One might expect that everyone in the world would support the spread of democracy. After all, it supports economic development and diminishes violence – both between democratic states, and internally, by reducing state violence against citizens.
But not everyone likes democracy. It always surprises me to hear a nice person underestimate its value, but I encounter that experience quite often. What I want to explore, then, is why so many people nowadays actually oppose the promotion of democracy.
Probably most of their misgivings concern the processes by which democracy is being spread to other countries nowadays. There are two main methods.
In the first approach, a belligerent democratic country (usually the United States) militarily attacks a non-democratic country or carries out a covert operation to overthrow its authoritarian rulers and usher in a democracy that is expected to be more pliant. The histories of Iraq and Iran offer several examples that are fresh in our memories. The results are unfavorable. Even if a democratic regime is successfully imposed through the use of violence or manipulation by the CIA, we no longer expect it to take root. Failure is so frequent that public opinion around the world has come to consider it better to leave a dictatorship alone than try to impose a democracy on it.
But the second (and fortunately more common) approach by which democracies arise nowadays is through grassroots popular movements. A recent study published by Freedom House revealed that more than 70 percent of the democratic transitions during the last phase of democratization’s third wave have been the outcome of organized civil protests. Since the Ukrainianrevolution of 2004-2005 these uprisings are being called “color revolutions” — orange, rose, and lately in Burma, “saffron.”
Of course, not all of these opposition movements succeed in ousting the dictator or establishing a good democratic government in power; in fact, one must all too often feel disappointed in the outcome. However, the Freedom House study reports that the transitions toward democracy that have resulted from these popular grass-roots movements have been markedly more successful in establishing genuine freedom than those in which the change was initiated from the top by the rulers themselves. (I think, for example, that the reason why Russia has reverted to authoritarian governance is that it was Gorbachev, not a popular movement, that initiated the democratic reforms. If people do not claim democracy for themselves, others cannot easily give it to them.)
Organizing a democratic opposition movement is always difficult in an authoritarian regime. The dictators invariably suppress the kind of public discussion that would enable citizens to mobilize against them. Today the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, North Korean, and other authoritarian rulers are especially intent upon preventing any color revolution in their own countries.
And in this regard they are becoming quite successful. In previous years one could reasonably expect that economic development would, by itself, automatically lead to democracy. That is no longer necessarily the case. The regimes are systematically the flow of information among citizens by censoring television and other news outlets, tapping phones, and officially monitoring e-mail and Internet communications. Yahoo now complies with the Chinese government’s demand for information about certain dissident users; as a result, several democratic organizers have been sent to prison.
To organize a non-violent pro-democracy movement is not costly, when compared to armed resistance movements, but it does require access to means of communication and an opportunity to plan strategies. Other countries can help. There are foundations in a number of countries that operate with government funding, but at arms-length from the government, so that their support cannot be controlled by any particular party or politically powerful interest group. In Canada, this organization is the Montreal-based group, Rights and Democracy. In the United States, there is the National Endowment for Democracy. In Britain there’s the Westminster Foundation. In Sweden there’s the Olof Palme Foundation. The European Union itself is now founding such an organization, notably with the support of the former Czech president Vaclav Havel. Norway spends large sums helping nonviolent movements in dictatorships, for example by funding a radio station that broadcasts into Burma in various Burmese languages. The US organization gave $25 million to the group of young people called Otpor who organized the movement that ousted Milosevic. This was many months after the US had failed to oust that authoritarian ruler by bombing Belgrade. Finally, they had learned how to do it right.
Nor surprisingly, dictatorships are trying to limit the influence of these foundations. For example, Russia does not license these government-funded democracy support organizations to set up offices, nor for that matter even similar, but privately-funded, groups such as the Soros Foundation.
Though these actions on the part of dictators must be expected, what is surprising is that so many fine citizens living in democracies such as Canada are also ambivalent or even opposed to supporting nonviolent pro-democracy movements abroad. I have to count many of my friends among these critics.
I think their misgivings arise from understandable reactions against the Bush administration’s repeated calls for “regime change” in dictatorial countries — meaning violent intervention by a US-led coalition. We have learned that violent methods are worse than useless.
Nonviolent movements must always reflect the will of the people themselves, not outsiders. A pro-democracy movement can never succeed, even if it is given unlimited money from abroad, unless it truly represents the wishes of its own citizenry. And, as recent experience shows, Canada and other democratic countries cannot help by sending military supplies or troops. Cell phones, radio transmitters, computers, and photocopiers, yes. Tanks and helicopters, no. We can help by increasing the range of choice available to them , but the people must be in charge of their democracy movement themselves, if it is to succeed.
The goal of promoting democracy has been tainted by association with the US military approach. If you speak of helping spread democracy nowadays, you may be considered some kind of right-wing zealot. That is unfortunate. The people of Burma, for example, need our support. The world will be better for all of us when everyone enjoys freedom and has some influence over the decisions made by their government.
So we need to renew our commitment to democracy everywhere in the world. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system. Indeed, as Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst form of government except all the others that have ever been tried. That’s good enough for me.