Foreign Policy, Summer 1997

The often dramatic global democratic trend of recent years has put the subject of democracy onto the front burner of international relations. Despite centuries of reflection and research on the subject, our knowledge of democracy continues to grow, sometimes causing us to rethink what we have already learned. These are some ideas that need careful consideration.

There are many forms of democracy.

Not exactly true. The democratic systems of Costa Rica, Great Britain, India, Sweden, the United States, and so forth each have their particular features. But what matters most is that they share basic elements of an underlying liberal democratic model. What is notable about the recent democratic trend is the similarity of the political aspirations of such different societies, from Mongolia to Mali to Macedonia, and the conformance of those aspirations to that basic model. The idea of "Asian-style democracy"--rule by a dominant, corporatist party that tolerates a limited opposition but never cedes power--does have some credence in East Asia. In general, though, the notion fashionable in the 1970s that democracy would branch out into a range of fundamentally different forms--socialist democracy, African democracy, Arab democracy, Latin American democracy, and others--has lost much credibility. Telling a young, politically active Latin American or East European that "of course your country doesn't want Western-style democracy; I know you want to find your own special path based on your own national traditions" is effectively an insult.

You know a democracy when you see one.

Not always. In this way, at least, democracy is not like pornography, a term that U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart eschewed defining in the early 1960s, famously concluding "I know it when I see it." The basic liberal democratic model is indeed clear, and there are obvious cases--long-established democracies and outright dictatorships--where it is easy to give a thumbs up or thumbs down. The democratic trend of recent years, however, has produced a profusion of ambiguous situations--countries with consistently stated democratic intentions but hazy political realities hovering between democracy and nondemocracy. Is Ukraine a democracy? Peru? What about Armenia, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, Senegal, Thailand, and Uganda? Based on the old Cold War habit of dividing the world into black and white, policymakers like to describe the post-Cold War world as a two-color map of democracies and dictatorships. In reality, the map contains large amounts of gray. In its annual surveys of democracy and human rights, Freedom House has found in recent years that a growing percentage of countries that are formally democratic are only partly free--in other words, there are more and more countries that have succeeded in achieving the basic form but not the actual substance of democracy.

New democracies cannot carry out tough economic reforms.

Wrong. This notion, still sometimes overheard in the corridors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, is a version of the old idea that Third World countries are not ready for democracy. In other words, what they really need are some good dictators to whip them into shape. Fledgling democracies may find it difficult to endure shock therapy and economic restructuring, but some important cases of recent years--most notably in Argentina, Brazil, and Poland--disprove the dictum that elected governments in transitional countries can't administer harsh economic medicine. It is worth remembering that most Third World dictators fail miserably to apply rational or successful economic policies. The Pinochet model remains very much the exception rather than the rule. Note also that the leaders of many new democracies resent doubts about their mettle. The real issue, they say, is whether old democracies are capable of facing up to their own economic problems, such as social security reform, entitlements spending, and chronic deficits.

Democracies don't go to war with one another.

Sounds terrific. This new truth, delivered to Washington in the early 1990s from the immaculate laboratories of academe, quickly became a favorite of Clinton speechwriters and peace-studies gurus. It may be appealing, but its validity as a political science rule exceeds its utility as a tool for policymakers. Nasty little exceptions like the recent fighting between Peru and Ecuador spoil part of the fun and have to be explained away (it wasn't really a war, just some bloodshed over a border, and, hey, Peru's not all that democratic). Moreover, recent research by political scientists Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder shows that while well-established democracies are indeed relatively peaceful, countries attempting to become democratic are more rather than less prone to go to war. Given the current proliferation of countries wandering uncertainly through that transitional state--and the large number of countries still ruled by autocrats--don't expect Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace to kick in anytime soon.

The greatest threat to most new democracies is a military coup.

True 20 years ago but not anymore. Nowadays the main threats are skyrocketing crime, rampant corruption, high inflation, unemployment, and plain old governmental ineffectiveness. The militaries in many former dictatorships are still lurking, powerful institutions. They are wary, however, of getting stuck holding the reins of government in countries that may be coming apart at the seams. Robert Kaplan, the popular purveyor of global "chaos theory," is too gloomy by half in his sweeping predictions of rising anarchy. He is right though that the nightmare scenario for many shaky countries is not harsh military rule: It's criminalized civilian rule or no rule at all. Moreover, the recent events in Albania harshly demonstrate that this phenomenon is by no means limited to the developing world.

Economic development and political development go hand in hand.

Not so fast. For decades political scientists and political economists have been agonizing and arguing about the relationship between economic development and democratization. The 1960s view that emphasized tensions between economic development and democracy has largely given way to the pleasing idea that the two are closely linked. The temptation always is to settle on a single overarching conclusion. New research by political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi shows, however, that the economic-political relationship, while indeed crucial, is not reducible to a single formula. The emergence of democracy is not, they argue, a byproduct of economic development; democracy can be initiated at any level of economic development. Once democracy is established, however, the influence of economics becomes crucial: The richer the country, the greater democracy's chance of survival. Poor countries face long odds, but the direction of economic life is more important than the absolute level: Democracy is more likely to survive in a country with a growing economy and a per capita income of less than $1,000 than in a country with a per capita income of between $1,000 and $2,000 whose economy is declining.

Promoting democracy in other countries is a particularly American preoccupation.

Not anymore. A striking feature of the rapidly growing world of foreign assistance programs specifically aimed at promoting democracy is the broad expansion of such efforts by countries other than the United States. The United States may still be the largest player in this domain, with around $400 million per year devoted to such efforts. But the end of the Cold War and the global spread of democracy have prompted a surprisingly diverse, active stream of new prodemocracy programs. For decades, Germany has been promoting democracy around the world through its generously funded political party foundations. But almost all foreign aid donors, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, Holland, Japan, Norway, and Sweden, now carry out democracy assistance programs, whether in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, countries of the former Soviet Union, Latin America, or the Middle East. Even the French are jumping in with plans to create a democracy promotion foundation run by the leading French political parties. Don't hold your breath, though, for a change in France's archaic, antidemocratic policies toward Francophone Africa: Some things remain sacred.

Democracy cannot be exported; it must be grown from within.

A good applause line at academic conferences. It doesn't take much traveling around the world these days, however, to recognize that the "contagion" effects of democracy have been a major factor in the proliferation of democratic transitions all around the world. And one cannot spend much time in countries attempting to democratize without encountering a palpable desire among many persons to learn from more established democracies. Democratization will have to be worked out in each country by the people of that country. But there is often considerable space for positive influence from the outside. When Paraguay's elected government was almost ousted last year, an array of external actors rapidly and successfully applied pressure to keep it in place. This emergency prodemocracy campaign involved not only the United States and the Organization of American States, but also Argentina and Brazil, two states previously known for their stubborn defense of the principle of nonintervention in other countries' internal political affairs.

The Clinton administration should stop wasting precious foreign policy resources on democracy crusades, as in Haiti, and concentrate on America's core economic and strategic interests.

The Clinton administration should stop selling out its foreign policy principles for the sake of business and geopolitical interests, as in China, and start backing up its rhetoric on democracy and human rights with some real action.

These sound like two "agree or disagree" entries on a dating questionnaire for lonely hearted foreign policy junkies, but they sum up the polarization that afflicts the democracy promotion debate in the United States. The truth lies in the middle--a bit dull, but this is ultimately where it belongs. Under Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, democracy promotion has been one of America's main foreign policy goals, alongside global economic and strategic interests. Often democracy complements those other interests, in which case the United States supports it. Sometimes democracy conflicts with those interests, in which case it is essentially ignored. And many times U.S. policy toward a particular region or country is full of mutually conflicting threads, some prodemocratic and some not, reflecting our uniquely open-ended, American process of foreign policy formulation. In those cases we muddle through and explain to our confused foreign partners, "What do you expect? This is democracy."

Want to Know More?

To read further on this subject requires considerable selectivity, as the amount of literature on democracy has expanded even faster in recent years than the trend toward democracy itself. An excellent starting point is the new book by political scientists Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, who address the difficult question of how societies can go beyond initial democratic openings to the actual consolidation of democracy: Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Political scientist Philippe Schmitter seeks to go beyond "transitology" to "consolidology" in his "Transitology: The Science or the Art of Democratization?" in Joseph S. Tulchin, ed., The Consolidation of Democracy in Latin America (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1995). Larry Diamond, coeditor of the Journal of Democracy, offers a realistic, thorough exploration of whether the global democratic trend has come to an end in "Is the Third Wave Over?" Journal of Democracy 7, no. 3 (July 1996). The state of democracy in the world and the proper place of democracy promotion in the Clinton administration's foreign policy are examined in Thomas Carothers, "Democracy Without Illusions," Foreign Affairs 76, no. 1 (January/ February 1997). Political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi present a systematic, eye-opening analysis of the relationship between economic development and democracy in their article "Modernization: Theories and Facts," World Politics 49, no. 2 (January 1997). Former French Foreign Ministry strategic affairs adviser Philippe Delmas, an accomplished French realist, casts a pox on the democracy house in his new book, The Rosy Future of War (New York: The Free Press, 1997), arguing that strong, stable states, and not democratic states, are the key to international peace and security.