The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy

The Impossible Imperative? Conjuring Arab Democracy

Mini Teaser: Arab democracy is no oxymoron, but expecting it in time to remedy our 9/11 problem is unrealistic.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

The first problem concerns the presumption that Arab democracy will equate to a "peaceful swath" in the Middle East. The truth is that semi-institutionalized populist democracies can make war more likely; that, specifically in the "transitional phase of democratization, countries become more aggressive and war-prone, not less." This is particularly so in contemporary non-Western societies where democratization intersects with the recrudescence of identity politics to produce what Samuel Huntington calls the "democracy paradox": democracy facilitates the rise to power of groups that appeal to indigenous ethnic and religious loyalties that are likely to be anti-Western and-here is the paradox-anti-democratic in the not-very-long run. We have already seen this phenomenon at work in Muslim domains like Indonesia and northern Nigeria, and one example nipped in the bud in Algeria. We know that mainstream opinion in most Arab countries is more anti-Western than that of the regimes now governing them, so why, then, if that opinion comes to drive government policy-instead of merely complicating it, as it does today-should we expect peace to break out?

The second problem is that a successful campaign to bring democracy to the domains of rogues and villains really does presuppose either a major shift in U.S. attitudes toward the undemocratic ruling classes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and others that we have long called our friends, or a permanent condition of blatant diplomatic hypocrisy. If we do suddenly begin to act as though our long-time authoritarian allies are really enemies blocking the democratization of their countries (and with it the best guarantee of our protection from mass-casualty terrorism), we will, in effect, be choosing bad relations with ten mostly well-entrenched regimes, without any reasonable near-term prospect of replacing them with democratic governments. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, might not even be an option: How could we possibly isolate the impact of a democratic Iraq (and Palestine) from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, or from our relationships with their leaders?

The third problem is even more fundamental: Can we do it? Are Muslim, and particularly Arab, political cultures so malleable that within a generation or two we can transform most, or even some, of them into genuine liberal democracies? Perhaps we can. But perhaps in our desperation to achieve absolute security in a newly perilous world, we are distorting the social history of democracy and misreading the nature of the societies whose political virtue we mean to raise up. If this is the case, then we are in for much frustration, not to mention a misdirection of effort and resources, in the years ahead. Walter Lippmann once warned that it is a disease of the soul to be in love with impossible things, so it may repay effort to look more closely at this third problem.

The Difficulty of Democracy

Democracy is wonderful. What makes it wonderful, in part anyway, is that, like all we love or cherish, it is rare, fleeting or fragile. Genuine democracy, after all, is not a natural condition of social life but a refined achievement of it-so, clearly, believed Locke, Montesquieu and the American Founders after them. These were men who stood second to none in affirming the blessings of liberty, but they never assumed that all social and economic virtue depended on the adoption of a particular form of government-what Samuel Taylor Coleridge ruefully called the "talismanic influence" of government over "our virtues and our happiness." They saw things the other way around: that a particular form of government was the consequence of a people's social, moral and historical experience. As Rousseau summarized Montesquieu's essential argument: "Liberty, not being a fruit of all climates, is not within the reach of all peoples." Locke thought he knew why: "The State of Nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and Reason, which is that Law, teaches all Mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions." But most men did not, or could not, consult reason, and so to "turn [a man] loose to an unrestrain'd Liberty, before he has Reason to guide him, is not allowing him the priviledge of his Nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst Brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched, and as much beneath that of a man, as theirs."

The American Founders, Jefferson in particular, were more optimistic than their European forbears about the prospects for "an empire of liberty", but they knew that democracy required certain dispositional prerequisites that, while theoretically universal, were in practice very scarce. They remained scarce for a long time, too. Before World War I, democracy was limited to the English-speaking world, France, and a few other developing forms in Holland, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. After 1919, democratic experiments in Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland and elsewhere proved mostly ill-fated, which explains why no one in the first part of the 20th century equated the now evocative adjective "Western" with the even more evocative adjective "democratic." So how then, if democracy is so difficult and has obviously been so rare, do we explain the successive "waves" of democratization in the second half of the 20th century and the fact that, since the end of the Cold War, democracy has become a virtually unchallenged norm of political best-practice?

Some answer by questioning the credentials of new democracies. If one looks beyond the occasional election to empirically-grounded measures of political pluralism-such as those of Robert Dahl's polyarchy scale-one sees mostly illiberal, marquee, or "managed" democracies, where there are no mass-based parties and where the true locus of political authority is not subject to removal by electoral means. But others argue that a larger number of societies are simply doing the difficult more often and with greater sustained success. Increased urbanization and literacy, the power of the information revolution, the growing number of democracies that work in both political and economic terms, and the magnetism of American power are factors advancing the democratic revolution far more rapidly than even Woodrow Wilson would have thought possible. Attitudes are changing, they argue; social preconditions are being met-in other words, the trends are real.

Since optimists and pessimists alike understand democracy not as a dichotomous variable (i.e., that it either exists or doesn't) but a cardinal one (i.e., that it can exist to a greater or lesser extent), democracy can be both difficult and easy simultaneously: easy to desire and pursue, difficult to achieve quickly or in full. How one judges depends on the interests brought to bear on the subject-in other words, on the political context in which the argument is couched. There have been three successive layers of context in recent years.

The first of these contexts is of Cold War origin: If democracy were easy, then defeating Soviet Communism-rather than merely deterring and containing it-would be possible. Cold War idealists saw democracy expansion as a means of rollback and victory, a view embodied in the second Reagan Administration. Left-wing idealists reasoned that the relative ease of democratic development undermined the rationale for supporting "friendly tyrants"-U.S. Cold War allies of ill repute. Both wings favored "exporting" democracy, and both accepted the main predicates of democratic peace theory: that democracies make good neighbors, and that the ultimate implications of democratization for international security would be unambiguously positive.

Those who held democracy hard to do, realists in the main, tended to see the Cold War as a virtually permanent condition, one to be managed through traditional balance-of-power geopolitics and balance-of-resolve diplomacy. They regarded the export of democracy as very difficult, for they credited culture with composing a deeper layer of political inertia than idealists and liberals would admit. They wondered how universal Western political values really were or could become in a practicable timeframe. They defended most relations with friendly authoritarians as justifiable lesser evils. As to democratic peace theory, many admitted general tendencies but were skeptical of it as a law of history, particularly as applied to non-Western cultures where too little democratic experience existed from which to form a judgment.

A second context was post-Cold War, when the central question became not how the spread of democracy might undermine communism but how it could redeem communism's terrible legacy. Did the collapse of Soviet communism presuppose that all authoritarian socialist systems would become democratic? Were we at the End of History, or would some new form of the Nietzschean will to power arise? What was the relationship between democracy and market economics? In the first post-Cold War years of globalization, economic reform took pride of place for many. (The irony of the United States taking a materialist approach to democratization in the former "second world", after having just spent half a century battling the most wicked and dangerous form of materialism ever, should not go unremarked, but this is not the place to speak of it further.) But since democracy was not an all-or-nothing condition but a process, the progress of which often rested in the eyes of beholders, disagreement arose as to how democracy was faring in the former Soviet empire and elsewhere. As they gazed through neo-liberal, neo-conservative and realist prisms, each school saw the reflection of its own predispositions.

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