President George W. Bush continues to insist that ending tyranny in the world is in the national interest–a notable goal. Democracy is superior to other forms of governance and promoting democracy is the right and good thing to do. In his State of the Union address last week, the president said:
Our aim is to build and preserve a community of free and independent nations, with governments that answer to their citizens, and reflect their own cultures. And because democracies respect their own people and their neighbors, the advance of freedom will lead to peace.
Democracy is desired not only for the peace it brings (democracies do not militarily fight one another), but because President Bush thinks it is the best political arrangement between a government and a people. He not only has U.S. diplomatic history on his side, but also a large body of empirical evidence that says good governance brings stability, prosperity, and peace.
The emphasis placed on democracy promotion is not new for President Bush or the U.S. In his 2002 National Security Strategy, President Bush gave primacy to human dignity:
These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society–and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.
Democracy promotion has been a part of U.S. foreign policy for decades. During the Cold War, democracy was promoted as an alternative to Communism. It wasn’t simply enough to militarily oppose Communism as we did in various parts of the world, but a viable alternative had to be presented to fledgling states after World War II. Through political and economic liberalization policies, the United States created a community of democratic nations–a community that does not wage war against its members, benefits from international trade, and draws upon each other in times of crisis.
For democracy promotion to be successful, timing matters. When Gorbachev released the Soviet grip on Central and Eastern Europe, American foreign-policy actors were presented with an opportunity to support advocates for open societies. President H. W. Bush responded with legislation to give former Warsaw Pact members and Soviet states the necessary assistance to navigate through the dangers of democratic transition. Fifteen years later, results are mixed in the region (Hungary vs. Belarus), but generally favor democracy. The important lesson from the region is that democratic transition is risky, but once consolidated, democracies are very stable.
Under the Clinton administration, democracy promotion as a foreign policy goal was institutionalized and was furthered by President George W. Bush. This dimension of U.S. policy echoes Pericles of Athens who said in 431 BC,
Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. We do not copy our neighbors, but are an example to them
President Bush said as much last Wednesday night and challenged America’s friends and allies to fight the common threat of terror and encourage a higher standard of freedom. The United States does not intend to impose American democracy on the world. Those that insist U.S. policies of political imperialism underlie the Administration’s efforts should only look at how democracy was promoted in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two very different approaches to democracy were used in two very different places. A Loya Jirga was convened to launch Afghan democratization. Or the Iraqi legislature was elected by voting for party lists, not individual candidates as in the United States. The United States is flexible enough and experienced enough with democracy to guide democratization in a way that it will take root according to local conditions.
For those that are skeptical of democracy promotion and its motive, know that social-science research supports it. Good governance matters.
For the last several years, researchers sponsored by the CIA have been attempting to understand why some countries are consistently stable, prosperous, and democratic, and other countries are plagued by revolution, poverty, and authoritarianism. Driving the CIA’s inquiry is to understand why some states fail, so the U.S. government can preempt the humanitarian disasters or civil wars that accompany state collapse. The Political Instability Task Force (formerly known as the State Failure Project) identified that economic, ethnic, and regional effects have just a modest impact on a country’s risk for political instability. The most important factor is the type of government. Democracies are more resilient than other forms of government (this characteristic is explored in detail by Jack Goldstone and Jay Ulfelder in The Washington Quarterly).
Though it was popular in the 1990s to characterize various conflicts as a clash of civilizations, bad governments are to blame for instability and violence, not ethnicity. The Political Instability Task Force’s findings suggest nationalist leader Milosevic’s politics are more responsible for genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina, not a historic animosity emanating from the 14th century battle at Kosovo Polje or any civilizational fault line. It was the kleptocratic regime of Mobutu Sese Seko in Kinshasa that inspired a revolution in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). And it was decades-long Indonesian repression in East Timor that led to that province becoming the first independent country of the 21st century. These regimes could not deal with the pressures created by social, economic, and political challenges.
The key to maintaining stability and peace appears to lie in democratic institutions. Democracy promotes open competition of ideas, channels dissent into peaceful discourse, and constrains power-hungry tendencies (Recall Madison: If men were angels government wouldn’t be necessary). Democracy provides for the peaceful resolution of conflict. Without the means to express grievances, violence will likely occur and authoritarian governments will fail.
Data shouldn’t necessarily drive policy choices, but there is clear evidence to support President Bush’s efforts to energize democracy promotion. Bad governance in Iraq kept Iraqis impoverished, vulnerable, and afraid. Supporters and detractors of the war agree on that. When we forget that, we should remember the name of the military operation’s name: Iraqi Freedom. Though WMDs were the rationale for war, the military campaign has been about freedom since day one. And when the mission is accomplished and Iraqis are free, the world will not only be a better place without the Iraqi dictator, but because there is another democracy in the world.
–Derek Reveron is the editor of America’s Viceroys: the Military and U.S. Foreign Policy, associate professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College, and a former intelligence analyst for the FBI.