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.