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The next president has to promote democracy better

Amid democratic recession, the US must rethink its freedom agenda.

By William Mensch Evans / May 27, 2008


The bloody fighting in Beirut this month is just the latest setback for democracy around the world. Wielding overwhelming force, Hezbollah pressured Lebanon's democratically elected cabinet to rescind orders that banned the terrorist group's private communication network. It also compelled the reinstatement of the airport's chief of security, an important Hezbollah ally.

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The antidemocratic backsliding in Lebanon is part of a broader trend. Consider recent events: Georgia's democratically elected president declared a state of emergency in the face of massive protests last November. In Ukraine, after the 2004 pro-democratic "Orange Revolution" ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, the autocratic tendencies of his successor, Viktor Yushchenko, fueled the former president's surprising comeback in recent elections. Neither Viktor's commitment to democracy is clear.

These setbacks have become further evidence that the world is mired in what sociologist Larry Diamond recently called the "democratic recession."

In the light of this "recession," it is time to rethink the past 25 years of American assumptions about democracy promotion, which the US is approaching from the wrong direction. US policymakers should view democracy not just as a right, but as a choice.

A functioning democracy requires a society-wide agreement not to resort to violence as the result of regularly scheduled, potentially destabilizing power transitions (more commonly called elections).

As we learn with each roadside bomb in Baghdad, this "fragile agreement" can be easily disrupted by tiny aggrieved groups. In a functioning democracy, such chaos is prevented by intuitional concepts like checks and balances that disperse political power and protect the rights of minorities. Democracy simply cannot function without virtually every citizen joining the agreement.

The United States began emphasizing universal democratic rights as a central tenet of its foreign policy around 1980. "Freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings," President Reagan wrote in 1982.

The trend accelerated after the end of the cold war. President Bush picked up on it in 2002, in a speech that claimed that "the peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes."