The practice of promoting democracy in other countries has received heightened scrutiny since the period following the attacks of 9/11, when it was made a key component of the foreign policy of President George W. Bush. With the advent of the Obama Administration came speculation about whether the premises on which democracy promotion is based would be rethought and its architecture reshaped as a result of what some perceive as the deficiencies of its implementation during the Bush period.
Others have pointed to meager results during a time when autocracy has become entrenched in so many countries. After the initial gains of the 3rd Wave of democratization – notably the post-communist transitions following 1989’s velvet revolutions – there has been a notable regression, reflected in the failure of some initially hopeful transitions to consolidate democracy, and in the authoritarian backlash.
Additionally, the very idea of helping people in other societies develop their own governing structures that respect human rights and the rule of law has come under attack by those who question the notion that democracy is the best of all systems for all people at all times. Isn’t it often the case that democracy leads to the kind of instability that threatens our national interest? And shouldn’t our government always deal with other states on the basis of what is best for us rather than concerning itself with people in remote places whose fate we can do little to affect?
An emphatic “No” on all counts, argues Michael McFaul, a political scientist currently on leave from Stanford University to serve on the National Security Council staff of the Obama Administration. In a new volume entitled “Advancing Democracy Abroad” (Roman and Littlefield, one of a series of Hoover Institution studies in Politics, Economics, and Society), he is unequivocal in his assertion that democracy trumps all potential rivals, keeping rulers accountable, guaranteeing individual freedoms, insuring internal stability, promoting peaceful interaction with neighbors, and avoiding economic and political catastrophes. (A statement that the book reflects McFaul’s views alone appears beneath the acknowledgments.) He backs up each of these assertions with empirical evidence, including international public opinion data suggesting, contrary to the arguments of American ideologues of both the right and left, “that democracy is becoming a universal value that cuts across all regions, religions, and cultures.”
McFaul acknowledges that the relationship between democracy and economic growth is more complicated, but he is not willing to concede that because autocracies are sometimes capable of sustaining higher levels of economic growth than democracies, economic development should be sequenced before its democratic counterpart. He points out that “on average, autocracies in the developing world have performed no better than democracies over the past four decades.”
And while he doesn’t overlook China’s extraordinary growth – or the political appeal of its developmental authoritarianism – over the past three decades, McFaul notes that this period has coincided with liberalizing political reforms. “On average,” he concludes, “democracies have a slower rate of growth than the best autocratic performers but a much better rate of growth than most autocratic regimes.” And he points out that autocracies are far more likely than democracies to be associated with economic disasters.
Having established the value of democracy (much as a lawyer arguing a legal brief), McFaul turns his attention to its relationship with America’s national interests. Using real world examples, he demonstrates that the two are not only compatible but that America’s dealings with any given country will always be profoundly affected by its regime type. This perspective contradicts those realists who argue that because interstate relations are governed far less by what goes on inside them than by the external power realities their leaders face, the prudent course of action for U.S. policy makers is to ally ourselves with rulers irrespective of how they treat their citizens.
But history has shown that alliances with autocrats, whatever short-term benefits they may produce, can never satisfy either our values or our interests. Autocracies are inherently unstable, unpredictable and unreliable. And, as McFaul points out, every foreign enemy the U.S. has had to contend with has been a dictatorship.
By contrast, “no democracy in the world has been or is an American enemy.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was predicted that previously democratic allies would seek to balance one another’s power by forming shifting alliances, but this has clearly not been the case. In fact, with the expansion of NATO and the inclusion of previously neutral India, the democracies have more or less coalesced, driven, McFaul argues, “by a different dynamic than balance of power.” The fact is that as countries such as those in the former Soviet Union have become more democratic, they have developed better relations with the U.S. And since democracies are free of famine and genocide, and because they do not force large numbers of their people to become refugees, they provide not only security benefits to the U.S. but economic benefits as well.
Of course, what is true of Europe might not as easily apply to a region such as the Middle East that has posed threats to American interests. When considering the question of whether democratization in the region might bring to power radical Islamists who would threaten U.S. security interests, McFaul aligns himself with those who argue that such an outcome is far from certain. While he does not play down the very real threats from the likes of Hezbollah and Hamas (and questions the latter’s right to participate in the 2006 election that it won), he points out that a plausible outcome could be a weakening of the appeal of the radicals as other groups are allowed to compete for power. In any case, it is deeply unrealistic to believe that the political status quo can be maintained forever given the demographic and modernization pressures these countries face. The key question is whether the systemic changes that are inevitable will be evolutionary or, as in the case of the disastrous creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, revolutionary.
The remainder of the book is a blueprint for building upon successes and failures of current and past U.S. democracy promotion strategies. Some of his recommendations are at the level of macro policy, such as the need to lead by example, to back up forceful rhetoric in support of democracy and human rights with concrete steps to follow through, to avoid grandiose pledges of fostering regime change, and to help strengthen the ability of multilateral institutions to develop and enforce democratic norms. (The latter includes a Helsinki process for the Middle East developed from within but with the support of the U.S., Europe, and possibly others.)
McFaul also offers a number of prescriptions for improving the ability of the U.S. to support democratic developments abroad, such as expanding the amount of resources devoted to quick deployment following democratic breakthroughs, acting more strategically (i.e., selectively) in bolstering new democracies, and creating a new Department of Development and Democracy that would encompass all activities associated with state construction, economic development, improved governance, and democratic consolidation. This new department would not be responsible for funding civil society, a function McFaul finds inappropriate for the U.S. Government, since “inevitably, conflicts of interest and misinterpretation of motives arise when the State Department provides direct financial support to an NGO in another country.” He proposes that this function be taken on by an expanded National Endowment for Democracy or – in case the Endowment would not wish to change its character to accommodate such a larger role—a new Civil Society Foundation, which would provide grants broadly both to U.S. NGOs and local NGOs abroad.
A fresh course of action such as the one McFaul proposes will serve “to rebuild the international legitimacy and domestic support needed to sustain democracy promotion.” Perhaps it is too soon to tell whether his policy prescriptions—as well as his analysis of the importance of the value of democracy promotion more generally—will resonate with the Administration in which he now serves. Thus far, the outlook is mixed.
On the one hand, the President, Vice President and Secretary of State have all eloquently asserted the Administration’s belief that no one anywhere should be denied the rights guaranteed by democratic principles, and its commitment to bringing that about. This was perhaps best expressed by President Obama in his June 2009 Cairo speech, when he proclaimed that
I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.
On the other hand, as Robert Kagan points out, the Administration’s strategy of adapting to a world that downplays American primacy requires it to show respect for the political systems of autocratic powers such as China and Russia, as well as to distance itself from alliances with democracies that were designed to contain them.
Should the Obama Administration seek to put in place a comprehensive effort to strengthen the capability of the U.S. to support democratic initiatives abroad, it should begin by consulting this highly useful volume.
David E. Lowe is Vice President for Government Relations and Public Affairs at the National Endowment for Democracy.