows best" when non-Americans know that this is hooey. Foreigners aren't stupid. Believe it or not, they are often better educated and better informed than Americans are about what's going on in the world. Knowing the American government and its record in world affairs, they tend to say to us: "We like you Americans but we don't like your government." So while your ideas for promoting democracy are logical and well-thought out, everyone in the world will judge the message by the disrepute of the messenger.

In the words of Dan Kervick on another thread (the man's a genius--he expresses my thoughts exactly): "One might want to reflect on the many ways in which civilized corners of the world view the American system as lacking in or harmful to freedom. . . Why not just speak to the world about how we plan to work with them as equals in the search for solutions to common problems . . . "

Another genius--Rick Steves, the travel guy: "I was raised thinking the world was a pyramid with the USA on top and everyone else trying to get there. I believed our role in the world was to help other people get it right…American style. If they didn't understand that, we'd get them a government that did. My country seemed to lead the world in "self-evident" and "god-given" truths. . . . In later years I met intelligent people — nowhere near as rich, free or blessed with opportunity as I was — who wouldn't trade passports. They were thankful to be Nepali, Moroccan, Turkish, Nicaraguan, or whatever…and I was perplexed.. . .Travel has sharpened both my love of what America stands for and my connection with our world. . . While I've found no easy answers, I spend more time than ever searching. The world needs America the beautiful. But lately, the world sees America as more aggressive and materialistic than beautiful. . . our aggressive policies play merciless hard ball with the basket-case economies of desperately poor countries. Most of the world's forty poorest nations have debts to the rich world (primarily the USA ) so big that roughly half of their national budgets are spent paying the interest. . . .I like Europe's approach to homeland security. That involves a well-educated electorate, a healthy environment, and the maintenance of civil liberties. It considers quality housing, nutrition, health care and education a birthright. It expects a government to work for corporations only by working for people first. And Europeans take a multilateral approach to world problems."

Thank you for this. I took the liberty of capturing the whole list for my blog. Hope it's okay.
Do you ever feel like a kindergarten teacher?
Some lessons are so plain and simple it is almost embarrassing to hold them up to an adult.

This is all very vague and theoretical, Suzanne. Could you present more details? It's hard for me to determine what sorts of things I would be willing to support without a more precise understanding of what specific policy proposals are lurking behind terms like "promoting", "fostering", "supporting" and "aiding".

Your appeal starts off badly in point #1, by combining support for the ideal of democracy with support for the thoroughly undemocratic ideal of "superpowerdom". This embrace of opposites is, in my view, one main source of the declining credibility of our current crop of democracy promotion advocates. As long as that incoherence is part of the message, skeptics will justifiably suspect that democracy is, for these self-styled US democracy promoters, only a superficial ideal, masking a deeper US will to power and domination.

A system built around a superpower, surrounded by allied great powers, lesser powers and finally the weak is simply not a democratic system. It is much more similar ro a medieval feudal system of king, nobles, vassals and serfs - at best. At worst it is simply an oligarchy or aristoctatic despotism. No matter how much you dress up the kingly role with euphemisms like "quarterback", "primacy", "leadership", etc., the world's people undertand that any aspiration to perpetual primacy gives the lie to professions of democratic idealism.

Now maybe you believe that global democracy promotion requires a superpower vanguard practicing a very undemocratic form of global governemnt to usher the world through the revolutionary era. But given the way countless revolutions have turned out in the past, with the supposedly idealistic revolutionaries evolving into a perpetual dictatorship, perhaps you could say more about how your own democracy promotion agenda will aim at a truly democratic international order?

You say "democracy must be seen as homegrown." The use of the word "seem" here strikes me as coy. But the fact remains that it will be very hard for any parties to achieve credibility in their home countries if they are the beneficiaries of privileged foreign aid. What would we think here about parties who were receiving massive amounts of "aid" from foreign countries.

Because US foreign policy is currently seen as both ideologically heavy-handed and driven by a quest for expanded global power, we will be hampered in working together with other countries toward common goals that cut wide swaths across ideological boundaries. Most of the world's people, whether they are inclined to support democracy or some other system, are opposed to butchery, for example. But the assertive US push to spread its power and its ideology is creating a global power balancing backlash. This leaves places like Darfur caught in the crossfire of great power rivalry.

I'm still inclined to think we should focus on the most pronounced and universally recognized global evils: violence, destitution, pestilence, corruption and exploitation, environmental degradation and catastrophe, and pitched competition for scarce resources. Where political ideology is concerned, we need to back off.

Yes. Promote democracy by practicing it multilaterally and in world bodies like the United Nations, The World Court and the World Bank, and in multinational pacts like the Geneva Accords and the Kyoto Protocol. Don't be unilateral or patriarchial. Listen more and talk less.

Why don't we start with this? Let's get ideas from similar organizations in other countries. What do they think? What should we be doing? One world. The World Democracy Arsenal-working for world peace and security.

Whew--promoting world democracy is a large topic. Some places to start:

WORLD MOVEMENT for DEMOCRACY
The Transatlantic Democracy Network
African Democracy Forum


Dear Suzanne,

As english is not my mother language, please forgive my mistakes.

It is certainly laudable to propose solutions for a better world thanks the United States of America.

The problem seems immediate to me when you begin by saying that "America's role in fostering democracy and aiding democrats the world over helped fuel us to superpowerdom during the first half the twentieth century, and keep us there during the second."

Sorry Suzanne, but you are swimming deeply in your own mythology.

Do you seriousely believe that the USA became a superpower just by "fostering democracy and aiding democrats the world over..."?
Are you really so naïve?
Just go and tell that to the people of Vietnam, Indonesia, Guatemala, Columbia, Bolivia, Chili, Iran, Haïti, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Salvador, Cuba, ... (find yourself other examples). At the best, those people will kindly laugh.

As a European, I thank your country to have helped us against the Nazis but I hardly believe this move was just to give back freedom to my parents (never heard of Pearl Harbour?).
On that point, I can also thank the ugly Staline and the USSR which made at least half of the job.

Whatever the reasons were, I stay gratefull. But not candid.

So, if you want to propose solutions (and I thank you for that), please do not begin with premices that the majority of the world do not share.

When the Americans repetedly present themselves as the big defenders or promotors of democracy all around the world, it sounds very very fake and hypocritical for many many people outside your own country, people who are not especially "anti-american". They just read and open their eyes.

Do you remember this person saying on the 9/11: "Why are they hating us?".

Maybe you should begin by answering that question and remember that your problem did not begin with Bush'presidency. He just worsened it.

And think about this: what to think about a country which impeached one of his presidents because he was a liar (what everybody knew, the problem was that he lied at the wrong moment at the wrong place) and seems to do little about another who, among other things, lied and bring you into no less than a war?

Must I precise that I have no rabic anti-U.S. feeling ?

I just think the US, as anybody but with more power, are able to do the best as the worse. Since Bush's era, I hardly can see the best. The existence of opponents to his politic is a very small consolation. Even if I admire their fight, I consider it is the least I can wait from the American citizens even if the struggle is hard.

Anyway, dear Suzanne, consider all this as a feeling more than an argue.

About your wrong premices, was it Woody Allen who said that even a broken clock gives the right time twice a day?

Just a joke... Do believe I'am on your side.

Best regards

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