Beyond Bombs and Ballots

Beyond Bombs and Ballots

Mini Teaser: Military misadventures in Iraq should not discredit democracy promotion.

by Author(s): Lincoln Mitchell

A CENTRAL component of American foreign policy since the First World War is now under attack. In popular American perception, democracy promotion has become linked to the aggressive foreign policy of the Bush Administration, most notably the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars are now frequently cited to caricature all democracy assistance as "bombs and ballots" initiatives that depend excessively on military action and elections.

Critics of democracy promotion have emerged primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party and the centrist or realist wing of the Republican Party. Even some neoconservatives and moderate Democrats have joined the chorus, calling for a reduced emphasis on democracy promotion and a return to a more realist, if not isolationist, foreign policy.

Critics seizing on the "ballots" half of the argument highlight the inadequacies of elections in ensuring democracy and their propensity to cause explosive consequences if elections are introduced at the wrong place or time-arguments offered in various ways by Ian Bremmer in "In the Right Direction", from the January/February 2007 issue, and Jack Snyder and Edward D. Mansfied in "Prone to Violence", from the Winter 2005/06 issue. Many critics point particularly to the possible perils of conducting early elections in countries that are ethnically divided or emerging from conflict.

Fair enough-but democracy assistance entails more than just elections. Scholars and practitioners have long been aware of the dangers of relying too heavily on elections as the midwives of peaceful democratization. What's more, academic debates over the ideal sequencing of institution-building and elections are of little value to practitioners and activists within democratizing countries, who understand that strengthening institutions, supporting civil society and conducting elections generally have to be done at the same time.

We would all prefer democratizing countries to conduct elections in contexts where cohesive and accountable political parties elect people to strong legislatures in a climate where the laws are understood and enforced. There's a name for such countries: democracies. Democratizing countries do not meet this panoply of criteria.

Elections in transitional countries are often scheduled by the authoritarian ruler and rigged to ensure reelection of the ruling party. These types of elections raise a different set of challenges. Democrats facing the prospect of a stolen election turn to the United States and Europe for help in somehow making the election fair. In these cases, the West is faced with the choice of working to make the election fairer or ignoring the direct pleas of activists that labor, often at great personal risk, for democratic change. Often it is not feasible to make the elections fair, but supporting these activists in their work and struggle is a different, and more common, aspect of democracy assistance.

And while it is important to recognize that early elections have been perilous for many democratizing countries-particularly in post-conflict settings-elections can also create or accelerate democratic breakthroughs. It is impossible to imagine the color revolutions in the former Soviet Union occurring had there not been elections around which democrats were able to organize. Elections also played key roles in democratic breakthroughs in South American countries, such as Chile and Brazil, where democratic institutions are now relatively strong.

Countries where democracy assistance has helped facilitate democratic development might be considered the quieter success stories of democracy assistance. Examples of countries where this has occurred over the last ten to 15 years include many of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, such as Poland, Lithuania and Hungary, as well as other post-authoritarian countries, such as South Africa and, again, Chile.

A policy of supporting elections and developing other democratic institutions is essential to the success of democracy assistance. It is important to distinguish this from the approach of supporting elections but only after other conditions have been met. By connecting support for elections to meeting pre-conditions involving the development of other democratic institutions, supporters of the latter approach generally put themselves in the de facto position of simply opposing elections.

THE OUTSIZED role Iraq has played in the recent understanding of democracy assistance has contributed to the "bombs" argument's claims that such a policy is driven largely by invasions and wars. A foreign policy that seeks to violently overthrow dictators and thereby spread democracy makes for an easy rhetorical target. But in reality, the overwhelming majority of countries where the United States has assisted democratic development were never invaded by the United States.

Further, it somewhat strains credulity and serious political analysis, when one takes even a cursory look at Iraq's history over the last century, to claim that the current problems in Iraq of instability, violence, ethnic and religious divisions, and the possibility of civil war are occurring because it held elections. What about the consequences of its creation by the British, which put three different ethnic groups in one country; the violent Ba‘athi takeover and brutal regime of Saddam Hussein; Hussein's genocidal policies towards the Kurds and brutality towards the Shi‘a, which exacerbated ethnic tensions; a bloody war against Iran, which cost hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives; defeat at the hands of the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf War; the crippling sanctions following that war; and, finally, an even more devastating defeat at the hands of the United States and Britain in the Iraq War?

Related to the "bombs" myth is the idea that U.S. election assistance is akin to that old wine of foreign policy, involving the anointing of U.S. proxies by force, re-bottled today as "democratization." There is a small kernel of truth in this assertion with regard to those relatively few democracy-assistance programs in which armed intervention is a component. Democracy-assistance efforts in countries such as Panama, Iraq and Serbia certainly did depose leaders who were unfriendly to Washington. But in all three cases there is more to the story.

In Iraq and Panama, for example, the military interventions that led to depositions of Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega were not followed by installations of U.S.-picked leaders, but rather by U.S. support of institution-building, including elections. Some U.S. officials initially supported various Iraqi figures, such as Ahmad Chalabi, as the appropriate successor to Hussein, but Washington shelved such proposals, as it more clearly understood the situation in Iraq.

And in Serbia, Milosevic was forced to leave office after he lost an election that he had called for ahead of schedule to demonstrate his political strength. The United States and some European countries played a key role in training and supporting the opposition coalition and civic groups, which made the election of Vojislav Kostunica possible there. But Kostunica and the new Serbian leadership have proven to be far from unwavering supporters of American interests.

In many cases, particularly in the Middle East, democracy assistance programs have sought to help develop democratic institutions, which might lead to changes in leadership that would not be in the immediate interest of the United States. Clearly, recent efforts to increase election fairness in Egypt, expand suffrage in Kuwait or hold legislative elections in the Palestinian Authority have very little to do with putting pro-American governments in place.

It is unavoidable that assisting democracy also means assisting democrats at times, but most of the real work of democracy assistance is focused on building institutions, not supporting individuals. Helping states develop functioning, transparent and accountable institutions is arduous work that can take years. There are much easier and quicker ways for the U.S. government to get pro-American people in positions of power than by supporting democratization.

The United States also hardly has a monopoly on democracy assistance. The European Union works, often in cooperation with the United States, to consolidate breakthroughs and encourage nascent democratic movements, particularly in post-communist countries and in North Africa. And while elections are central to the democracy promotion debate, election observation has been dominated in recent years by non-American organizations, for example, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office of Democracy and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR), the United Nations, the Organization of American States (OAS) and even the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

ANOTHER CRITICISM-expressed with a tone of exasperation that is usually reserved for stating the obvious-is that democracy simply can't be exported. Those on both the left and right voice this view, as Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) summed up succinctly: "You cannot in my opinion just impose a democratic form of government on a country with no history and no culture and no tradition of democracy."

Decades of empirical evidence, however, contradict this view. Democracy is now strong in countries such as Costa Rica, India, South Africa and Taiwan, which are not exactly Western in their cultural orientation. Moreover, the rapid expansion of democracy over the last 35 years has constantly pushed the boundaries of the community of democratic countries farther away from Europe and North America.

Two of the most important success stories in this area are Japan and Germany. At the end of World War II, it was far from obvious that Japan and Germany would evolve in this direction, and European and American resources and expertise were invaluable in this regard. Many critics allude to Germany's democratic traditions or Japan's own steps towards parliamentary governance, but very few people in the United States or Europe in 1943, or even 1946, thought that Germany's pre-war democratic institutions were strong or would serve as precedents for the people's democratic aspirations-and there were certainly no such expectations for Japan.

Essay Types: Essay