The next president has to promote democracy better

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

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.

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."

That statement is especially revealing because it is not just aspirational, but prescriptive: Islamic governments should listen to the people's hopes. His phrasing stems, in part, from the Republican Party's tendency to lean towards the libertarian in ideology, which assumes that democracies will flourish if authoritarian rulers step out of the way or are forced from power by American might.

If it were that simple, then promoting the ballot through the bullet and removing "evil" regimes would make sense. As we have seen in Baghdad and Kabul, however, forging democracy overseas is more complicated.

Instead of focusing on top-down advocacy through pressure on repressive governments, we must work within societies that lack democratic traditions. From the bottom up, we can help create the conditions for a societal agreement.

The next administration's democracy promotion strategy should reflect this in four ways:

First, it must publicly repudiate Iraq as the model for promoting liberal democracy, which cannot develop in the inevitable chaos that follows military intervention.

Second, Washington has to strengthen its capacity to build a basic democratic framework in places that lack it through global educational initiatives that like checks and balances and protection of minority rights. Building democracy where it does not yet exist requires an understanding of what the system is and how it works.

Third, we must learn to recognize when societies are ripe for change but are held back by authoritarian governments. As the world's superpower, the US has a responsibility to use non-military influence to ease such governments aside.

Finally, we must understand that, given the choice, not all societies interpret democracy as we do in the West. For example, as John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed note in "Who Speaks for Islam?" liberal democrats in the Muslim world do not "require a separation of church and state."

For all its flaws, the Bush administration recognizes that the current course of international aid is unsustainable. Tyranny breeds extremism, while effective promotion of democracy will undercut it.

Rethinking our approach to democracy promotion will ensure that the noble ideals of the "freedom agenda" do not end with the Bush administration and maybe – just maybe – will help prevent the kind of relapse that we saw in Beirut.

William Mensch Evans is a research associate for US foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.