The Corner

Lessons

The most important lesson of the British imperial experience for our own occupation of Iraq is that, while it is possible to bring democracy to non-Western societies, the process cannot be rushed. Building liberal institutions is the key. Elections must follow, not precede, that social groundwork. The democratization debate, as it exists today, is built around a false dichotomy. Our choice is not between relatively swift democratization through national elections, on the one hand, or a realist policy of propping up friendly autocrats, on the other. A third alternative–holding off elections in favor of a slow going process of liberal institution building–does not reflect a lack of faith in democratic principles. On the contrary, John Stuart Mill, one of liberalism’s greatest figures (and himself a power imperial administrator) stood for liberal gradualism–the policy that actually succeeded in bringing democracy to India.

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