Thomas Carothers, director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of the book "Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: In Search of Knowledge," was online Tuesday, March 7, 2006, to discuss his Foreign Affairs article on increased resistance to attempts to spread democracy in nations around the world. In "The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion" Carothers describes foreign leaders who have associated democracy with American intervention and meddling to strengthen their own grip on power. Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent law restricting NGOs is one symptom of the mounting challenge to aid groups that operate within foreign countries. The U.S. invasion of Iraq has often been cited as evidence that the U.S.'s efforts to promote democracy are nefarious to regimes. Carothers suggests that the U.S. must fight this perception by not selling democracy as solely American concept and being consistent in speaking for political reform in nations that have been less scrutinized for their assistance in fighting terrorism.
Atlanta, Ga.: We're not a democracy. We are a republic. Democracy leads to mob rule. We are getting closer to a democracy daily (with our leaders, rather than leading, following polls - and the way that Senators are elected). Just a thought - since everyone thinks we are, but we are not.
Thomas Carothers: Ideally we're a democratic republic -- with indirect, representative democracy. Democratic political processes do not have to lead to mob rule if they are grounded in the rule of law, checks and balances, and a civic culture.
Hendersonville, N.C.: Sudden emergence of a Democracy in a society requires each citizen to accept responsibility for their personal participation in the common good. How do people go from suppression to such membership in society?
Thomas Carothers: It is a gradual process of building representative institutions and also building a civil society based on norms of accountability, participation, and civic engagement. Some Central European countries that lived through decades of harsh, dictatorial rule have made good progress toward creating genuinely democratic societies in the past fifteen years.
London, U.K.: Hi Tom, what could the U.S. do to repair the damage to its image as the beacon of democratic values in Latin America as a result of events in Iraq? I am saddened and horrified by the extent of anti-US feeling in the region. Warm regards.
Thomas Carothers: The damage to the U.S. reputation caused by Iraq will take a long time to get over, in Latin America and many other places as well. There is no easy solution to the problem of America's low image in Latin America. It can only be alleviated over time if the United States shows more genuine interest in the disillusionment many Latin Americans feel with the results of democracy in their own societies, if the United States does not overplay its hand against Hugo Chavez and give him the advantages that Castro receives politically by being able to claim that he alone can stand up to U.S. bullying, and if the United States is able to create a real economic partnership with the region.
Fairfax Station, Va.: The recent report by John Edwards and Jack Kemp illustrates a serious concern about the direction of democracy in Russia. However, when George W. Bush met Putin, Bush said he "saw into Putin's soul" and he was a good man. Is it possible that George W. Bush was wrong, again? Isn't this just another example of the lack of respect afforded the Bush administration and the lack of diplomacy in the Bush administration?
Thomas Carothers: President Bush did misjudge President Putin's democratic intentions or nature when he first met with him in 2001. The Bush admin has stuck to a fairly positive line on Putin due to Russia being helpful to the U.S. on a number of security issues, including the war on terrorism generally. In the past six months, however, Putin's ever-increasing authoritarianism is causing more people in and around the U.S. government to ask whether or not the U.S. should be more critical of Putin's politics at home. The recent report you refer to is part of that process of questioning.
Houston, Tex.: How is the president's "freedom agenda" perceived around the world? Do the inconsistencies in the administration's rhetoric/spin account for the lack of credibility for its democracy endeavor referenced?
Thomas Carothers: The president's freedom agenda is not being met with much enthusiasm in most places, for a whole set of interconnected reasons -- association of the freedom agenda with a war in Iraq that is disliked in most parts of the world, perceptions of U.S. double standards in pursuing freedom, resentment at the idea of the United States telling other people how to live, and uncertainty that freedom per se (without justice and other more results oriented concepts) is the answer to the problems many societies face.
London, United Kingdom: You use the terms U.S. democracy promotion in your paper - and democracy promotion more generally - as well as Western democracy assistance, which seem to indicate either a gradual move of democracy assistance towards assertiveness and "promotion," or a specific U.S. take on democracy assistance. It does seem that democracy assistance has become more political over the past 25 years. For example anti-corruption reform, that is now standard fair, but was previously seen as too political, or the early rule of law projects in Latin America which you mention in "Aiding Democracy Abroad". Given how far the field has moved on since then and given the public attention which the field is currently receiving, do you think it would be useful to have some type of agreed-upon standards/benchmarks that would define what constitutes "legitimate" democracy assistance and where the line towards interference is to be drawn? One would think that by measuring this, the modest nature of most programs, and the long-term nature of the engagement would come to light, and help counter the backlash both in recipient countries and in Western countries where the field is increasingly misunderstood (cf. The Guardian UK's coverage of the orange revolution). Or do you think that an attempt at measuring might actually be counter-productive and overly restrictive?
Thomas Carothers: You raise a very good question and one that is being discussed increasingly among organizations that promote democracy. I am cautious about the idea of trying to develop broad standards for democracy assistance because I fear it would be possible to get wide agreement only on very unassertive types of work that would overly limit democracy aid. On the other hand, in some domains, such as election observing, the attempt to articulate international standards for such work has been a useful exercise and helped clarify what this work is and is not.
Philadelphia, Pa.: To what degree do you believe that the resistance in non-democratic countries to the democratic values is less an objection to the idea of democracy and more fear of the imposition of a foreign value that goes against their traditions and cultures?
Thomas Carothers: Governmental elites in some regions, especially the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, say they are resisting democracy promotion efforts to defend their national security but in most cases they are basically using that excuse to maintain their own anti-democratic power. Citizens of some countries, particularly in the Middle East, do worry that calls for democracy by the West are more about cultural imposition than about political change.
Chantilly, Va.: What should this country do, that it is not currently doing, to promote democratic or more properly republican forms of government around the world? (Both democratic and republican in lower case reflecting concept and not party ideology.) Is it antithesis to believe that a country without any history of freedom and elections will actually find its way to being a republic in any kind of short term?
Thomas Carothers: The United States is doing a fair amount to try to promote democracy in some parts of the world, but it could do better at this task by, being more consistent in its policies, working more effectively with other democracies that also are interested in promoting democracy abroad, avoiding high-octane rhetoric about democracy promotion that ends up engendering cynicism abroad, and getting its own democratic house in order on various fronts to be a better model for the world. It is hard for countries with little democratic experience to become democratic but many have around the world, over time.
Orange County, Calif.: It seems to me, that we have become the old Soviet Union attempting to spread our system of government via militaristic aggression. Iraq, is a perfect example. This agenda enhances terrorism and recruits new terrorists. Have we truly examined the root cause that has created this hate towards Americans? This current administration is the most dangerous and untrustworthy in recent years. If we have not yet awaken to what our government is doing abroad and here at home, then we are in real serious danger. Free speech is the cornerstone of democracy, but if you look around, it is gradually being suppressed under the false pretense of national security. This is how fascist governments perpetuated their hold on power. I hope our Constitution can withstand this assault before it is too late.
Thomas Carothers: As I discussed in my Foreign Affairs article, abuses by the United States of the rule of law at home and abroad in the past few years have greatly damaged the credibility of the United States as a pro-democratic actor.
Washington D.C.: What is the alternative policy that these people advocate? Going back to supporting oppressive, unpopular, and corrupt rulers and regimes, and who obviously are against any real reforms or progress?
Thomas Carothers: The Bush administration is struggling in the Middle East to get away from decades of U.S. support for authoritarian regimes. But shifting the policy is hard because of all the countervailing interests that point the U.S. toward maintaining such relationships, as with the oil-rich countries.
Hendersonville, N.C.: Must democracy evolve from struggle or can it spring forth de novo? If it evolves, what are those stages? Where is the U.S.? Is there a final stage? What are its characteristics?
Thomas Carothers: Democracy exists when the bulk of citizens have power over the political system. Such systems often do emerge through struggle -- the political mobilization that allows citizens to assert their interests and power. After an initial breakthrough of democratic mobilization and collapse of a non-democratic regime, there needs to be a sustained period of building the representative institutions and regularizing the procedures and processes of democratic political competition. No country is a perfect democracy and even established democracies can still evolve to become more fully representative and democratic.
Ottawa, Canada: Hi, Thomas. In principle I have no problem whatsoever with the notion of spreading democracy in nations around the world. However the issue we are facing is how it is to be put into practice. Here is my question: I assume that the democracy you are referring to in you book is the one currently operating in the western society and is fundamentally based upon the Christian civilization. If so how could we spread our value of democracy around the world without causing much culture clash which usually leads to some very unpleasant results? Should it be the time now that the academic community (international politics and economics, social science, history, culture studies, etc., etc.) spend more time on studying the feasibility and operability of democracy promotion amongst the different civilizations than continue to throw the new slogans around? Many thanks.
Thomas Carothers: I don't think that the core political principles, values and institutions of U.S., Canadian, or European democracy are necessarily based on Christian or Judeo-Christian values. India, principally a Hindu and Muslim country, has had a functioning democracy for 50 years, showing that such political principles can coexist with other religions and with non-Western cultures.
Seattle, Wash.: One of my friends has spent the last few years overseas promoting democracy. However, my question is, why would any other nation trust us on this issue, when we show a preference, both in funding and military action, for dictators and theocratic governments, in terms of our actual foreign policy?
Thomas Carothers: The United States does face a serious problem of credibility with its democracy promotion efforts. In some places the U.S. does actually stand for democracy and push for it, such as currently in Belarus where a dictatorial leader is in the process of manipulating the electoral process. In other places, the U.S. maintains quite friendly relationships with non-democratic regimes for the sake of U.S. economic and security interests, such as vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia. This inconsistency, which has long been part of U.S. policy, breeds cynicism abroad about the sincerity of U.S. intentions.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Isn't the United States a democratic republic? I've read scathing descriptions by Washington's supporters equating democracy to mob rule. Simplifying our governmental structure to that of a "democracy" is misleading, really. With our own government. skewed towards a corporate fueled plutocracy of military/industrial cheerleaders, wouldn't it be better to trick foreigners into loving America based upon our culture, and T.V. shows, and not on our presently malfunctioning form of government?
Thomas Carothers: You're right that the shorthand of "democracy as opposed to "liberal democracy" or "representative democracy" contributes to confusion about what it is the United States stands for. And it does encourage some observers here in Washington, seeing the results of some elections abroad, to worry that promoting democracy will simply lead to the rise to power of undemocratic forces.
Sims, N.C.: The problem is our leaders talk the talk but don't walk the walk. The world sees a country who tells the rest of the world how to behave but refuse to follow the same rules themselves.
Thomas Carothers: I agree that when the administration tells the world that liberty is the solution to terrorism then tells the world that the United States has to abridge liberty to fight terrorism the message is ineffective and produces cynical reactions.
California: Should we be spending our money lecturing our own citizenry instead? Do you have any idea how many Americans from the USA could define what the American Enlightenment was? How about "The Age of Reason", or who Voltaire and Adam Smith were? A pitiful few, I would say. What's your opinion on America's grasp of the charged word "democracy"?
Thomas Carothers: I agree that the state of American civic education and culture is troubling. But I think it should be possible for us as a country to do better in cultivating democratic values and knowledge at home while still taking some measures to support them abroad as well. It would be useful if our government encourage less the idea that we have to export our political ideas and system and more that we could learn from the experience of others and they could learn from us on the political front.
Princeton, N.J.: When I was young (I am 67 now), I used to describe myself as a "Wilsonian Liberal" which, I guess, would be called today a neoconservative without the guns. I believed if you helped other peoples economically, educationally, and medically, they would naturally turn toward democracy as the best form of government. I no longer believe this. My change of heart came not by observing peoples from abroad, but from looking at my fellow Americans. Democracy is not easy; one has to look at the facts and reason from these facts. Today many of my fellow Americans seem to prefer to use faith rather than facts. Faith is the ability to hold beliefs that are not necessarily supported by facts and, indeed, may be contradicted by facts. They are quite willing to use the logic construct called "a leap of faith" when they reason. There are many, many examples, but I will content my self with quoting Hans Blix who when asked why the US government did not seem interested in his investigations replied that the Americans _knew_ there were WMD in Iraq. "Why do you need facts when you know the answer? It's like the Salem witch trials. If everybody knows they are witches, what use is proof?" Then I thought if Americans who have the best in economics, education (well, better than most), and health care (well, better than some) prefer to reason in a fashion inimical to democracy, how can we expect the Iraqis, the Palestinians, the Iranians, etc. to develop a democratic government under the current conditions?
Thomas Carothers: You're certainly right that the state of understanding about fact-based reasoning and argumentation in political life seems to have suffered greatly in the intense polarization of U.S. politics of recent years. I don't think societies with no tradition of democracy will move at all easily or quickly toward democracy but we shouldn't give up the idea that positive change, gradual though it may be, is possible.
Reston, Va.: According to a Zogby poll last week, 85 percent of our troops in Iraq believe we were sent there--not to spread democracy--but to "retaliate for Saddam's role in 9-11." What do you make of that and doesn't it just prove the point that by putting Saddam and 9-11 in the same sentence enough times you can get anyone to believe anything no matter how untrue?
Thomas Carothers: It is disturbing when one reads accounts about U.S. military personnel believing the Iraq war in punishment for 9/11. This administration has encouraged that idea, largely for domestic political purposes and it has greatly damaged the credibility of the United States abroad.
Rockville, Md.: What's your take on Fox "news"?? Also why is it our appointed job to "promote" democracy? No one "promoted" democracy to us; we wanted it and fought the British for it!
Thomas Carothers: It is true that no one appointed the U.S. to promote democracy and any suggestions of that sort, which do sometimes come from U.S. officials, are met with derision in many places. But we have considerable experience with democracy and it is in our interest generally that other countries become democratic and so I think we should at least try to engage, with humility and caution, in promoting democracy abroad.
Cambridge, Mass.: There is an ongoing debate regarding the virtues and pitfalls of presidential political systems versus parliamentary systems. Juan J. Linz has written extensively on this topic, arguing that presidential systems are detrimental to the stability of democracy. Looking at the case of Russia, his argument seems to be true. Could Russia have ever been anything else BUT a presidential system given its history and diverse population? Now that President Putin appears to be returning the country to a more centralized system with a strong presidency, what viable options does the country have to reverse this trend?
Thomas Carothers: Once a presidential system is entrenched it is very hard to change the basic rules of the game. There may have been a moment in the early 1990s when Russia might have moved toward a mixed presidential-parliamentary system but the moment passed quickly. Now the only hope to preserve some sort of democracy is to push for the preservation of at least some independent sources of power in the country, such as the media, opposition political parties, and independent civil society.
Richmond, Va.: John Quincy Adams: "We are the friends of liberty everywhere, but we are the guardians only of our own". If people want to be free, they will be, or they will try to be. If people want democratic governments, they will have them, or will try to have them. Certainly we should help where people show a strong interest in having a better form of government. Unfortunately we seem to be trying to give them to people whether they want them or not. That is not how to make friends and influence people.
Thomas Carothers: The U.S. government is in a phase of overestimating how much ability this country has to fundamentally reverse or reshape the political direction of other societies. As you say, it is possible to help a country that is already moving in a democratic direction to move faster in that direction but hard to cause profound changes in countries stuck politically.
Albany, N.Y.: Iraq is the cradle of civilization. Iraqi recorded history goes back 5,000 years. The first code of laws of which we know (Code of Ur-Nammu) is from Iraq, as is the first complete code of laws known to us (Code of Hammurabi). By contrast, our recorded history goes back 400 years. So who the hell are we to tell Iraqis how to run their affairs? The theory seems to be:
- Everyone wants to be like us.
- No one is better than being us than we are.
- Therefore we have to show them how to be us, no matter what it takes.
The first assumption is wrong, therefore all else is wrong. If they wanted to be us, they would be us. Different peoples have different values.
Thomas Carothers: We need to separate out the idea that basic freedoms and other political rights are things that have very wide appeal and the idea that other societies "want to be like us." Different countries can be democratic and still not be like us in many fundamental ways, such as India or Indonesia, both democracies.
Why Foreign Countries Are Not Taking the U.S. Seriously...: I'm sorry; but the U.S. is not engaged in spreading Democracy abroad. It is indeed more concerned about power and plundering other countries' vital resources. If the U.S. were TRULY concerned about spreading Democracy, it would not have:
- Ignored the U.N. vote and invade Iraq.
- Not hold POWs indefinitely and without trial. In fact, the International Red Cross has said that 80% of POWs were innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- Not be involved in torture.
- Not be spying on its own citizens. Some former Intelligence workers, who quit in protest, have said that no terrorists have been caught this way; only innocent people were caught up in the spying.
- Not economically sanction the Palestinians for their free and fair vote. Yes, they elected HAMAS. A group that is considered a terrorist organization to power; but remember when the IRA gained power, they renounced violence. Sometimes, a little bit of a voice can go a long way toward ending violence.
- Finally, shouldn't the citizens of a country be asked if they WANT Democracy? Is forcing a Democracy really Democracy?
Given the above, how can any foreign country actually take the United State's claim seriously that it is interested in spreading Democracy abroad? Thank you for listening.
Thomas Carothers: I agree that the combination of the Iraq war, U.S. abuses of law abroad and at home, U.S. hesitancy over accepting the actual or potential results free and fair elections in other Middle Eastern countries all combine to make many people abroad dismiss U.S. claims about promoting democracy. But at the same time, U.S. policy is a many-sided thing -- in other parts of the world, such as parts of the former Soviet Union, the United States is supporting democracy.
Munich, Germany: Briefly put, how do you think that the international context for groups promoting democracy has changed? Is the change due to the backlash from upheavals like the Orange Revolution, or are there other factors involved, such as the new mass media possibilities such as the Internet? Also, what do you think will happen in Russia after Putin steps down? I've often wondered if Putin considered his hardball policies as a temporary measure to tame a rambunctious new economy, but now I'm wondering if Putin's successor will be even more autocratic than Putin.
Thomas Carothers: In my Foreign Affairs article I argue that the color revolutions did cause many leaders around the world to see Western democracy promotion in a different, more menacing light and that this reaction combined with a broader souring in the world of views on democracy promotion due to unpopularity of the Bush admin's approach to the issue. This combination has created higher resistance to democracy promotion in many quarters. Putin has institutionalized his authoritarian approach by weakening all other alternative sources of power so that when he leaves power, his successor will inherit a system that is structurally quite authoritarian or at least "super-presidentialist." It is likely then, though not inevitable, that the post-Putin period will also be fairly authoritarian as well.
Tampa, Fla.: Ottawa raised an interesting issue on the role of religion in promoting democracy. Ottawa erroneously stated that our form of government "is fundamentally based upon the Christian civilization." As you correctly noted, this is not true. Democracy not only pre-dated Christianity, but Christianity came to power by allying itself with the Roman Empire, and then the hereditary monarchies of Europe. The Catholic Church opposed the democratic revolutions of Europe in the 1800s, and continued to ally itself with anti-democratic governments even after WW II (such as Franco's Spain). We constantly hear arguments democracy and Islam are incompatible. But isn't the real question whether one can argue that democracy and organized religion are fundamentally incompatible? Anti-democratic regimes routinely ally themselves with religion to stifle democracy, especially in the Islamic world. So how can we overcome religious arguments against democracy?
Thomas Carothers: Organized religions have to make their peace with democracy, as Christianity did from the 16th to the 19th centuries -- by learning that they can live within a democracy without losing their social role and at least some of their influence. What we see now is a period in which Islam is struggling with the same issue -- and in some places, such as Indonesia, it is finding that it can live within a democratic system.
Houston, Tex.: Mr. Carothers, why do you believe we are in Iraq?
Thomas Carothers: I believe that the Bush admin invaded Iraq for a combination of reasons, primarily to knock out of power a leader they believed dangerous to the United States and its friends and to show strength to the world after 9/11. We are still in Iraq because the costs of leaving, in terms of political damage to the president, and possible damage from an even more chaotic Iraq, outweigh the costs of staying in.
Washington, D.C.: It seems to me that the U.S. sometimes pushes elections prematurely instead of helping create the conditions conducive to real democracy. Elections are not democracy and can lead simply to another autocrat. In countries divided my ethic or religious divisions, elections simply stir the pot or anger and hatred without bringing any real results. Do you think the U.S. fixation on elections helps or hinders democratic reform?
Thomas Carothers: It's true that the U.S. government sometimes focuses in very much, probably too much, on elections in its efforts to promote democracy. But it's important to see how a norm of elections has emerged in the world such that after a dictator falls, the people of that country often immediately clamor for elections, as the only way to confer legitimacy on a new government. Remember that in Iraq the U.S. resisted elections after the invasion and was dragged into accepting them by the Iraqis themselves.
Burke, Va.: Democracy won't always produce results we want, but it's probably better to try and support democratic norms (i.e. elections, rule of law, protection of minorities, protection of rights) and rely on the tendency a democratic system to right itself. I think we're making a big mistake in Palestine. I think we should accept Hamas' victory, talk to them as much as possible, and try to deal with them however possible. Hamas will fail if they don't provide acceptable results to the Palestinians.
Thomas Carothers: If it ends up being seen in the Arab world that the United States actively tried to undermine a Palestinian government that was the product of among the most free and fair elections ever held in the Arab world, this will do great damage to the U.S. pro-democratic stance in the region.
Albany, N.Y.: You wrote that 'We need to separate out the idea that basic freedoms and other political rights are things that have very wide appeal and the idea that other societies "want to be like us."' I agree. The problem is that my comments describe the philosophy of many American administrations, this one especially. During the Eisenhower administration, in order to try to wean Yugoslavia away from the Warsaw Pact, we tried to establish an alliance between Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia. Turkey and Greece have been at odds for 3000+ years. Cyprus is still a major sore point today. Tito was not a fool and would have easily figured