Democratic Fundamentalism Part I. Thoughts on Haiti, Cuba, Iraq and Kosovo

March 3, 2004 Topic: DemocracySociety Tags: Sociology

Democratic Fundamentalism Part I. Thoughts on Haiti, Cuba, Iraq and Kosovo

"First, modernization.  Then, democratization."



"First, modernization.  Then, democratization."  Over the past week, several different visitors to the offices of The National Interest, in commenting on the U.S. agenda for the "greater Middle East," have uttered a version of that maxim. One of our guests shared his unease at the "democratic fundamentalism" that he finds has gripped a number of American policymakers: the belief - and here I stress the faith-based aspect of this proposition - that mandating the forms of political democracy trumps the need for extensive effort to construct long-term, stable, viable political and economic institutions.


Let me state for the record that I am no opponent of democracy.  I do not subscribe to the position that democracy is suitable as a form of government only for certain nations or cultures. I agree that when a society is more open, more transparent and more responsive to the needs of its citizenry, it tends to be a more stable and predictable actor in international affairs. But I don't sing the virtues of an unstable democracy.

Unstable democracies are produced when a country lacks the basic economic situation needed to sustain a vibrant civil society. Foreign NGO money can serve as seed capital, but as Richard Slaughter noted in the summer 2002 issue of the magazine, "social infrastructure investment must be paid for from general economic gain." Even in "democratizing" countries, such as Russia, the recent debates over media freedom have not been over the government imposing formal censorship, but over who controls the media. So until Russia develops a flourishing small-and-medium business enterprise culture, where media outlets can be self-financing due to advertising, the state of media freedom will always remain vulnerable to the pressure that the state or oligarchs can levy. And this situation has been replicated in many other "newly-democratic" countries around the world.

Haiti serves as a unwelcome reminder that democracies are not created on the backs of "humanitarian interventions."  There is a reason why nearly every report on the island contains the phrase that "Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere." Ten years ago, the United States restored to power a "democratically-elected president" who was expected to undertake fundamental reforms to transform his country; today we escort that same president into exile. (One can also note the parallels with Georgia, which is in terms of the former Soviet space one of the region's poorest countries, and the experience of Eduard Shevardnadze, hailed ten years ago as a great reformer and now ignobly remembered as a failed president.)

And Haiti had a number of key advantages that most parts of the "greater Middle East" do not.  The Haitian diaspora in the United States should have provided a ready link of aid and experience back to the ancestral homeland. But two factors conspired to defeat democracy's hopes. The first was the lack of any substantial, self-sustaining civil society infrastructure. But the second, and a factor no less important, was the inability of the leadership to promote fundamental change in society.

Last fall, Ray Takeyh and I took a considerable amount of flak for suggesting that, in order to pursue fundamental economic and social reforms, an Iraqi government would need to be insulated, for the short term, from popular pressure in order to make the "hard decisions." But comparing the experience of two relatively poor countries - Jordan and Haiti - shows that having a government somewhat insulated from pressure from below can help to build stable, viable institutions. In Haiti, the government moved to dismantle institutions such as the military but was unable to construct new bases for support.

"Creative destruction" failed in Haiti because the soil was not fertile for building the institutions needed to shape and sustain a liberal democracy. And the government lacked the power to force through the changes that would be needed. And this raises questions for the fate of the other island in the Caribbean currently enduring an authoritarian government. When biology "solves" the Cuban question, what happens to the existing institutions of government? Will they be dismantled as part of the ancien regime? Or will they be maintained and "democratized" from within? Or are we pinning our hopes on an exile community that will be able to return and assume power?

And what does this portend for the end result of two other major interventions designed to reshape an entire society and create vibrant, flourishing, tolerant liberal democracies and multi-ethnic societies, namely Kosovo and Iraq? If Haiti's ten year experiment under a restored Aristide is the roadmap, are the other two on the same track about to reach the same stations--peacekeeper overstretch, donor fatigue, failed institutions, exit strategy?

What now for Haiti? New elections? Investment in the re-creation of a professional and nonpolitical military able to serve as the arm of a rejuvenated state? Targeted aid for reconstruction?

And here, I think the best advice needs to be: modernization first, democratization second.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the editor of In the National Interest.