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October 01, 2007

5 Simple Rules for Democracy Promotion
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

(inspired by Moira's post about Burma, below)

1.  It's their democracy.  So shut up, already.  This Administration did considerable harm to democracy activists across the Middle East, as well as the folks who came out of the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia with governing responsibilities, by seeming to take too much credit.  This makes the locals look like puppets (see under:  Iraq) instead of folks who are expressing indigenous forms of an indigenous desire for universal freedoms.  Yes, I want to see this Administration speak loudly and clearly about repression in Burma -- but please, no more chest-thumping about what support we're giving whom.  People who are showing that much determination and courage deserve not to be miscast as our puppets.

2.  Get the money to the right people.  This is the problem with Administration programming for Iran, which shovels money to Iranian-Americans; and with Iraq, which seems to have shoveled money to Ahmed Chalabi and other folks who, it turned out, had absolutely no talent for winning the elections we were so desperate to have.  How to do this effectively?  Refer to Rule No. 1.

3.  Lengthen your time horizonsAung San Suu Kyi has been in military detention 11 of the last 18 years.  She won the Nobel back in 1991.  Nelson Mandela was in prison 27 years.  Transitions to democracy in South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Greece took decades.  Democratization doesn't happen in State-of-the-Union-friendly timespans.

4.  Read the literature.  We actually know quite a bit about what works well -- and what doesn't -- for outsiders who want to support democratic progress.  A great place to start is Tom Carothers' recent monograph on saving democracy promotion from itself -- Democracy Promotion During and After Bush.  His How Democracies Emerge: The Sequencing Fallacy is a nice summary of the last ten years in the literature, for the wonkier among us.

5.  Don't overpromise.  Helping others attain the freedoms we cherish is a noble goal.  It is not, however, a short-term project; even less is it a short-term answer to pragmatic security and economic needs, or even to urgent human rights and humanitarian concerns.


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This post and the one below it are not easy to reconcile.

Moira Whelan writes about the importance of talking the democratization talk, inspiring Heather Hurlburt's remarks about the importance of shutting up. Ms. Whelan is sure that what is happening in Burma looks like "...a good old fashioned revolution where democracy will struggle, and eventually prevail" (where was that the fashion, exactly?), inspiring Ms. Hurlburt to discourse on the importance of lengthening our expectation timelines. This at least sounds like a prudent idea, given than the great majority of Burmese with some memory of living under something that looked like democracy have died of old age.

I know about Burma only a few things beyond that it contains lots of Buddhists and is located just west of Thailand. Nothing I do know about it suggests to me that a democratic revolution there is anywhere on the horizon. It seems to me that public statements by American government officials and those claiming to represent some segment of American public opinion ought to begin by acknowledging this. A better service than American passion and good intentions about promoting a system of government with which the Burmese have scant experience and which the Americans themselves tend to take for granted would be American sources of information of all kinds, as available to people in Burma as we are able to make them and as reliable as we can make them.

American efforts to support greater freedom for the people of Burma need to reflect the limited importance of that country to this country to be worth very much to either. The United States is not prepared to sacrifice very much for democracy in Burma. In that context there are still things that can usefully be done, but we ought to recognize the context explicitly.

I think the resolution to the dilemma of which of the two posts is correct is easy: this one. Democracy is a good thing, but it is not an easy thing; and Bush has made the idea of advancing democracy even harder to boot.
Democracy promotion is also not easy, as this post acknowledges, and the Whelan post was simply over-exuberant.

news report:
Thousands of protesters are dead and the bodies of hundreds of executed monks have been dumped in the jungle, a former intelligence officer for Burma's ruling junta has revealed.

Here's a good one (considering a million dead, four million displaced and thousand in prison in Iraq): Laura Bush--"I want them to know that the rest of the world does condemn these actions of the Burmese government, the harassment and jailing of political peaceful demonstrators. All these demonstrators want is for the government to be responsive to them."

I share Zathras's good thoughts. We Americans, like the Swiss and the Brazilians and the French and the Egyptians, have limited leverage and limited interests in Myanmar. There are (increasing) limits to American hegemony, particularly in China's sphere of influence. Call it Burmese exceptionalism.

Rule 6: Don't sacrifice American lives for democracy abroad.

Heather I think this post is great and dead on. Never did I mean to suggest that US forces should take an overly active roll in bringing about democracy in Burma. I do however--I believe like you--think that voicing support is important. I also believe in the mechanisms we have present to help--NGOs, AID programs etc. Further, I think your points about the limited US contributions--especially in light of our global standing--can actually harm rather than help these efforts.

To your readers, my point about a "good old fashioned revolution" was in reference to a genuine desire for democratization rather than a power shift that is masked as a revolution as we sometimes witness in other nations. It's going to be a long and painful process in Burma, much as it has been for them over the years, still the images are compelling and the spirit of those involved should be actively embraced.

I know you weren't talking about using US troops, Moira. But in this environment, I feel the need to say it's off the table whenever we talk about peacekeeping or democratizing anything. I'm just an extremist on that issue.

The administration didn't take too much credit for the Orange and Rose revolutions, because the people "with governing responsibilities" there were puppets. That's not to say that there weren't a lot of people who authentically wanted a more democratic government, but they were used by power-hungry politicians backed by the U.S. government as part of an ongoing effort to weaken Russia.

I think it's naive to claim that the U.S. government is interested in promoting democracy per se. What they're interested in is creating governments that 1) are more easily manipulated to promote U.S. interests, and/or 2) less easily manipulated to promote the interests of states who stand in the way of American hegemony (e.g., Russia).

Case in point: our support for Georgia, which is now busy trying to build a military, with our support, capable of forcing breakaway states like Abkhazia back into their control. Why is Georgia deserving of independence but not Abkhazia? Could it be that Abkhazia leans towards Russia? Mind you, I'm not making a judgment here one way or the other (Russia is doubtless doing the exact same thing there, for the same reasons), just pointing out that unless you look at "democracy promotion" through the lens of nation-state power politics, you can't really understand what's going on.

If one really wants to help a people to democracy, clear vision is the first step. Otherwise one spends one's effort against windmills, and no one profits.

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