Inglorious Revolutions

Inglorious Revolutions

Mini Teaser: Revolutions rarely produce stable democracies and human rights overnight—and it's foolish to expect otherwise.

by Author(s): David A. Bell

In contrast, the populations of countries with recent revolutions have had far weaker incentives to establish these sorts of institutions. Take Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, homes of the “Rose” and “Tulip” Revolutions of 2003 and 2005. Observers like Haring and Cecire have a simple explanation for why these revolutions “failed” (their blunt verdict): “Quite simply, the rule of law never took root.” In fact, they chide the revolutionaries for making what they call “a key mistake: They took the revolutions themselves as the apogee of democracy rather than focusing on the hard, grinding work of institution-building.” But what incentive did the populations of Georgia or Kyrgyzstan have to respect the rule of law and democratic governance? What incentive have the competing groups in Egypt had since 2011? Has the United States been offering massive economic aid in return for progress toward free-market democracy? Has the European Union been offering a quick timetable for membership? The “hard, grinding work of institution-building” depends on a large degree of popular cooperation. But most people in these countries have not seen any great benefit to be obtained from such cooperation, while seeing all too clearly the dangers of allowing opponents to seize power, or of not taking advantage of the chance for their faction to enrich itself while it can.

MANY DIFFERENT factors help populations to play by the rules, and to resist temptations to crush traditional enemies or to treat the state as little more than an instrument of personal enrichment. Ingrained habits of rigid social discipline, found in such widely different societies as colonial New England and twentieth-century Japan, can serve, given the proper conditions, to dampen forms of behavior that damage democratic cooperation. Inspiring, charismatic leaders committed to such cooperation—a Washington or a Mandela—can play a critical part as well. The role of eloquently formulated revolutionary principles in inspiring loyalty to democratic institutions should not be underestimated. But these factors are rarely enough. Incentives matter hugely. Furthermore, providing a clear incentive structure is arguably just about the only possible way to “jump start” democratic revolutions and bring them to a successful, rapid conclusion, especially in countries that have long traditions of division, corruption and intolerance.

In short, it is unreasonable, even rather absurd, to expect revolutions to usher in stable representative democracies that respect human rights virtually overnight. It is condescending and cruel to scold countries for their “failure” to reproduce, within a span of a year or two, what took France, the United States and many other countries decades or even centuries to achieve. We need to recognize that even the establishment of supposedly limited, nonutopian goals may well require a revolutionary process that lasts for many years or decades, and that may involve a good deal of violence, chaos and abuse along the way, including abuse by people we would like to think of as the good guys. In fact, just about the only way to avoid this kind of process (which itself may well eventually fail anyway) is to provide a serious external incentive structure, involving long-term commitments to large-scale aid and protection. Clearly, the West is in no position to start massive new aid programs to democratic revolutionaries across the world. But in that case, we have no cause to tout our own superiority over peoples just starting out on the long and difficult road that took us so very long to travel. Quite the contrary.

David A. Bell is the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor in the Era of North Atlantic Revolutions at Princeton University.

Image: Pullquote: It is condescending and cruel to scold countries for their “failure” to reproduce, within a span of a year or two, what took France, the United States and many other countries decades or even centuries to achieve.Essay Types: Essay