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America's got to end its deadly devotion to democracy

Washington needs to rid itself of the politically correct attitude that all nations are capable of becoming sustainable democracies.

By Gerard DeGroot / September 15, 2009

St. Andrews, Scotland

Usama Rehda is a photographer who lives in Baghdad. Crossing his city to ply his trade means running a gantlet of bandits, extortionists, and snipers, not to mention suicide bombers. While he once despised Saddam Hussein, he admits that life was easier under the dictator. "You know what they say," he remarked to a colleague bitterly. "Be nice to the Americans or they'll punish you with democracy."

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America needs to rid itself of the hopelessly naive attitude that all nations are capable of becoming sustainable democracies.

"What's so good about having the vote?" veteran BBC foreign correspondent Humphrey Hawksley asks in his new book, "Democracy Kills." In Britain, Japan, and the United States, the answer is easy. In the developing world, however, identifying the benefits of democracy can be anything but.

In the Ivory Coast, for instance, democracy and its sidekick – free market economics – have brought political instability and economic ruin. Cocoa producers are paid the same for a kilo of beans as 30 years ago, even though the price of a chocolate bar has risen fourfold. Adults have the vote, but their children are essentially slaves.

Mr. Hawksley's book is a chronicle of how economic despair leads to political alienation and often violence. There's nothing new to that story, but what is surprising – uncomfortably so – is this: Evidence shows that attempts to democratize the developed world have made internal tensions much worse. Often, as in Iraq, voting actually offers a new forum for acting out ancient animosities.

During the cold war, the US supported brutal dictators overseas in the interest of political stability. In contrast, since 1989, Americans have tried to stabilize developing nations by creating governments similar to their own. Ballots have become a substitute for aid, a policy the foreign correspondent Misha Glenny calls "kumbaya politics." The theory seems noble, but the practice often facilitates poverty, disease, exploitation, and murder.

When democracy mixes with poverty the result is often explosive – literally. The Oxford academic Paul Collier proposed in "Wars, Guns and Votes" a formula to explain this volatile chemistry. He believes that the critical point lies at a per capita income of $2,700 per year. Below that level, democracy has a difficult time taking root.