Zakaria's Complaint

Zakaria's Complaint

Mini Teaser: It's a mistake, argues Fareed Zakaria, to conflate constitutional liberalism with democracy. It's a mistake, says Thomas Carothers, to exaggerate the extent to which that mistake actually characterizes U.S. policy.

by Author(s): Thomas Carothers


Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 256 pp., $24.95.

FOLLOWING the paths of Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kaplan and other authors of highly successful "state-of-the-world" articles, Fareed Zakaria has turned his much discussed 1997 Foreign Affairs essay, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy", into a book. With more than five years having elapsed in the passage, his slim volume is well-shielded against the possible charge that it is merely an "instant book." The intervening years also allowed a longer-term evaluation of how his original thesis is holding up.

Zakaria's original article hit a major nerve. Enthusiasm about "the worldwide democratic revolution" was rampant in the 1990s. Perceptively sensing that all was not well in the dozens of celebrated democratic transitions around the world, Zakaria punctured that enthusiasm with a sharp analytic arrow. He asserted that the global rush of democratization into previously undemocratic terrain was a dangerous thing. It was producing, he argued, a rash of illiberal democracies, defined roughly as countries where popularly elected leaders, unconstrained by any well-established institutions or habits of law-based liberalism, were trampling political and civil rights and generally making a hash out of democracy. A much better way to proceed, he said, was for a country first to pass through a sustained period of liberalizing autocracy, with gradual expansion of economic liberalization and the rule of law. Only once well down that road should the dangerous wilds of democracy be braved. Like Huntington's "Clash of Civiliz ations" and Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy", Zakaria's article benefited from the inimitable tendency of America's chattering classes periodically to embrace thundering prognostications of gloom and doom as occasional respites from a congenitally optimistic national outlook.

In The Future of Freedom, Zakaria reasserts his core thesis and expands its reach. He applies it to Latin America, South Asia and the Middle East, hitting each of these regional nails with the hammer of his much-admired East Asian model of economic and political development. And he turns his considerable critical faculties to bear on the deleterious consequences of what he believes is excessive democratization in established liberal democracies as well, at least in the United States (contemporary Europe is curiously absent from his tour d'horizon). Too much democracy, he charges, is the source of most of America's contemporary ills, from the decline of authority in American Christianity to the sad performance of American accountants at Enron and elsewhere. His analysis of America's problems verges into the realm of broad cultural criticism. It has that seductive but ultimately doubtful appeal of most such sweeping denunciations of the terrible erosion that modernization is inflicting on supposedly noble (and usually exclusionary) social traditions and standards. His arguments about the prospects for democracy in the rest of the world remain more analytically focused.

Zakaria's guiding formula, which can be summarized as "economic liberalization and the rule of law first, democracy later" may make sense in some contexts, but it is hardly the unerring guide he holds it out to be. Consider, for example, his favorite comparison in support of the formula: China versus Russia. He praises China's ruling communists, arguing that, thanks to their economic policies of the last twenty years, China is relatively well-positioned today to begin political liberalization and achieve "an extraordinary transformation toward genuine democracy." In contrast, he mercilessly criticizes Russia's post-1991 path, labeling it "Russia's democratic tragedy."

Perhaps in the late 1990s, when Russia was mired in a severe financial crisis and China's growth was humming along, this view seemed compelling. Today, however, it is less so. Russia is far from the economic basket case Zakaria makes it out to be, having implemented a number of significant reforms and enjoyed several consecutive years of solid growth (helped, but not solely caused, by high oil prices). And though Putin is a reluctant democrat with limited tolerance for opposition, Russia has increasingly rooted institutions of political pluralism and participation. Most of Russia's major transformative tasks--both economic and political--are behind it. In contrast, China's economic miracle is now bogged down in the swamp of vested interests that has accumulated around its static, overcentralized political structures. The Chinese government is still hesitating over the very idea of political liberalization, terrified that even small steps could unleash turmoil. According to Minxin Pei, whose work Zakaria appro vingly cites on Asia's other transitions, China faces an impending governance crisis of state incapacitation resulting from the Communist Party's failings and the absence of political competition.1 The SARS crisis has only further laid bare the dangers and brittleness of China's governance practices. In short, if one asks which of these two countries is more likely to be a stable, functioning democracy twenty years from now, it is not at all obvious that the answer is China.

Zakaria's application of his thesis to Latin America bounces off a region he clearly knows only glancingly. He holds up Venezuela's regrettable president, Hugo Chavez, as an example of the rise of illiberal democracy in the region. Chavez indeed fits the mold, but his rise cannot be blamed on a rush to democracy without a preparatory period of liberal constitutionalism. Venezuela passed through more than a hundred years of economic development, constitutionalism and various liberalizing (and non-liberalizing) autocrats before finally achieving democracy in the 1950s. The decay of that democratic system in the 1980s and 1990s is a sad story, but one that is about irresponsible political elites and misguided economic policies, not "premature democratization."

More generally, the histories of most Latin American countries are littered with failed attempts to make a transition from liberal autocracies, even sometimes relatively economically successful ones, to democracy. Though it might be nice if countries outside East Asia would mimic East Asia's path, many have tried in one fashion or another and failed miserably. The one positive Latin American example of movement from a liberalizing autocrat (at least liberal in the economic sense) to sustained democracy is Chile, an example that Zakaria invokes repeatedly. But Chile's post-Pinochet democratic success has as much to do with Chile's long pre-Pinochet history of democracy as it does with the economic groundwork Pinochet laid. Uruguay also made a successful transition to democracy in the same decade, without a Pinochet-style economic liberalization program as a precursor, drawing upon a similarly long earlier experience with democracy.

Zakaria is too quick to blame a rush to democracy for the rise of strongmen presidents in many countries. The autocratic leaders in the Caucasus and Central Asia, for example, should be blamed on the legacy of Soviet political rule, not precipitous elections. Zakaria has a point that in some abrupt transitions away from dictatorship, it would surely be better to go slow on national elections and try first to build up a base of liberal restraints and the rule of law. But what to do if the people of the society are pressing for democracy? Should the U.S. government tell them not to? Can it?

Zakaria implies that it is the United States that has pushed the many politically transitional countries around the world in recent decades to launch hastily into democratization, and that, if we had just held off that pressure, they might be enjoying a beneficial period of step-by-step liberalization. Yet Argentina's generals, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, Africa's many post-colonial strongman rulers and numerous other dictators were not driven from power by the United States. They were pushed out by their own people, people desirous of democracy. And the idea that any of those countries might be better off today if such leaders had stayed around for another decade or two, dabbling in slow liberalization, is deeply misguided.

Deferred democratization, which occurs only after the long, slow achievement of constitutionalism, liberalism and prosperity, has indeed worked well in some places and at some times, such as in parts of 19th-century Europe. The problem with this formula, however, is that the global political culture has changed. For better or worse (and I think much for the better), people all around the world have democratic aspirations. Unprepared though their societies may be for democracy, they yearn for a voice and a vote, not several preparatory generations of mild dictatorship. It might be easy to say, for example, that a country like Nigeria--ethnically divided, poor, lacking the rule of law--is badly positioned for democracy and would benefit from several decades of a firm-handed reformist autocrat. But it was Nigerians themselves who clamored for democracy when General Sani Abacha died in 1998, not a meddlesome United States pushing its own ideas on them. And even if Nigerians were somehow to agree they wanted to pu t off pluralism and opt for a wise, benign dictator, how likely is it that they would find such an admirable figure, given their repeated experience of authoritarians who promise to be reformists and turn into thugs?

Democracy may inspire people all around the world, but not Fareed Zakaria. He shudders almost visibly at the messiness of elections (which he likes to call "mass plebiscites"--the "mass" conveying his sense of the dangers lurking in the empowerment of the common man). The American Revolution was for him all about the rule of law, not democracy. In an observation that most Americans would find genuinely odd, he declares that the leading symbol of the American political system, and other successful Western political systems, is not democracy but the impartial judge. He returns repeatedly to the tensions that can arise between democracy and liberalism, arguing that, due to precipitous democratization, the two are coming apart. But he misses the central fact that the expansion of democracy around the world in the past twenty years, riddled though it is with shortcomings, has brought with it huge gains in liberty. Gross abuses of political and civil rights in many parts of Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, centra l and eastern Europe, and the western parts of the former Soviet Union have dropped dramatically since the arrival of the democratic wave.

The sustained exposition of this book compared to Zakaria's original article also makes much clearer his soft spot for autocrats. The heroes of his narrative are Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, Indonesia's former President Suharto, China's communist leaders, Jordan's current and former kings and Tunisia's President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. He gives them the benefit of every doubt. Many readers will be surprised to learn, for example, that Musharraf, whose authoritarian maneuverings made headlines last year, is in fact pursuing "a path of radical political, social, educational, and economic reform." Despite the torture chambers and pervasive, top-level corruption that marked Suharto's rule, he was "far more tolerant" and supportive of the rule of law than Indonesia's shaky but real democracy today. We should be grateful to China's leaders, he argues, for wisely and with great restraint keeping in check a dangerously "nationalistic, aggressive, and intolerant citizenry." And Tunisia's highly repressive police state, recently criticized by Freedom House for "an intensifying campaign of harassment against political opposition", is actually "reasonably open."

The two leaders who draw Zakaria's special ire are not dictators at all but Russia's two elected post-communist presidents, Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Zakaria just cannot say enough bad things about both of them. His bile toward Putin is especially surprising given that Putin's approach of combining economic reform with constrained democracy actually seems in many ways not far from Zakaria's ideal of liberal autocracy. Suharto can brutally suppress political liberties for decades, abuse the legal system for the massive enrichment of himself and his family, and stubbornly refuse to undertake any significant political reforms, yet earn Zakaria's praise as a liberal autocrat. Putin pursues serious economic reforms, steps on, but does not crush, political rights, and undertakes a genuine albeit limited program of rule of law reform, yet is excoriated as an illiberal democrat. One comes away bewildered by Zakaria's use of the terms "liberal" and "illiberal." One has the nagging feeling that if Putin had just not committed the sin of actually being elected, he would be in Zakaria's pantheon of modernizing strongmen rulers.

THE FUTURE of Freedom falls short not just in diagnosis but also prescription. In a chapter on Islam in the modern world, Zakaria skillfully analyzes the grievous political plight of the Arab states and debunks some of the sloppy ideas about Islam that have bubbled up in the post-September 11 context. As he emphasizes, there is no generalized problem of democracy in Islamic societies, the problem is the failure of democracy in the Arab world. And though that failure has many roots, much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Arab leaders of the past forty or fifty years. But his prescription for solving the vexing dilemma that has seized much of Washington these days-- how to democratize the Arab world?--is much less satisfying. Predictably, he calls for a strong dose of the East Asian elixir: a long period of economic liberalization to be followed only much later with political reform and democratization. Egypt, Zakaria thinks, is where we should start by pressing hard for economic reform.

That sounds good, but it overlooks the inconvenient fact that it is precisely the approach the United States has actually been taking for the last twenty years, to almost no effect. Over and over, the U.S. government has pushed and prodded President Hosni Mubarak to get serious about the economic reform program he initiated in the early 1980s. Halting progress has been made, but major structural reforms simply have not been carried out, and there is little sign they will come anytime soon. Why?

Content with his ringing formula of economics first, democracy later, Zakaria overlooks the fact that it is Egypt's stagnant, semi-authoritarian political system that has undermined efforts on economic reform. The static, patronage-ridden Egyptian state is choked with vested, anti-reformist economic interests that thrive in the protected political space around Mubarak. Lacking popular legitimacy that could come from genuine democratic processes, Mubarak badly needs the economic levers of reward and punishment that Egypt's statist economic structures give him to co-opt opponents and reward supporters. In an evasion that does deep damage to his central thesis, Zakaria ignores the fundamental conundrum that crops up in so many troubled countries-- though economic failures do indeed often undermine efforts at democratization, the lack of democratic reforms often blocks efforts to make progress on economic reforms. The appealing formula of economics first, democracy later melts in the real-world cauldron that demands market reform and democratization now, together, difficult as that may be.

Zakaria's other brief forays into specific policy advice also suffer from a lack of serious examination of what policies the United States actually follows. For example, he bewails the fact that in U.S. dealings with developing countries, "elections trump everything", that Washington will forgive a foreign leader any number of sins as long as he or she is elected. That sounds like a telling critique, but it is a myth. It would certainly be news to Slobodan Milosevic, Aleksandr Lukashenko, Vladimir Meciar, Robert Mugabe, Hugo Chavez, Daniel arap Moi and many other noxious leaders of recent years that their having been elected gave them a free pass from the U.S. government. In the past ten years the United States has often been quite tough on these and other elected leaders it does not like, and has sometimes intervened actively in election processes to try to hang them with their own ropes.

Zakaria urges the United States not to foster political change simply through elections but instead to support constitutionalism, the development of competing centers of power, such as strong legislatures and judiciaries, and civil society. But that is exactly what most U.S. democracy-promotion policies and programs already try to do. The percentage of election-related work in the overall pool of U.S. democracy aid has dropped significantly since 1990 to become only a small portion of the overall effort. As with his suggestions for the Middle East, Zakaria recommends mainly what the United States is already doing. His apparent lack of interest in really delving into the question of what U.S. policy actually is leads him to miss a more interesting issue: given that U.S. and European democracy aid already largely conforms to what he recommends, does the parlous state of democracy in so many countries mean that this approach is incorrect, or that democracy aid providers are simply being asked to tackle problems of a magnitude out of proportion to the resources given to them?

IN THE YEARS since the publication of "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy", the course of global political events has made it much clearer that many of the attempted democratic transitions in what Huntington has called democracy's "Third Wave" are not faring well. Zakaria's article usefully attracted attention to the fact that much was not well in the world of new democracies at a time when few wanted to hear that news. He was also right to highlight the deep connections between economic development and democratic performance, providing a helpful corrective to some wishful thinking by democracy enthusiasts that socio-economic realities could somehow be factored out of the democratization agenda.

But with the passage of time between article and book, not only has the seriousness of the Third Wave's travails become more apparent, but so has the heterogeneity of the problems that struggling democracies are encountering. Zakaria's diagnosis of illiberal democracy remains interesting and relevant. Some countries do indeed face this syndrome. But it is inadequate as a broadly-applicable tool for understanding the dilemmas, dangers and disappointments afflicting democracies all around the world. The recent near-collapse of Nepal's transition from monarchical rule, Moldova's slide back into proto-communist rule, Guatemala's turgid effort to break free from its military-dominated past, Cote D'Ivoire's tragic lapse into civil war, Albania's persistent political fecklessness and dozens of other cases of badly troubled democracy have little to do with the phenomenon of illiberal democracy. They reflect a more complex cornucopia of problems and paradoxes, including the challenge of developing meaningful transfers of power in an age of a single dominant economic model, the question of whether the rapid expansion of civil society is overtaking traditional forms of political interest representation, and the devastating reality of the nearly universal collapse in the public credibility of political parties.

In the end, Zakaria's continued insistence in The Future of Freedom that the problem is simply too much democracy too soon has the feel of a meritorious, medium-sized idea being stretched much too thin. But this is the frequent flaw of trenchant articles whose success as provocations compel their return as books.

Thomas Carothers directs the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

1. Minxin Pei, "China's Governance Crisis", Foreign Affairs (September/October 2002).

Essay Types: Book Review