The Buzz

Democracy Promotion and the Pottery Barn Rule

A recent New York Times piece by Jim Marshall argued that “courageous” Afghan president Hamid Karzai is “in a perfect position now to secure his place in Afghan history by insuring that future elections will be more fair and credible than past ones have been.” Karzai’s commitment to transparent democracy may be up for debate, but that isn’t the most interesting aspect of the piece.

More notable is Marshall’s too-brief exploration of America’s dilemma in the upcoming Afghan elections. He notes that many Afghans “[feel] strongly that the United States should already be pressing the government and the international community for a final plan for fair elections; it should also provide the necessary support to guarantee its execution.” Indeed,  “for the vast majority of Afghans, . . . anything less than forceful, visible American leadership would be viewed as tacit United States support for an electoral process that gives unfair advantages to some ethnic groups or individuals.”

Two interlocking ideas are at play here. The first is the so-called “Pottery Barn rule,” the “you break it, you own it” school of foreign policy in which a country that “engages in military operations against another country incurs some obligation to clean up after the fact”—essentially, postintervention nation building as a moral imperative. By this logic, Washington is responsible for the shoddy democracy in Iraq, and NATO should answer for troubled democratic transitions in Libya and Kosovo. And what of Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti? Or, for that matter, any number of former colonies throughout Africa and the Middle East?

The second notion is that the United States should act as a sort of global democracy police. If declining to interfere in Afghan politics indicates U.S. support for unfair elections, does it follow that if America lets any country, anywhere, run its own democracy and that democracy turns out to be substandard—tainted by rigged elections, say, or dominated by corrupt officials—then Washington is tacitly in bed with the bad guys?

In its singular focus on Karzai, Marshall's piece does not sufficiently grapple with these questions.