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.

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."

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.

The destitute blame the government for their plight and, since voting alone does not bring improvement, they inevitably see violence as a better way to make a point. In contrast, in societies above that level, citizens have a stake in the system and are therefore much more determined that it should succeed. The voter with a stable job and a secure place to live is a signatory to the social contract understood by Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose political philosophy underlay the French Revolution.

The possibility that "democracy kills" should not come as a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to events in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Zimbabwe. It should, nevertheless, be stressed that the fault lies not with the idea but with its implementation. Democracy, unlike cake and coffee, does not come in "instant." Success should not be measured by the speed with which elections are arranged.

A lesson lies in the experience of Germany and Japan after World War II. The US began planning reconstruction well before the war was over, and accepted that political reform would have to be accompanied by comprehensive economic development. Yet if that sort of slow mentoring and management (not to mention money) seemed essential back then, why has a much more impatient, poorly planned approach been taken to the infinitely more complex problems of Africa and the Middle East?

Anastasio Somoza, the brutal Nicaraguan dictator deposed in 1979, once told a reporter: "I would like nothing better than to give Nicaraguans the same kind of freedom as that of the United States. But it is like what you do with a baby. First you give it milk by drops, then more and more, then a little piece of pig, and finally it can eat everything ... You have to teach them to use freedom." Somoza was a vile character, worthy of derision. Yet on that point he was probably right. Democracy is a culture; it has to be learned. Europeans, remember, took centuries to get it right.

We need to rid ourselves of the politically correct attitude that all people are capable of immediately becoming good democrats, or at least should be allowed to make their own mistakes. As the experience in Germany and Japan demonstrated, building democracy cannot be rushed. It must be accompanied by sustained economic development. And, most of all, it cannot be achieved at the point of a gun.

To be sure, helping facilitate a new democracy is tricky business. Development, or teaching people democracy, can look suspiciously like neo-colonialism. There's a fine line between husbandry and hegemony – those at the sharp end cannot always tell the difference. What is clear, however, is that ballots by themselves are not a panacea. Unless the job is done well, it should not be done at all.

Gerard DeGroot teaches 20th century British and American history, and has published 11 books on its various aspects. He is currently writing an international history of the 1970s.

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