Advancing Democracy Abroad

Friday, July 2, 2010

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those others that have been tried from time to time.
—Winston Churchill

If Churchill was right, it has taken the world a long time to appreciate his wisdom. For millennia, monarchs, emperors, and kings ruled on supposed authority from God. In the name of the Almighty, they claimed legitimacy over alternative methods of government, including democracy. In the twentieth century, communist and fascist thinkers crafted alternative political models to both monarchy and democracy. When these ideologues seized control of powerful states such as Germany and Russia, a normative debate about democracy and its alternatives accompanied the power struggle between the world’s superpowers. As late as 1942, only twelve democratic regimes existed in the world. The ideological contest between communism and democracy was particularly competitive, since communist doctrine championed normatively appealing goals, including modernization and equality. For a while, the Soviet economic model of state ownership and fixed prices produced growth rates on par with or higher than those of capitalist economies.

Eventually, command economies faltered, opponents to communist dictatorship strengthened, the Soviet empire collapsed, and this challenger to democracy as a system of government all but vanished, except for a few isolated pockets of true believers left in Havana, Moscow, and Berkeley. However, the idea that autocracies are better than democracies at producing such valued public goods as economic growth, stability, and order is alive and well throughout the world. The Chinese economic miracle, stewarded by a Communist Party dictatorship, provides a powerful contemporary challenge to Churchill’s claim. Stability is a highly valued condition that some think autocracies are better at providing than democracies. The calm and predictability of monarchies in Morocco and Saudi Arabia look rather attractive when compared to the chaos of Afghanistan or Iraq.

As late as 1942, only twelve democratic regimes existed in the world.

Some critics of democracy also claim that autocracies are better at providing order and rule of law. Others contend that democratizing states are more likely to initiate war than other kinds of regimes. Still others believe that democratization weakens state power and therefore the ability of these states to fight terrorism or other nasty authoritarian regimes. More subtly, some argue that democracy is a good system of government, but only for some peoples and at the appropriate time.

In addition, the close association of the idea of democracy with the United States has compelled some critics of American power to become opponents of democracy. Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants have been most adept in using this line of thought to develop an ideological movement, which not only rejects democracy as the best system of government but offers an alternative values-based polity. Few people in the world actually subscribe to Osama bin Ladenism and its ideological soul mates, but anti-Americanism around the world has generated increased antipathy toward liberal and democratic values.

These critics are wrong. Democracy is a difficult form of government. As a construct for making governing decisions, democracy cannot solve all problems immediately. But compared to other regimes, democracy is a better system of government—one that can produce economic development just as well as autocracies do and one that does not produce or encourage greater conflict than other forms of government. Churchill was right.


From time to time, benevolent leaders have come to power in autocratic regimes and governed effectively and justly. European and Asian history is peppered with kings and queens who seemed to rule with an eye toward the common good. More recently, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s autocratic ruler for three decades, is credited by some with providing peace, stable government, and economic growth for his people without egregiously violating their human rights. A few monarchs in the Middle East and Asia, as well as a couple of strongmen in Central Asia and Southeast Asia, also have provided public goods to those beyond their immediate families or entourages. At the same time, some democracies do not govern effectively, failing to protect human rights or represent the will of the people. Yet, on average, a democratic system of government benefits the populace more than any other system.

Few people in the world actually subscribe to Osama bin Ladenism and its ideological soul mates, but anti-Americanism is generating increased antipathy toward liberal and democratic values.

First and foremost, democracy provides the best institutional arrangement for holding rulers accountable to the people. If leaders must compete for popular support to stay in power, they will respond to their citizens’ preferences. Rulers who do not need popular support to gain or maintain power will likely be responsive instead to whatever group—the family, the military, the mullahs, or the Communist Party—controls their fate. The larger the number of people needed to elect a leader, the more inclined that leader will be to pursue public policies that benefit the majority. Not surprising, therefore, democracies produce greater social welfare compared to autocracies at similar income levels.

Second, the institutions of democracy prevent abusive rule, constrain bad government, and provide a way to get rid of corrupt or ineffective leaders. Truly oppressive leaders cannot remain in power for long if they must seek the electoral mandate of those being oppressed.

Autocrats face no such constraints. Mass terror and genocide occur in autocracies, not democracies. Democracies do not prevent all abusive behavior, but over the centuries, democratic leaders have unquestionably inflicted less pain and suffering on their people than have autocratic leaders. Josef Stalin and the Soviet regime sent 28.7 million people to forced labor camps, 2.7 million of whom died while incarcerated. Stalin consciously starved millions in Ukraine in the 1932–33 famine known as the holodomor and ordered the political execution of millions more during his bloody reign. Adolf Hitler not only unleashed carnage through war but murdered 6 million Jews and millions more Poles, Gypsies, and others in his concentration camps. In China, Mao may have killed more than 70 million people during his reign, including the roughly 38 million who died during a horrific famine generated by government policies. In only four years, Pol Pot exterminated roughly a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Idi Amin in Uganda, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia also systematically slaughtered their own citizens.

The carnage within democracies during the same century is tragic, but its breadth is not on the same scale. In the twenty-first century, autocratic regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Burma inflict pain on their citizens in a manner with no parallel in democratic countries.

Famine, incidentally, is a phenomenon of dictatorships, not democracies. Amartya Sen notes in his work “the remarkable fact that in the terrible history of modern famines in the world, no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” Ironically, skeptics in the democracy promotion debate in the United States often argue that “bread-and-butter issues should come first,” or “it is hard to care about your vote when you are starving.” What these critics fail to recognize is that people often starve because they do not have the power to vote.

Finally, democracy stimulates political competition that helps to generate higher-quality officials in government. Just as market competition leads to better products, political competition produces better leaders, ideas, and organizations. At a minimum, democracy provides a mechanism for getting rid of bad or incompetent rulers in a way that autocracy does not. The absence of political competition in autocracies produces complacency, corruption, and no mechanism for generating new talent.


For most of history, non-democratic forms of government enjoyed normative legitimacy and were widely practiced. For thousands of years, monarchies (and the supreme leader in Iran still today) claimed that their authority to rule came from God, and their subjects often believed them. Earlier in history, monarchies also were considered to be effective regimes compared to other forms of government. Colonial rulers claimed that spreading civilization to the savages was the normative justification for their non-democratic subjugation of others. Similarly, autocrats in ethnically divided countries have invoked ideas of ethnic superiority of one group over another as justification for dictatorship. In the twentieth century, fascist and communist regimes offered a new, modern alternative to both democracy and earlier forms of autocracy.

As serious ideological challengers to democracy, though, most of these earlier forms of government have lost their appeal. A handful of monarchies persist in the Middle East and Asia, but only just barely. Fascism, thankfully, disappeared after the Second World War and has resurrected itself only intermittently since then. The communist challenge lasted longer because the Soviet Union’s command economy produced growth rates on par with or higher than those of capitalist economies for several decades, yet eventually they faltered, and therefore too that model of government.

New variants of autocracy have taken root in several states emerging from the USSR’s dissolution, while autocrats who still call their regimes communist remain in power in China and Vietnam. Yet none of these dictators now champions an alternative form of government, claiming instead that their regimes are in fact democratic—just a particular kind of democracy, such as the “sovereign” democracy in Russia. Other rulers embrace an abstract idea of democracy, and contend they are moving their countries slowly and pragmatically towards developing this form of government. In his speech to the Seventeenth Congress of the Chinese Community Party on October 15, 2007, General Secretary Hu Jintao mentioned the word “democracy” sixty-one times. In a similar spirit, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao argued in a September 2008 interview that China was progressing toward democracy.

Illiberal creeds, racist norms, patrimonial rituals, and antidemocratic ideologies persist in pockets throughout the world, but only Osama bin Ladenism and its variants constitute a serious transnational alternative to liberal democracy today. Bin Laden is currently the world’s most successful propagandist of a set of illiberal, antimodern, antidemocratic, quasi-religious ideas. Bin Laden and the more serious thinkers who preceded him, including the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb, reject democracy as the best system of government and recommend an alternative theocratic system. Bin Laden views democracy as a concept closely associated with a Jewish-American alliance whose goal, he believes, is “to get rid of Islam itself.” In what he sees as a Manichean struggle to preserve his religion and way of life, bin Laden rejects all Western liberal concepts and instead promotes a form of governance that places religious laws he believes are dictated by God above manmade rules. Periodically, bin Laden also has called for the restoration of the caliphate, the reign of an Islamic ruler.

Skeptics often argue that “bread-and-butter issues should come first.” What they fail to recognize is that people often starve because they don’t have the power to vote.

For radical Islamists, democracy is a foreign concept closely associated with non-Muslim cultures and religions, which makes its practice anti-Muslim. As Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahari, put it, “Whoever labels himself as a Muslim democrat or a Muslim who calls for democracy is like saying he is a Jewish Muslim or a Christian Muslim.” More generally, adherents to this strain of Islamic fundamentalism see democracy as an attempt to replace God’s will with human will.

After decades of decline, Osama bin Ladenism gained new vibrancy after September 11, 2001, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Yet the spike in bin Laden’s appeal did not last long, and this ideological alternative has been unable to challenge democracy’s reputation as the world’s most valued political system. Even as disdain for U.S. power in the Middle East skyrocketed, proponents of antidemocratic ideas and forms of government have not enjoyed a commensurate rise in support. In a survey conducted in six Arab countries in October 2005, Shibley Telhami found that 77 percent of respondents believed that Iraqis were worse off since the American-led invasion, but only 6 percent of these respondents sympathized with Al-Qaeda’s goal of creating an Islamic state.

The more people who elect a leader, the more inclined that leader will be to pursue policies that benefit the majority. Autocrats face no such constraints.

Nor have political organizations sympathetic to Al-Qaeda’s antidemocratic theorems gained power. Terrorist organizations continue to attack citizens living in democracies, but they have yet to actually threaten any democratic regime’s hold on power. In Iraq, Al-Qaeda’s presence rose in 2004–5 but declined precipitously in 2007–8. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine remain powerful actors, but their guns and social services—not their embrace of antidemocratic ideologies—are the determinants of their political success. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is gaining strength, but that is due in large measure to the ineffectiveness of the Karzai administration in Kabul, not to a renaissance in illiberal thinking among the Afghan people. In Iran, the actual institutions of dictatorship remain, but the ideological appeal of the Islamic Republic of Iran as an alternative regime has faded dramatically, and even Iranian government officials claim to be practicing a form of democracy.

Paradoxically, bin Laden’s resurgence after September 11 has helped to provoke greater discussion about democracy in the wider Middle East. Arab intellectuals who contributed to the United Nations Arab Human Development Report propelled the issue of democracy to the forefront by stating boldly that the “freedom deficit [in the Arab region] undermines human development and is one of the most painful manifestations of lagging political development.” In recent years, Arab civil leaders and intellectuals have convened several international conferences to discuss and promote democracy’s development. Even Islamist parties in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in Morocco, and Islamist parties in Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, and Jordan have embraced a discourse about democracy as the best system of government.

Of course, Islamist leaders’ interpretation of democracy may be very different from those in the West, and they may be using this tentative discussion of democracy as a tactic to seize power. But Islamist groups propose no alternative to democracy, and this represents a major and recent change in the ideological debate about democracy and its alternatives.


If one were to argue that the United States is morally compelled to help make the world a better place, then it would follow that supporting democratic development in other countries should be a goal of American foreign policy. (The central purpose of American power, however, is not to make the world a better place. Rather, American leaders must first ensure the security and prosperity of the American people.)

Democracy has clear advantages over other kinds of regimes. Democracies represent the will of the people and constrain the power of the state. They avoid the worst kinds of economic disasters, such as famine, and the political horrors, such as genocide, that occur in autocracies. On average, democracies also produce economic development just as well as other forms of government. Democracies also tend to provide for more stable government and more peaceful relations with other states. Finally, democracy is what most people in the world want.