We are in a period now that is aptly called a “backlash against democracy promotion.” I ran into these misgivings everywhere in Russia — and, much to my distress, I hear it expressed among my progressive Canadian friends too.
There are two very different narratives about the spread of democracy that apparently clash. The positive narrative had been accepted almost everywhere in the world until recently, especially among left liberals, but obviously there is no longer any consensus about it.
Let me back up a bit and start with Samuel Huntington, who famously charted the course of democratization in 1991. He found that democracy has became established in the modern world in three successive waves, each one followed by a reverse wave or slump as some of the democratic countries regressed to authoritarian rule.
The first wave began in Western Europe and North America and lasted from 1826 to 1926. A second, shorter wave occurred after World War II, largely reflecting the end of colonialism. This was followed by another decline of democracy in the 1960s and early 1970s. The third wave — the largest of all — began in 1974 when the Portuguese dictatorship ended and became even stronger after the 1989 collapse of Communism. Only during the past few years have we entered the current post-third-wave reversal of democracy.
The most meticulous counting of democratic states is carried on by Freedom House, an organization that Eleanor Roosevelt (see photo) and Wendell Willkie founded in 1941 to advocate democracy, freedom, and human rights. It supports much research and, for the past 36 years has surveyed all countries, rating each state on two scales — political rights and civil liberties — with 1 representing the most and 7 representing the least freedom. Each country’s score is based on about 200 items, many referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is assigned by dozens of analysts and consultants, some in the New York headquarters and some overseas. As a summary measure, it classifies these countries as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”
The historic trend is definitely encouraging. In 1900 one could have counted fewer than a dozen democratic countries in the world. In 2007, however, Freedom House rated 92 countries as “free,” while deeming 60 “partly free” and 43 as “not free.”
However, the short term trend is disappointing. According to a report that Freedom House released on July 2, “the year 2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom. Furthermore, results for 2007 marked the second consecutive year in which the survey registered a decline in freedom, representing the first two-year setback in the past 15 years.”
Moreover, these numerical changes are matched by an ideological shift; democracy is simply not as popular today as fifteen years ago, when Francis Fukuyama announced that it had become the only form of government that is recognized as legitimate world-wide. In those post-Communist years, even the most wretched regimes were calling themselves democratic and hoping no one would notice their violations.
The Case for Democracy
I am a democrat. I will neither disguise my political commitments nor pretend to be neutral when presenting the two contrasting analyses of democracy. The positive narrative is far easier for me to tell than the critical one.
Yet I’ll admit readily that decisions made through democratic procedures are not necessarily wiser than the judgments that dictators make. The United States, for example, has a deservedly bad reputation in the world now because of the ghastly policies of its duly-elected government. (Okay, so Bush Jr. wasn’t really elected democratically. I take back that example. But you will agree that other legitimately elected governments often make mistakes. I’m thinking of the current Canadian government, for instance, which has done little to prevent climate change.)
The reason for preferring democracy is not that the policy outcomes are reliably superior, but rather that it allows for maximum freedom and greatest scope for human rights and political equality. Participating in even an imperfect democracy is better than being subordinate to an authoritarian ruler.
And all democracies are imperfect, to some degree or other. The creation of democratic institutions is a work in progress. The possibilities for improvement are infinite, even in those states that now score 1 on Freedom House’s seven-point rating scheme. Democratization is like going East. If you travel East forever, there will still remain plenty of East ahead of you. Nevertheless, some countries are east of others and some countries are more democratic than others. Such comparative differences matter.
Democracy has not always been admired. Indeed, as Michael Mandelbaum points out, “for most of recorded history, even including much of the history that followed the French Revolution liberty and popular sovereignty were widely seen not only as separate, but as incompatible.” Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous travelogue, Democracy in America, was a search for ways to protect liberty from the “tyranny of the majority,” an issue that still becomes worrisome at times. Today we recognize that proper democracy must include, as a defining trait, measures that protect the rights of minorities from rule by the majority. Free and fair elections are not sufficient to qualify a state as democratic.
With the aforementioned caveats, I insist — and probably most people around the world agree today — that democracy is the only acceptable approach to governance, and that nothing less should be tolerated by any population. I can think of no higher calling than the work of assisting people who live under a dictatorship to gain maximum control over the conditions of their own lives.
To be sure, cultural relativists of all types argue that only arrogant Western imperialists prize democracy, but this is not the case. There are other excellent grounds for preferring accountable, representative democratic governance over other systems.
For one thing, democracy goes hand in hand with economic development A higher GDP per capita correlates with democracy. Indeed, as Adam Przeworski has shown, not one of the richest democracies has ever been observed to fall into authoritarianism. This association is so strong that many scholars believe that as economic development progresses, democratization becomes inevitable — if we support a country’s economic growth, political liberalization will necessarily follow.
However, correlation does not prove causality. For one thing, you also need to know which variable is supposedly the cause and which the effect. Does democracy cause capitalism, or does capitalism increase the prospects for democracy? In attempting to answer this question, one 1998 study used Freedom House’s longitudinal data and found that the answer is the latter. A high GDP/capital increases political freedom, but not the converse. Political freedom (democracy) does not increase GDP/capita. If your country gets rich, it has a good chance of becoming democratic. But if it becomes democratic first (as occasionally occurs) you should not necessarily expect it to become rich as a result — though it may.
Still there is another advantage that you will almost certainly gain if your oppressed country becomes democratic: greater opportunity for peace. Probably the best-established connection that I have ever observed as a social scientist between two variables is that fully-established democracies do not go to war against other democracies. Violence may occur in a fledgling democracy, but rarely in a well-established one. Democracies go to war against authoritarian governments, and authoritarian government go to war against each other, but democracies do not go to war against other democracies. Imagine this: If all countries became democracies, that would put an end to international warfare! There still might be internal (“civil”) wars, but even those are less severe than in un-democratic regimes. And, as Rudolph Rummel has shown, the incidence of “democide” (the killing by a government of its own citizens) is exceedingly high in dictatorships, but vastly reduced in democracies. Hence democratization is an immensely valuable peace-building measure. It is probably the most promising project for peace activists to undertake.
One might even assume — and I do — that helping the repressed inhabitants of an authoritarian or totalitarian country to gain democracy through nonviolent means would be a magnificent gift to humankind. But that view is not shared everywhere, either in liberal democracies such as Canada or in authoritarian systems such as Russia. There are many misgivings now in this “backlash” period, on several different grounds.
Is There a Case Against Democracy?
Quite often I find myself speechless when I hear some of my good friends talking about democracy. I am a left-liberal on the political spectrum and most of my friends have similar sentiments, so it stuns me to hear their dismissive attitude toward democracy. Some of them are democratic socialists whose values can be traced back to their youthful affairs with Marxism. Others seem to be animated by worthy aspirations toward tolerance. They regard the affirmation of democracy as akin to some kind of religious fundamentalism, whereas any broad-minded person should, in their opinion, regard all other political systems as equally valid, much as a tolerant person regards other religions as equal to her own.
Certainly the main basis for their misgivings about democracy consists of the deplorable behavior of several democratic countries internationally. Since international law is under-developed, the leaders of states don't have to be responsive to foreign opinion. Regrettably, therefore, some countries that Freedom House would rate as excellent democracies internally are not necessarily good citizens of the world. The most egregious example of illegal and immoral behavior nowadays clearly is the Bush administration in the US. It portrayed its cruel, selfish war in Iraq as a generous effort to bring democracy to the Iraqi people oppressed by Saddam Hussein. Others, more plausibly seeing Bush's policies as plain military aggression, insist that democracy cannot be imposed on another people. The debate in the West nowadays is framed as a dispute over the morality of “democracy promotion,” with the right wing claiming that their military actions represent the moral high road, and with many left-wingers sputtering in confusion, no longer even defending the assistance to nonviolent pro-democracy movements abroad.
But there is a strong case against “imposing democracy” on other people. To be sure, the victorious Allied armies did impose democracy on Germany, Italy, and Japan after World War II, but no sane person would choose military force today as an ideal way of spreading democratic institutions. Indeed, the ongoing war against Iraq has tainted the very notion of democracy, even to many Americans themselves.
Nevertheless, people living under an authoritarian regime almost always do long for freedom. What is our moral responsibility toward them?
This is not the same challenge as the situation of a powerful country forcing democracy upon another people who do not want it. Instead, this is the offer of assistance to a population that is eager to use nonviolent means of freeing itself from a dictator. Is such assistance right or wrong?
Surely no one would have objected morally to helping people in occupied Europe resist Nazi orders. Surely today no one would object morally to helping the Burmese liberate their elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi, and put her in office. Surely!
Accordingly, most liberal democracies in Europe and North America maintain organizations that are funded (but not directed) by the state, and which assist the development of democracy in authoritarian countries. There are also private foundations, such as the Soros Open Society Fund and the MacArthur Foundation, which assist pro-democracy movements, but the main controversies concern the role of democratic governments in doing so.
And many do. To mention only couple of examples, Norway supports a radio station that broadcasts accurate news in all the Burmese languages into Burma, against the wishes of the dictatorial junta. Also, the American organization, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), funds training in election monitoring, exit polling, and the organizing of civil society groups. Several Canadian organizations support civil society organizations in a number of countries. The first president of the main Canadian group, Rights and Democracy, was Ed Broadbent, who told me that its only restriction of grants was that applicants must be committed to nonviolence.
These opposition movements do not seek to oust every illegitimate ruler but only to pressure them to follow basic principles of democratic governance. Only if such reasonable demands for reform are rejected do the movements seek to bring down the dictators. However, when such decisive struggles become inevitable, the local movements often receive training and funding from foreign foundations to prepare for their grassroots campaigns. Thus the popular movement in Serbia that brought down Milosevic was funded by several foreign organizations, as also were the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.
Although I admire them, such pro-democracy movements are not necessarily very successful. For example, Serbia’s post-Milosevic regime has hardly been an illustrious democracy, nor are those regimes now governing Ukraine or Georgia, though most people living in those societies evidently consider themselves better off than before. NED allegedly supported the monks’ protests in Burma, which was crushed, and also a nonviolent movement in Belarus that never made any headway against the dictator Lukashenka.
Nevertheless, I have no ethical ambivalence whatever about assisting a pro-democracy movement. In fact, I consider it morally obligatory; I could no more ignore the plight of a population trapped in a dictatorship than I could walk past a fellow human being caught in a bear trap. My support, however, comes with four obvious qualifications.
First, the movement should be absolutely nonviolent. Second, it should clearly represent the wishes of a large part, normally a majority, of the population. It would be foolish, for example, to support a group in Russia that was trying to oust Putin, because he was extremely popular. After all, a pro-democracy movement must represent the people themselves, not some foreign government or foundation. Fortunately, it is usually obvious who is in charge, for when a million people surround the parliament, demanding that the dictator resign, it is never because some foreign institution paid them to show up.
Third, I do not believe it is ever legitimate to finance one political party in a country, even if it is gravely handicapped in an electoral contest. This would constitute interference in the democratic process itself, which would surely violate the very principles that the movement seeks to institutionalize. Although it is sometimes a difficult distinction, the outside funders should limit themselves to funding campaigns and political education, not specific parties.
Fourth, there are certain preconditions for the success of a new democratic regime and these should influence decisions about when to support movements abroad. It may be necessary to work on the preconditions before supporting direct demands for fair elections or other reforms. For example, certain Iraqi expatriates wanted to organize a movement to oust Saddam Hussein, but the US pre-empted this move by invading their country. However, even if they had succeeded (which probably would have taken several years) the long-suppressed tension among Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds probably would have erupted afterward, just as it did after the US invasion of Iraq. It would have been necessary to hold meetings among these groups far in advance, to resolve the problems before they could arise.
Likewise, in Burma a democratic government will have to address tensions among the numerous ethnic groups, which ideally should be worked through before such a democratic government takes office. Every new democracy will encounter difficulties, but it is sometimes possible to forestall them.
Bearing in mind these three caveats, the value of supporting grassroots movements for human freedom seems incontestable. Indeed, a study, “How Freedom is Won” by Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman adds weight to this conclusion. These authors used data on transitions to democracy collected by Freedom House over a 33-year period. They found that 67 countries (over one-third of the world’s countries) had undergone a transition from a closed or tyrannical system toward democracy. Of those, civic resistance had been a key factor in 50 cases – i.e. 70 percent of the transition countries. The most important discovery, in my opinion, is that the new democracies that had emerged from grassroots, civic movements were more likely to be still democratic, five or more years later, than those whose democracy had been conferred upon them by their leaders without any civic movement. Conclusion: people should take charge of winning democracy for themselves if they want it to last. Outsiders can help only help.
Russia is a case in point because the people did not demand democracy; Gorbachev gave it to them. Then they failed to keep it. Soon the presidents of three of the Soviet republics staged a coup, removing their countries from the Soviet Union and thereby forcing it to collapse. Within two years, Boris Yeltsin shelled the parliament of his country, became an “elected monarch,” rigged the elections, and chose his own successor, while nevertheless calling himself a champion of democracy. At no time did the Russian people object to his actual abrogation of democracy. On the contrary, they now say that they don’t want democracy, since they believe they experienced it under Yeltsin and want no more of it. They prefer the order and stability that has prevailed under Putin’s authoritarian presidency.
Moreover, their negative attitude toward democracy is colored by the hostility between Russia and the United States. My Russian friends are keenly aware of the geopolitical competition between countries. They point out that the US administration has strategic reasons for supporting each of the opposition movements against other governments. For example, Russians see the “color revolutions” in Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia as instigated by a US administration that simply wants to harm Russia. Some of them (including individuals who have previously supported nonviolent “people power“ movements in India, the Philippines, and even in Russia) now refer to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine as an instance of “mob rule.”
The same goes for all the other places where the NED is supporting grassroots activists; thus they see the democracy movement in Burma as supported by the US because Burma has gas fields that the US wants to control. According to this critique, only when a strategic interest is at stake do Western governments offer their support to democratic opposition movements.
So disturbed was Putin by the “color revolutions“ that he instituted a variety of measures designed to prohibit any financial contributions to Russian civil society organizations by outside groups that foster, e.g., education for participatory democracy. Moreover, Russia has organized several other authoritarian regimes to jointly combat such movements. The most vital requirement of grassroots democratic opposition movements consists of technological means of communication; realizing that fact, the autocracies now rely on surveillance and censoring as a means of keeping control. They are becoming quite successful at impeding the work of pro-democracy activists, whom they portray as dangerous, unpatriotic fifth-column subversives.
In Moscow recently I was offended several times when my friends criticized me for being a tool of the US government in fostering nonviolent pro-democracy movements. Yet I do not argue against their interpretation of many US policies. Probably it is true that the Bush administration has ulterior motives, seeking to destabilize and weaken the governments of certain countries by funding opposition movements against them.
Thus, in such cases, both narratives may be true. The majority of the people ruled by a dictator usually want freedom — and in my political activities I will always try to help them get it. At the same time, every government has other motives of its own, which sometimes may surprisingly coincide with mine. If the US government actually craves Burma’s gas and oil and therefore funds the supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, that’s not my motivation, but nor does it diminish my moral responsibility to help the victims of repression in Burma.
I have told two narratives about democracy, both of which are substantially true. According to the positive narrative (which I accept fully), the world will be better when political rights are guaranteed everywhere. The second narrative says that George W. Bush has his own immoral reasons for trying to bring that about. There is no contradiction between these stories.
It is a rare occasion which such contrasting purposes fit together harmoniously to support the same line of action. This is one of those times. For the sake of all those people living under tyrannies, I intend to make the most of the convergence while it lasts.