Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Long Road to Democracy

Daniel Drezner has a post (and there are some equally interesting comments) on the ousting of the President of Kyrgyzstan. He asks whether the news from Kyrgyzstan and the recent events in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the first hints of a new “wave” of democratization, in the sense popularized by Samuel Huntington’s book The Third Wave.

I hope that we are witnessing a Fourth (or Fifth?) wave of democratization. However, I have concerns as to whether this is in fact a long term shift to democracy that we are witnessing. And I have even greater concerns that democracy doesn’t come in waves but rather is arrived at after walking a long and idiosyncratic path in each country.

As for whether there is a general shift to democracy taking place, I think we need to temper our optimism with a little caution. For one thing, some of the “reforms” seem more like window-dressing than anything substantive. Egypt’s reforms might be in this category.

Moreover, democratization often leads to instability in the short-run; whether instability or stable democracy defines the long term is an open question. Iraq and Afghanistan are the obvious examples of the concern over long-term stability. With the recent increase in bombings and counter-demonstrations, Lebanon may slip into this category as well.

And, on top of this, the U.S. can still “lose the peace” if it is not vigilant. The short-changing of democratization and stabilization initiatives in Afghanistan is an example of exactly the type of foreign policy we do not want. Nurturing democracies in post-conflict situations is a long, delicate, and expensive process. In Afghanistan, we lost our concentration as we moved on to Iraq. Rather than a beacon of what democracy can do to free a people, it is in the process of becoming a cautionary tale of how hard-won gains can be quickly lost. Iraq is a work in progress, of course, but some of the current indicators are not very good, as discussed in this recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Then there is Pakistan

And, while we are getting enthused about the Fourth Wave of democratization, let us not forget about the Third Wave. We like to remember the vindication of the generation of ’56 in Hungary and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the triumph of Solidarity in Poland, but let’s also talk about democracy in Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Albania. Where democracy has taken root in these countries it was not from some unstoppable process but because of a hard fought political battles and, in certain cases, international military intervention and significant financial and technical support. Overall, in all of these countries, whether or not democracy took hold had less to do with a wave and more to do with history, political culture, and, at times, international interest and support.

I hope we are seeing an inexorable spread of democracy. That would be nice. But I wouldn’t bank on it, it is much too early to tell, anyway. However, if we really want to make the world safe for democracy, as opposed to making the world safe for foreign investment, then we better decide to gear-up for the long road ahead and find the travelling companions that we will need to see this through.


Blogger B. Nache said...

Chris, let me address your concerns whether the current wave of democratization is in fact a long term shift. Of course it is. Trace our own country’s expansion. The early part of the 19th century spread citizens and ideals from ocean to ocean. This influence also accounted for a population growth from around 5 million in 1801 to more than 22 million in 1850. Democratization is frought with conflict, even war wherever it threatens to oust established authority. Our country waged merciless extinction of American Indian tribes who were too primitive to counter any substantial setbacks to our expansion. Mexico suffered irreperable harm winning its independence from Spain, otherwise Texas might not have made the top 50 list. During which, we exploited Africans as slaves and were isolated and protected by vast oceans.
We had it pretty easy compared to Albania or Afghanistan or Lebanon in terms of hard fought battles establishing freedom at home. And today, there has been substantial progress in these and other countries when compared to 50 years ago. If some of the “reforms” as you say, appear “more like window-dressing than anything substantive,” Perhaps your impressions are impatient or perhaps you’ve spotted areas where democracy is failing. One thing is certain, where the people want it and will fight for it, it may not happen immediately but it will happen. That is not to say that there will not be horrible conflicts until democracy wins out, I rue Taiwan’s short term future… but I ask you where in history democracy has been the mode of government which was abandonded for something better. Democracy’s been spreading before we were only 13 colonies or the Pilgrims at Plymoth or William lopped off the heads of his conquests.
And it is still a long term shift. 230 years later we’re still evolving and finding democracy works. And Native Americans and African Americans and Mexicans/Mexican Americans and Hawaians have it better than they did 200 years ago but there is still both room for improvement and evidence of that shift.
The Middle East may take 200 years until democracy is spread, in whatever idiosyncratic mutation of democratic government finds itself but it is inevitable.
History, political culture and international support are definitely determining factors. Although history occurs at the time opportunity is gained and political culture means simply the support of the people. Foreign nations may need to give a push, or a shove, or a dropkick but it is imperative that that influence isn’t solely for that foreign nation’s own interest but is shared by its people. Iraq is an example. History has eventuated Iraq’s chances of democracy because of our own tragic realizations but without a true desire of its people to become democratic, as I do believe exists in a majority of Iraqi’s people, no foreign influence can force the change unless it is prepared to undergo the changes itself. In this, I agree with you that Iraq will be a long term horror show in terms of stability and substantial change. It is clear by the Bush administration, whether or not they live up to their rhetoric that for the moment, we are bound to that influence. It should be clear that in the 3 ½ years that Bush will remain in office, we will still have our troops in Iraq. This new wave of democratization is indeed a long road but it will prevail. In 50 years, you’ll see that I’m right.

3/28/2005 12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'd like to see some specific backing for your sweeping statement that "[i]n Afghanistan, we lost our concentration as we moved on to Iraq. Rather than a beacon of what democracy can do to free a people, it is in the process of becoming a cautionary tale of how hard-won gains can be quickly lost." Granted drug trafficking has increased, but I dare say it's hardly a "cautionary tale of how hard-won gains can be quickly lost." See Secretary Condoleezza Rice, Remarks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mar. 17, 2005, available at (reviewing situation in Afghanistan).

3/28/2005 1:48 AM  
Anonymous Jessica Beauvais said...

“Elections have become a common feature of the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, where dozens of elections for office have taken place in recent years. But more, and frequent election, or even some political liberalization is not synonymous with democratization.” (Is the Middles East Democratizing? Ehteshami, Anoushiravan. British Journal of Middle East Studies (1999) 26(2),(p.199-217) p. 199

In the Middle East and North African (MENA), elections have rarely been used promote and develop participatory system, rather elections have been primarily used to strengthen the power of the ruling elite. Though 80 elections took place with high voter turnout, during the 1990s, in the MENA region, little political change occurred. Some barriers to democratization in MENA have been: the ruling elite’s manipulation of electoral procedures; the use of economic growth as an excuse to maintain strict authoritarianism; the suppression of opposition.

In many MENA states the ruling elite have arranged the electoral process in such a way that citizen participation has virtually no impact. Some constitutions and complex procedures have been designed to deter the rise of political groups, holding minority position.
Some examples:
1) In Kuwait, the constitution was amended in 1996 to allow the president to select 1/3 of the upper chamber, where 3/4 majority is required to pass a bill into law.
2) In Iran, to become a candidate for election, a person must have their credential checked by the interior ministry and the council of guardians.
3) In Egypt, the dominate party elects presidential candidates, and the electorate does chooses the wining candidate. Therefore the rule party controls the entire process.

Economic conditions as often been an indicator of how successful a country will be in democratizing. After the Kuwait crisis, many MENA states have attempted to broaden their economic base. The political elite have taken great strides to follow IMF follow economic reforms. However, to implement economic program, many have reverted to strict authoritarianism policies. Economic growth and development has been used to justify limiting democratization in the region.

Succession in the political systems have also been a problem for many MENA states.
Dominant political parties made concerted efforts to maintain status quo and suppress competitive politics. For example, in Algeria a bloody civil war occurred because Islamists where prevented from placing a representative into the electoral process because due to a constitutional reform. There are several other examples of violence erupting between those who want a regime change and those want ruling regime to retain power. The violence has created a fear of competitive politics.

Lastly, there are no cited case in MENA of shared power between the ruling elite and the opposition. In Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia, the elite have been able to exclude Islamist opposition from power.

Though many MENA states have exhibited the willingness to embrace democratic principals, many factors have arose as barriers to their democratization. Since Iraq is not atypical of the other MENA states, it is hard to believe the Iraq will not have to confront these various obstacles to its democratization. Iraq will need more than elections and a constitution to become a successful democracy. There is need to continually educate to Iraqi people on democratic principals, create avenues for change, and a commitment to allow the flow of competing ideas. This requires time.

Is the Middles East Democratizing? Ehteshami, Anoushiravan. British Journal of Middle East Studies (1999) 26(2),(199-217)

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