The democracy panacea

It would be better to follow a more cautious sourse, giving up dreams of sweeping changes overnight.

Two piercing heretical challenges, which came out boldly in the September-October issue of the venerable American periodical Foreign Affairs, have significantly raised my level of skepticism about the veracity and value of all-embracing panaceas. In his essay, Gregory Gause of Vermont University questions mercilessly the worn-out conventional wisdom espoused by both liberal and conservative adherents, including some of our own local amateurs purporting to assert that the more democratic a country becomes, the "less likely it is to produce terrorists." It sounded rather logical, but it is misleading. Next to Gause's piece, in a joint disquisition, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs, both of New York University, had the guts to express doubts concerning the universally accepted notion that economic growth necessarily fosters democratization. Let's examine these two claims separately. The Bush administration and its proponents contend that their push for Arab democracy will not only spread American values but also improve US security. As democracy grows in the Arab world, so goes the thinking, the region will witness the decline of anti-American terrorism. But is this idea of promoting democracy in the Arab world based on a sound premise? Gause's view is that it is not and I fail to see how we can willy-nilly dismiss him. There is no evidence that democracy in the Arab world will "drain the swamp," eliminating soft support for terrorist organizations among the Arab public and reducing the number of potential recruits for them. Even if democracy were achieved in the Middle East, would newly established Arab democracies cooperate with the US on important policy objectives like curbing terrorism or advancing the Arab-Israel peace process? Quite unlikely. Referring to public-opinion surveys and to recent elections in the Arab world, the advent of the democratic process seems more likely to produce new Islamist governments that would be much less willing to cooperate with the US than are the current authoritarian rulers. This, of course, is not an argument against the desirability in principle of democracy. It is a judgment as to its probable immediate effect. This belief in the link between terrorism and lack of democracy is not limited to the Bush administration. Liberal Democrats have also been equally promulgating democratic slogans, although conservative converts propagate them with a certain sense of vengeance. Figures published by the US government do not bear out claims of a close link between terrorism and authoritarianism either. Between 2000 and 2003, 269 major terrorist incidents occurred in countries classified as "free," 119 occurred in "partly free" and 138 in "not free" countries. (These figures exclude terrorist attacks by Palestinians on Israel, which would increase the number of attacks in democracies.) An interesting observation is made by Gause when he discusses India. He says that as strong as Indian democracy is, a sitting prime minister and a former prime minister were assassinated on its territory. If democracy reduced the prospects of terrorism, India's numbers would not be so high. And when referring to us, Gause says, the "strong and admirable democratic system in Israel has produced its own terrorists, including the assassin of [Yitzhak] Rabin." The problem with promoting democracy in the Arab world is thus not due to Arab dislike of democracy; it is that America probably would not like the governments democratically elected. Nor would we. The conclusions of this analysis are clear: Rather than push for quick elections, the US (and others) should instead focus their energy on encouraging the development of secular, nationalist and liberal political organizations that could compete on an equal footing with Islamic fanatic parties. Looking for a model? Watch what has been happening in Turkey. When we turn to the second challenge, we find the following statement: "As events now suggest, the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker." The authors point to Russia and China as evidence that economic growth does not necessarily produce liberal democracy. Although China's economy has grown explosively over the last 25 years, its politics have remained essentially stagnant. The explanation is that authoritarian regimes are getting better and better at avoiding the political fallout of economic growth. China has periodically blocked access to Google's English-language news service and recently forced Microsoft to block the use of words such as "freedom" and "democracy" on its software used by bloggers. It is quite clear now that promoting economic growth in the developing world may be a sound policy economically and perhaps socially, but oppressive regimes have learned from their collective experience that although development can be dangerous, it is possible to defuse that danger to a considerable extent. The assumption that foreign investments in infrastructure, health care or literacy would lead to expanding the middle class and eventually democracy just is not realistic. Foreign aid has tended to bolster rather than to undermine undemocratic leaders. That does not imply that it would be better to stop investing in economic development. What it does mean is that the magic formula that development creates liberal democracy is not necessarily true. The implications of these observations should not suggest resignation and despair. It would be better to follow a more cautious course, giving up dreams of sweeping changes overnight and accepting the "lesser evil" approach over the glittering messianic promises that don't deliver the expected results. The writer is a former ambassador to Mexico and the Netherlands.