Paul Pillar

False Cheers for Democracy

A familiar conventional wisdom about how the last two U.S. administrations have approached democratization abroad has come up repeatedly in connection with crises in several foreign countries. George W. Bush is seen as the president who tried to promote democracy actively and proactively, even using military force in the effort, while Barack Obama is described as favoring a more diffident, lead-from-behind approach that defers to the initiative of the people to be democratized. There certainly have been significant differences in the approaches of the two presidents regarding political change abroad, and supporters of each approach voice well-rehearsed arguments in Peter Baker's review in the New York Times of current policy debate about the turmoil in Ukraine. Former Bush administration official Paula Dobriansky accuses the Obama administration of “disinterest in democracy promotion and an unwillingness to lead,” while deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes says, “These democratic movements will be more sustainable if they are seen as not an extension of America or any other country, but coming from within these societies.”

Note that both Dobriansky and Rhodes refer specifically to democracy or democratic movements even though democracy is only one of several attributes that we might like to see in foreign political systems, and toward which we might want systems lacking those attributes to evolve. There also are, for example, several attributes that would come under the liberal part of liberal democracy and that involve civil liberties and limitations on what a government can do to its citizens. Those may be very important both to us and to the populations concerned, but they are something different from democracy, which has to do with the selection of rulers through some active and orderly expression of preference by the ruled. It often has been observed that for democracy to work well requires more than just the holding of elections. That is true, but holding fair elections and respecting their results, although not sufficient for successful democracy, is necessary for it and even a core part of the concept of democracy.

Here is where the invocation of democracy has been mistaken and misplaced. Some of the most enthusiastic proponents of active, U.S.-led promotion of democracy have more than once in recent months cheered what is one of the clearest possible negations of democracy: overthrow through nondemocratic means of a freely elected leader. This happened last July in Egypt when the Egyptian military removed from office Mohamed Morsi, who had been chosen president in a free and fair election. Now it has happened again with the ouster from the Ukrainian presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. There were good reasons to doubt the fairness of the election when Yanukovych first tried for the presidency in 2004 and the Orange Revolution ensued. But that was not the case with the election of 2010. Yanukovych's political opponent Yulia Tymoshenko alleged that this election result also was fraudulent, but the allegations did not stand up. All the pre-election polls and exit polls had Yanukovych winning, and in the official tally his winning margin was almost a million votes. International observers accepted the election result as fair and valid.

In each of these two cases the ouster of the leader followed a combination of unrest in the streets of the capital and more pointed action by security forces. In Egypt that action was a traditional military coup. In Ukraine—where the military conspicuously stayed out of the conflict—it was police striking deals with protest leaders under which the police would walk away from their posts.

There are many criteria by which we in the West can assess what is good and what is bad about the events in these countries and any others in which similar political change occurs. What happens to democracy is only one of those criteria. There are the various issues of human rights and governmental integrity, and in this respect an end to the more thuggish and corrupt aspects of Yanukovych's presidency may be a good thing. (Zbigniew Brzezinski describes Yanukovych as “a mendacious schemer, a coward and a thief.”) And for realist observers, the foreign policy orientation of a government may be at least as important as any of the internal considerations.

Each individual case is worthy of assessment in its own right. The two cases mentioned here are quite different in important respects. Some of the cheering over Morsi's ouster reflected an ignoble Islamophobia that is not a factor in Ukraine. The alternatives to the ousted leadership are also quite different; in Egypt it is a restored authoritarian military regime, while in Ukraine we can still hope it will be something not just different but more to the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

In any assessment, we should be clear and honest about our concepts and terms. We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong. We should not automatically apply it to phenomena that involve in some messy way “people power”—while bearing in mind that people in the streets of a capital are not necessarily speaking and acting for most of their countrymen, or for people in the streets of, say, Kharkiv or Donetsk. Misuse of the term democracy exacerbates confusion in our own thinking about the criteria we are applying to assessments of foreign situations and the reasons we do, or should, favor or oppose a particular development. It also cheapens the concept of democracy itself and encourages cynicism about it.