DEMOCRACY NOW? Democracy versus the Rule of Law

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Is democracy—that is, free elections—to be desired at all times for all nations? Or are nations more successful when they establish the rule of law, property rights, and other constitutional liberties first? For the United States, this is no longer an academic question. America is deeply involved in nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Should the establishment of democracy in these countries be the first priority for the United States, or is securing public order and the rule of law more important?

Recorded on Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, a little democracy never hurt anybody, or has it?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: which comes first, democracy or the rule of law? Is democracy, that is free elections, to be desired for all nations at all times or are nations more likely to prove successful if they first establish the rule of law including property rights and certain constitutional liberties? Now that we're deeply involved in nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq, for us in the United States this is no mere academic question. We need to make up our minds.

Joining us today, three guests, Coit Blacker and Donald Emmerson are at the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a scholar at the Center for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law.

Title: Democracy Now?

Peter Robinson: President George W. Bush speaking in February of this year, "The nation of Iraq is fully capable of moving toward democracy." This is a multiple-choice question. The President's statement is A) correct and a proper statement of priorities. That is, we must concentrate on establishing democracy in Iraq. B) correct as far as it goes but a misstatement of priorities. There are more important things to do in Iraq than worry about democracy. C) delusional. Larry?

Larry Diamond: D) it's possible but against very long odds but very important.

Peter Robinson: Chip?

Coit Blacker: B.

Peter Robinson: B? Correct but a misstatement of priorities.

Coit Blacker: Correct.

Peter Robinson: Ah, an intriguing answer. Don?

Donald Emmerson: B, sub one. Correct, a misstatement of priorities and perhaps a misinterpretation of democracy.

Peter Robinson: Really?

Donald Emmerson: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: All right. In 1974, we have 150 nations on earth. You will not disagree with these figures because I lifted them from your article in Policy Review. And in 1974, of those 150 nations, only 41 were democracies, under a third of the total. Today we have 193 nations and 121 or three-fifths of the total are democracies. What happened? Chip?

Coit Blacker: It's the power of an idea coupled with a period of sustained and positive economic growth and development through lots of parts of the world. But there's a qualifier to this. And it turns entirely on how we define democracy. I would not include 120-plus countries of the 193 we have in the international system. I would not include those on a list that was headed by the word democracy.

Larry Diamond: There is something like 110-120 democracies if we define democracy in the most minimal sense as a system of government in which the rulers of the country are chosen in relatively free, fair and regular elections. By that count, I think probably not quite 120, that's the count of Freedom House, but I'd say maybe 110. And what happened is as Chip said, there was a burst of economic development over several decades that carried dozens of countries to higher standards of living but I think no less important was the failure of virtually all authoritarian alternatives. Communism collapsed. It was totally bankrupt. And Carter to Reagan to Bush and Clinton all were very active in promoting democracy internationally.

Peter Robinson: Okay. So Don, this is an event, this march of democracy which should fill your heart with joy because it suggests that human society even far-flung places in the third world, human society can figure things out and grope toward systems that are just and successful. You're pleased with it? Right?

Donald Emmerson: Well, I'm pleased up to a point, only up to a point.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Donald Emmerson: Because if you imagine--just to construct a kind of extreme image here of what concerns me--a façade democracy in which elections give rise to the worst kind of demagoguery and populism in which all kinds of decisions are taken that actually routinely violate the public interest but in the name of the majority. And never mind minority groups and minority rights and those inalienable rights of the individual that a Supreme Court might protect. I mean, in this context, the Supreme Court looks like a pocket of autocracy. Who elected these people?

Peter Robinson: Nine unelected figures...

Donald Emmerson: Exactly. So I would argue as a liberal democrat that electoral democracy is really only a way station on the road to what you really want, which is a fully liberal democracy.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, what do our guests make of the thesis that democracy can be antithetical to real freedom?

Title: Let us Now Praise Strong Men

Peter Robinson: Fareed Zakaria, whose hot new book, The Future of Freedom, we can't avoid discussing in any discussion of democracy now. He writes, "Yugoslavia and Indonesia, for example--" using a passage here pointing out faults in some of these new democracies-- "were far more tolerant when they were ruled by strongmen. We need not more democracy but less." Right? Good point.

Larry Diamond: This is what the fault in Fareed Zakaria's argument is. It's a very learned book particularly historically. It's a very provocative book and I think it's got some important ideas. The problem is that he selects out a very few cases and says as they moved toward greater democracy, they became less tolerant. By and large, if you look at the data, Peter, across all of the countries that have experienced political change and not just a selected two or three, you find that the countries that became democratic in terms of having free, fair and competitive elections...

Peter Robinson: You're talking about this recent march of democracy from the '70s to the present?

Larry Diamond: That's right.

Peter Robinson: You're not talking about Western Europe.

Larry Diamond: The roughly 80 countries that experienced transitions to democracy since 1974, have also experienced by and large, transitions to greater freedom. That does not mean that there aren't several dozen very illiberal, very corrupt, very dysfunctional democracies but it does mean that by and large, we aren't going to get to the liberal democracy that we all want through Fareed's illusion of liberal autocracy. It's just not in the cards in the modern world.

Peter Robinson: Let me give you another statement here by Fareed Zakaria. So he draws the distinction between democracy in the simple, minimal, mechanistic sense that you outlined of election by people of rulers, distinction with democracy, on the one hand, and what he calls constitutional liberalism on the other. That is, the rule of law, including property rights, separated powers. So the question for you Larry Diamond and for you gentlemen, Don and Chip, is what weight do we place on democracy per se and what weight do we place on the rule of law and what might be termed constitutional liberties and which comes first? Chip?

Coit Blacker: Well this is the $64,000 question. And when you asked me at the outset, "A", "B" or "C", I said "B". "B" meaning correct but misplaced priorities. And that relates directly to what I think is absolutely essential to the creation of the type of genuine democracy that has legs, real staying power. In my view, it has to grow up with such notions as the sanctity of private property. It has to grow up with the notion of limited government. It has to grow up with such notions as citizen responsibility, that it's not only about rights, so that this process is deeply, I think, complicated. It's very hard to unpack but I don't think that wrapping ourselves around the flag of democracy of the most illiberal kind advances anyone's interest.

Peter Robinson: Both Russia and China have been pursuing reform for more than a decade. Which nation is taking the better path?

Title: The China Syndrome

Peter Robinson: According to the IMF and I'm quoting a report, "Close to 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty in China since 1978." Russia, by contrast, not growth--well there's been some slow growth in most recent years but soon after the fall of Communism in Russia, it experiences a very severe economic contraction. Between 1989 and 1998, Russian GDP tumbles by 44%. Fact set two, China remains a one-party dictatorship whereas Russia remains or has established by at least a minimal standard, a democracy.

Larry Diamond: Russia's not a democracy today.

Peter Robinson: Not even by your minimal standards?

Larry Diamond: No, absolutely not. There are not today in Russia...

Peter Robinson: How did Putin get into office?

Larry Diamond: He got into office by partially rigged elections and the elections...

Peter Robinson: By elections...

Larry Diamond: The test of a democracy is not whether there are elections. There are another 40 or 50 countries in the world that hold competitive multi-party elections. The test of a democracy is whether elections are sufficiently free and fair, with neutral and professional administration and counting of the vote and freedom to campaign and canvass the country, so that the ruling party can lose. There's no way Putin can lose the next election.

Peter Robinson: Which model?

Larry Diamond: Chip is the expert.

Peter Robinson: If you had to choose between China and Russia, that is to say this--I mean this notion that democracy--you start holding elections and you develop an appetite for freer elections, for fairer elections, which model is better?

Donald Emmerson: It's necessary to keep in mind that democracy is a religion but it's also, if I may put it this way, an anthropology. That is to say, normatively it's...

Peter Robinson: You have me intrigued.

Donald Emmerson: ...normatively it's religion. Can you find anybody to come on this program and say I am against democracy? I mean, maybe you can.

Peter Robinson: I haven't tried terribly hard but I would not suspect it would be easy.

Donald Emmerson: It would be a short list.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Donald Emmerson: Okay. It is a religion so one has a faith that democracy can somehow solve, if not all problems, at least most problems. That faith may be naïve in some circumstances and that brings us to the anthropology of democracy. You mentioned earlier the case of do you start with the rule of law or do you start with elections? My answer to that, it depends upon the situation.

Peter Robinson: Or in the case of China, do you start with economic growth?

Donald Emmerson: Right. Well let's take China.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Donald Emmerson: It seems to me from a religious point of view, what the Chinese are doing is impossible. That is, the religion argues you cannot have a relatively free economy and a relatively closed polity.

Peter Robinson: And why not? Because the free economy creates appetites.

Donald Emmerson: Well, because it violates one's faith that a free market and a free political system necessarily go together and that they are mutually enhancing. The one brings about the other. That is a kind of non-falsifiable proposition that amounts to an act of faith, not of scholarship or knowledge.

Peter Robinson: But the Chinese have proceeded to falsify it.

Donald Emmerson: Exactly.

Larry Diamond: To this point.

Donald Emmerson: And--now colleagues of mine--that's right to this point right. But you see...

Peter Robinson: Brother Diamond speaks up over there. He's not ready to surrender the faith just yet. Go ahead Don.

Donald Emmerson: Well but that's the faith. It always calls upon the future to ultimately validate one's current views. And frankly, I'm not saying that China can maintain this seemingly oxymoronic combination but they've done pretty well so far.

Larry Diamond: The Chinese leaders know, I think Hu Jintao knows, the younger Chinese leadership that's emerging knows. They are seized with the notion that somehow this political system has to reform, has to open up, has to move toward a rule of law and greater political participation or the country is going to drown in corruption.

Peter Robinson: They have the faith themselves. That is to say, they understand themselves as being on the journey to somewhere.

Coit Blacker: What Larry said at the outset is really, really important. And that is that all other relevant models have failed, Communism, fascism, corporatism. I mean these things are exhausted. So what we have is a very interesting conflation of, to use Don's term, religion and anthropology. That is, it is an article of faith but there is enough evidence in support of the proposition that it is a directed set of developments that you can't make the argument that there isn't this trend underway. But there isn't a single trend underway so that you get China and Russia at the same time who basically are trying to move in the same direction.

Peter Robinson: Next a question especially relevant today. Why is democracy so rare in the Middle East?

Title: Well-Oiled Regimes

Peter Robinson: Larry Diamond, I quote you to yourself, Larry. "Only in the Middle East is democracy virtually absent. In fact, among the 16 Arab countries, there is not a single democracy and with the exception of Lebanon, there never has been." How come?

Larry Diamond: Well a...

Peter Robinson: Is it the Muslim religion?

Larry Diamond: No, it isn't Muslim religion because there are of the other what 28 or so Muslim states, 7 or 8 of them, about 25% are democracies, including some of the biggest ones. So you can't say that it is religion.

Peter Robinson: So we know for certain that democracy and a majority population that is Muslim, those things can go together?

Larry Diamond: I think culture is a part of it, Peter, but culture is not immutable and as I say in that piece, one of the most powerful factors is the Arab-Israeli conflict behind which Arab leaders have been able to hide and obfuscate all of their failures and rally people around this grand pan-Arab nationalist cause that diverts people's attention from the failings of their political systems.

Peter Robinson: Chip, do you buy that?

Coit Blacker: I'll buy it because this is exactly what the Soviet leadership did to perpetuate itself in power for decades. That is, it demonized the West and therefore, it kept people focused on the fact that they had to rally to the Communist Party, which was safeguarding their physical security, rather than focus on the kind of participation...

Peter Robinson: What you are suggesting then is that you can fool all the people all the time.

Donald Emmerson: For a while, yes.

Peter Robinson: The anthropologist speaks?

Donald Emmerson: Okay, the anthropologist would point out that oil and natural gas, hydrocarbons, are a major kind of stratum that if you will, underlies many so happen to be Muslim states. And that is clearly the case in the Middle East. And we know there's a massive literature on this, which is quite convincing, that once you can rely on oil for your budget, you don't have to tax. And remember the phrase, no taxation without representation? Well if you turn that around, that means where's the incentive for a democracy, you know? Let this be a hotel. I'm living here. The government doesn't charge me for my board and room as it were.

Peter Robinson: So you have revenues without, in a certain sense, economic growth?

Donald Emmerson: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: You're not developing a middle class; you're not developing technical skills.

Donald Emmerson: That's right. And you...

Peter Robinson: Human capital.

Donald Emmerson: Exactly.

Peter Robinson: You're not developing human capital and that turns out to be critical?

Donald Emmerson: Absolutely critical. It also is an invitation to corruption. That is to say when you have a concentrated source of black gold from which people can derive large amounts of money, naturally corruption, other things being equal is going to be pretty probable under those circumstances.

Coit Blacker: Absolutely.

Larry Diamond: Part of the phenomenon that's going on here is that people do not have to exert any civic responsibility because they don't have to pay any taxes. Saudis don't pay any taxes. Kuwaitis don't pay any taxes. Iraqis didn't pay any taxes. There's less of a sense of ownership over your government.

Peter Robinson: And the government buys them off. Those regimes are successful.

Larry Diamond: It uses the oil revenue to distribute patronage just to buy support.

Peter Robinson: Let's move onto the two nations in which the United States is directly involved in democracy building.

Title: The Baath News Bears

Peter Robinson: Afghanistan and Iraq. One is dirt poor; the other possesses the world's second largest reserves of oil. Larry said that one of the things that drove the march of democracy for the past 30 years is economic development and you've just said that oil tends to inhibit democracy. So I put it to you that when it comes to democracy, one of these countries is too poor and the other is too rich. Chip?

Coit Blacker: Well, I think that's clever and it is certainly the case...

Peter Robinson: We strive for that in television.

Coit Blacker: Of course. And it is certainly the case that Afghanistan is poor and that it's going to be a very long slog. Iraq, I think, is very, very different and it's different because there are enough people around with experience who have lived through the kind of ravages of the oil economy or the hydrocarbon economy that I think...

Peter Robinson: The ravages, what do you mean by the ravages?

Coit Blacker: The distorted patterns of development that ensue as a consequence of reliance on one exportable or two exportable commodities. So I think at least we know the dimensions of the problem which we confront and I think the international community does too. So I'm more hopeful about Iraq actually than I am about Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: Now let me address a question to the anthropologist. Do we want democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq? I quote Fareed Zakaria. "The Arab rulers of the Middle East are autocratic, corrupt and heavy-handed but they are still more liberal, tolerant and pluralistic than what would likely replace them." You establish democracy in Iraq tomorrow and you will get one anti-American government after another.

Donald Emmerson: That's not a foreordained conclusion, Peter, not at all.

Peter Robinson: It's plausible though.

Donald Emmerson: I mean, let's take the image...

Peter Robinson: Is it enough to make you nervous?

Donald Emmerson: It is enough to make me nervous, yes. I am nervous. There's no question about that.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Donald Emmerson: I think the U.S. government should be nervous as well. In fact, they are.

Peter Robinson: Are you nervous?

Larry Diamond: Let me tell you what I am. I am nervous about that, Peter, but let me tell you what I'm also nervous about. I am nervous that if the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, the Crown Prince Abdullah is not able to implement pretty vigorously the types of far-reaching political reforms toward greater representativeness and rule of law that he is now contemplating, that Saudi Arabia is going to experience the kind of revolution that Iran did in 1979. And we are going to find in power some few years down the road in Saudi Arabia, a government far worse than the Ayatollahs in Iran because it's going to be a government basically of Osama bin Ladens. Now one response to that is to just sit tight and cling onto these rulers. Another response is to get ahead of the game and promote reform. You don't promote reform by immediate elections. You do as Don Emmerson said and cultivate the rule of law first but reform has to happen.

Peter Robinson: Is the underlying argument here that you move toward democracy in Iraq because you've got to let people vent and you may go through a decade of anti-American governments but sooner or later, they're going to want to join the world system of trade and commerce, education and so forth and they'll want to become more like us, more like Western Europe and they'll calm down and go about the business of leading a normal life. Is that sort of the hope?

Donald Emmerson: What I have a problem with is the image that we could reproduce ourselves abroad, that the ultimate accolade would be if the Iraqis reproduce some American style democracy. Now it seems to me logical as we started at the beginning of this program, understanding that democracy is now a vast zone, it follows from that that there should be all kinds of diversities within that vast zone. And here again, the anthropology comes in. Sure, I mean, France you could argue, is an anti-American democracy as we found out. Germany with regard to lining up that coalition of the willing in order to attack Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Peter Robinson: Bring back the Bourbons, I say.

Donald Emmerson: I mean, if democracy is merely a procedure then, of course, the outcome of the procedure could be anything. It could be demagoguery, it could be red, white and blue American flag, it could be the ACLU, it could be the Republican Party. Who knows? And so it seems to me that you can't have your cake and eat it too. You can't promote a procedure and then dictate the outcome because that violates the procedure.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Last topic, a little advice for the Bush Administration.

Title: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

Peter Robinson: Afghanistan, what should we be doing?

Coit Blacker: Since my view is you're not going to get democracy without thorough-going development and I mean that not only economically but socially, the recreation of a vibrant civil society. It's a full court press. It's deep, deep sustained engagement across the range of issues that we know to be critical to that country's future.

Peter Robinson: We start pouring money in?

Coit Blacker: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Economic aid?

Coit Blacker: You bet. We actually sit down with as many of the rich states as possible, OECD members, and we plot a developmental trajectory for places like Afghanistan and figure out what needs doing most.

Donald Emmerson: It seems to me the first thing that needs to be done is that the International Security Assistance Force has to be expanded beyond Kabul.

Larry Diamond: Absolutely. I completely agree with that.

Peter Robinson: Establish order?

Donald Emmerson: That is critical. Without order, how could you have a democracy?

Larry Diamond: We need at least 50,000 more troops in Afghanistan than we have now. We knew it at the time...

Peter Robinson: Do you know how breathtaking it is to hear this proponent of democracy, Larry Diamond, speak in favor of the mailed fist.

Larry Diamond: Peter, if you don't have a state, you can't have a democratic state. There is no state in Afghanistan today. Hamid Karzai is Mayor of Kabul. Unless he can be President of Afghanistan with a superior authority over all of the warlords and would-be governors of Afghanistan and really establish the cohesive authority of a national state, there's going to be no democracy in Afghanistan.

Peter Robinson: You truly want us to send troops into...

Larry Diamond: Not the United States.

Peter Robinson: ...into a tribal society in which we're confronting warlords plus Russia, plus Pakistan, plus Iran--I mean, that's Vietnam and then some. You want us to do that?

Larry Diamond: I want NATO to do that.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Larry Diamond: Yes.

Peter Robinson: You do too?

Coit Blacker: Well I probably wouldn't say NATO but I...

Peter Robinson: What would you say?

Coit Blacker: But I agree entirely with Larry that the security force has to be significantly expanded again, coalition of the willing, representation from the region. It's not Vietnam. It is about state building. There is an opportunity...

Peter Robinson: So George W. Bush hasn't been too audacious. He's been too timid?

Coit Blacker: He has been audacious with respect to the use of force. He's been timid, in my view, with respect to the issue of state reconstruction.

Peter Robinson: You'll go with that?

Donald Emmerson: Fundamentally we're talking about the importance of order. The anthropological view of democracy would say don't impose an extreme liberal vision, something that would make an ACLU member smile if, in fact, order is a prior missing requisite. And furthermore societies that have experienced civil war and all kinds of disorder for many, many years are less inclined to go straight for the Bill of Rights and more inclined to have security first. We should acknowledge that.

Peter Robinson: So you're saying that in Iraq today we should be paying less attention to trying to establish democratic norms and more attention to establishing ourselves as the--we should be authoritarian?

Donald Emmerson: No, I'm not saying that because that's a method but I am saying that we should focus on the police. We should stop the pillaging of, you know, pipelines of power stations. I mean, Iraq...

Peter Robinson: Okay, give it to me...

Donald Emmerson: ...desperately needs order and security...

Peter Robinson: First we establish order, police, we stop the looting. What comes next? What comes next? Do you work on the economy next?

Larry Diamond: Restart the economy.

Donald Emmerson: Right, exactly. Restart the economy.

Larry Diamond: Peter, I think you're setting up a somewhat false sequence here.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Larry Diamond: As if there's a neat set of tasks, one ends and the other begins. Order is fundamental and nothing else can happen if you don't have that. But these do need to unfold somewhat simultaneously.

Peter Robinson: Is economic growth fundamental?

Larry Diamond: It is but you're missing one thing.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Larry Diamond: And please let me emphasize it. If we do not set up fairly soon, some type of interim government, interim or transitional authority to which some authority, some governing power is delegated, it doesn't have to be elected, it can't be elected now. It can happen through indirect selection but if Iraqis do not see Iraqis at least sharing power with the United States and the international community, the political viability of American presence in Iraq is going to become more and more unimaginable and we are going to have more and more Americans picked off and we're not going to be able to complete this venture.

Peter Robinson: You concur?

Coit Blacker: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: And you concur?

Donald Emmerson: I do concur.

Peter Robinson: One other question. Be honest. Ten years from now, will Afghanistan and Iraq be functioning as democracies not by Larry's earlier minimal definition of democracy, but in a way that pleases you? Larry?

Larry Diamond: Afghanistan, I'm very skeptical about because I don't think we're willing to make the commitment. Iraq, I think--I will be pleased if it's functioning in the most minimal sense, Peter, because that would be a historic breakthrough. I think they've got a decent chance...

Peter Robinson: You do?

Larry Diamond: ...if we're committed.

Peter Robinson: Chip?

Coit Blacker: I don't think Afghanistan can make it. I think Iraq, too soon to tell but I'm optimistic that Iraq will hold together, that Iraq will be more democratic rather than less democratic in the future and that it will be reasonably affluent.

Peter Robinson: Don?

Donald Emmerson: I am utterly confident that ten years from now, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq is going to resemble the democracy that we have in the United States. That's the one thing I know absolutely for sure.

Peter Robinson: Donald Emmerson, Chip Blacker, Larry Diamond, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson, for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.