Politics & Policy

Democracy Spreads

Is the world on the cusp of a fourth wave of democratization?

As Iraqis go to the polls this weekend it is important to think about this event in historic context. While coverage will undoubtedly focus on election-day anomalies, we must also remember that Iraqis are doing something unprecedented: deciding their future. Thanks to the international community, Iraqis have been freed from tyranny and are now joining the community of democratic nations. This historic day in Iraq places it in the rising fourth wave of democracy to overcome the freedom deficit in the Arab world.

For the last four years, President Bush has been pursuing a national strategy to preserve freedom for existing democracies and to fight tyranny when it stands in the way of democratic progress. At the National Endowment for Democracy recently, the president reiterated the five elements of his national strategy: prevent new terrorist attacks, deny nuclear weapons to outlaw regimes and terrorist groups, deny radical groups the support and sanctuary of outlaw regimes, deny extremists control of any country, and deny militants future recruits by replacing hatred and resentment with democracy.

The first four elements in many respects have been achieved, but it is the last element that will ensure the long-term success of the strategy. While the uncertain outcome in Iraq has forced many to question whether Iraq will be a democratic domino in the Middle East, what we do know is that the president has been using more than military power to promote democracy and spark a fourth wave of democracy. The practices of supporting opposition groups, pressuring allies, and isolating despotic regimes have resulted in democratic progress during the past several years.

While the number of electoral democracies worldwide has been stalled at about 120, there are reasons to think that a fourth wave of democratization is coming.

The third wave was characterized by the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Latin America, the breakdown of totalitarian states in Europe, and the insistence on democratic reforms in many parts of the world. There are now more democracies on earth than ever before. Freedom is an everyday reality for 2.8 billion people (44 percent of the world’s population). An additional 1.2 billion people are considered only partly free because their rights are undermined by conflict, authoritarianism, and/or corruption. Since the publication of Huntington’s classic work in 1991, not fewer than 40 governments have undertaken the transition to democracy.

When the third wave began 30 years ago, it was not immediately clear that the Portuguese revolution would mark democracy’s rise. However, in 1974, it was not possible to consider Portugal transitioning to democracy, because the outcome was uncertain. Civil protests were critical to the transition. Are we seeing the beginnings of this in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Kuwait, Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan?

This begs the question of whether or not we can ever know if a country is in transition until the smoke has cleared. Will the Kuwaiti women that earned voting rights this year result in a cultural and political revolution in the Gulf countries? Will the contested election in Egypt last month give rise to multiparty democracies in North Africa? While it isn’t possible to answer yes to these questions yet, there are reasons to be optimistic. Afghans just went to the polls to affirm their human rights by selecting a parliament. Iraqis are determining their constitutional principles today. Afghans and Iraqis are riding this fourth wave of democratization.

In a broader context, it was only after 15 years of study that Huntington realized a democratization wave was actually sweeping the planet. Hindsight was critical to understanding what happened, but hindsight offers little to understand what we are witnessing today. And U.S. responses to these events can help as we saw in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, or they can delay transition in other parts of the world. Michael Leeden argued in NRO that “The fires of freedom are burning all over Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Don’t stand back and admire the flames. Push the dictators in, and then cheer as free societies emerge.” The U.S. can and should fuel a democratic wave. President Bush’s strategy of pressuring allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait or supporting opposition groups in Georgia and Ukraine is working. While much attention has been focused on promoting democracy through military intervention, such intervention is actually the exception.

If a fourth wave has started, then it probably began with Afghanistan’s presidential elections on October 9, 2004. In spite of the positive developments coming out of Afghanistan, it will be several years to see if U.S. and international efforts will make “democracy the only game in Kabul.” But what we do now know is that since last fall, democracy has made gains in Ukraine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and many other countries. And the wave is growing.

Lebanon held parliamentary elections without major external interference; Egypt held multiparty presidential elections; Saudi Arabia held municipal elections. Kuwaiti women gained voting rights.

Democracy and freedom are the prescriptions to strains within the Arab world. Democracy and freedom pave the way for integration among developing and developed countries. Democracy and freedom guarantee terrorists cannot survive–despotic regimes are the agar where terrorism grows.

As we look beyond this weekend’s election in Iraq, we must remember that elections are just the beginning for a democracy. The creation of democratic political institutions must be accompanied by the liberalization of society. Regular, free, and fair elections must accompany civilian control of the military. Universal suffrage must be accompanied with civil liberties. A democratic political culture founded on trust, tolerance, and willingness to compromise strengthens democracy. The United States can usher in this fourth wave by aiding these transitions; we just have to be patient for the results years after the first election. Strategy requires patience. Iraq’s elections today should give us hope for this strategy and the resolve to continue it.

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.

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