The Democracy Solution

Not long after George W. Bush delivered his June 2002 speech severing relations with Yasir Arafat, a White House reporter wondered whether Natan Sharansky had become one of the president's speechwriters. By the time of President Bush's second inaugural, in January 2005, reporters no longer had to guess at Sharansky's influence. The previous November, the president had received the refusenik-turned-politician at the White House for a lengthy discussion. “If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book,” the president later told The Washington Times. Sharansky's argument that terrorism can be fought only by expanding global freedom, Bush said, is “part of my presidential DNA.”

Like the president, Sharansky is sure that “all peoples desire to be free.” In one sense, he is right: As we are discovering the hard way in Iraq and should have known from the start, no peoples wish to be ruled by outsiders. Nationalism's power is rooted in this drive for collective self-determination, though Sharansky seems almost oblivious to its appeal. Not only does he fail to acknowledge the ways in which the Israeli occupation, however justified it may be by the need to fight terrorism, has stoked the fire of Palestinian nationalism; he also goes so far as to propose a new interim administration for the Palestinians chosen by a coordinating body headed by the United States! (On May 2, Sharansky resigned from the Israeli cabinet in protest against his government's plan to remove Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip.)

The difficulties with Sharansky's argument, however, are not limited to blind spots arising from his own particular national perspective. Once rid of a foreign yoke, not all peoples necessarily want a democratic government that respects individual and minority-group rights. And while no individual wishes to live in fear, many may be willing to impose fear on others. As far as they are concerned, if only the other guy is living in fear, their society is free enough.

In the long run, democracy rests on generalized norms of reciprocity: If you don't do X to me, I won't do it to you. But many groups around the world are far from embracing this way of thinking about politics. They may be willing to strike a modus vivendi with other groups in their society, but for them it is a temporary truce, to be broken when they have the power to get away with it. This rejection of reciprocity may stem from pervasive mistrust and the fear that others will strike first if they can. Or it may stem from a system of belief that rejects the very idea of legitimate differences. Religious extremism is not just a product of political repression, as Sharansky suggests; it has its own roots. It remains to be seen whether a religion that does not separate church and state and propounds immutable, God-given law as universally valid for all peoples is capable of tolerating its own dissenters, let alone the presence of minority faiths in its midst.

Like the president he admires, Sharansky is a theorist who chooses to ignore differences of culture, religion, and local circumstances in the name of abstract propositions. It is one thing to assert that freedom is a universally valid norm of political morality; another to believe that all peoples accept that norm; still another to insist that it is within the grasp of every nation at a particular historical moment. Nations whose public culture rejects basic democratic principles may be moved toward more decent government and made ready for democracy -- but they are not so now. It is neither anti-Islamic nor cynical to make such distinctions; it is reckless not to.

Sharansky is “certain” that “democracy is not beyond any nation's reach.” I suppose this is true at a high level of abstraction, if you make strong assumptions about the capacity of all nations to undergo the kinds of changes that successful democratization requires. But such abstractions can obscure relevant facts. Two examples must suffice. In Sharansky's view, today's Russian democracy refutes those who posited that country's political culture as an important obstacle to democratic transformation. Vladimir Putin, who barely makes an appearance in Sharansky's book, provides more evidence for the skeptics than for democratic universalists.

Sharansky also cites Germany's transformation from fascism to democracy as evidence for generic optimism. Here is how he puts it: “History has shown us that a few years of freedom can make a world of difference. In 1944, Germany had descended into depths that are scarcely imaginable today. A few years later, West Germany, a free society once more, was building its democratic institutions and becoming a peaceful member of the free world.”

This cheery reconstruction of history leaves a few things out -- namely, the circumstances that allowed the United States to achieve this result and the massive effort we had to make to get it done. We occupied -- with overwhelming force and for decades -- a nation whose previous government had become completely illegitimate and whose people put up no resistance to our takeover. We denazified the elites; we used our power to pulverize the social basis of German autocracy; we rewrote textbooks for German public schools; and we enveloped West Germany in a political-military alliance that left Germans no choice but to set aside nondemocratic habits and revanchist aspirations.

It is preposterous to believe that we could use our occupation of Germany as the template for a global-democratization strategy. As events are proving, we cannot fully replicate it even in Iraq. Not every autocracy is a rotten oak, ready to be blown over by a democratic breeze. Unfortunately, there are a number of nations around the world that would require massive, sustained external pressure to enter a democratic transition. Can we really afford to embark on such a course?

Like Bush, Sharansky insists on what he calls “moral clarity,” which consists of the application of simple, stark dichotomies to politics and policy. “The formula I have proposed,” he writes, “divides the world into two categories, free and fear societies, with nothing in between.” If citizens can walk into a town square and express their views without worrying about arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm, they are living in a free society; if not, in a fear society.

While these categories serve as what sociologists would call “ideal types,” they are not fine-grained enough to guide political decisions. In the first place, government repression is hardly the only source of fear. When a democratic government is incapable of providing order and reining in violent crime, peoples through history have often turned to autocratic rulers who can get the job done better. Much depends on each group's assessment of whether government coercion is more likely to be used against the perpetrators than against law-abiding individuals such as themselves. Sharansky downplays the extent to which the Nazis attained power through elections driven by fear of deprivation and instability. If anything, it was the weakness of the Weimar Republic, its incapacity to use force and fear against its enemies, that brought an end to German democracy.

Second, freedom isn't like a switch with only two positions, off and on. Most organizations that study freedom establish multiple criteria or point scales to gauge the extent to which different societies have made the transition from oppression to liberty. In this context, the phrase “liberalizing autocracy” is not an oxymoron. It denotes a society in which the social space for dissent is expanding and in which authorities are increasingly reluctant to use force against dissenters. (Without prior processes of liberalization, the peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine would have played out very differently.)

So there is something between freedom and fear after all -- namely, societies in which reformers are struggling against authorities who cling to power and restrict liberty without always resorting to extreme coercion. In such societies (unlike Stalin's Soviet Union), dissenters may be able to say and even publish what they please, as long as they do not establish independent political parties. While these societies are hardly havens of freedom, they are not tyrannies, either.

By contrast, Sharansky uses the terms “nondemocracy,” “fear society,” and “tyranny” as synonyms. He offers a simple structural distinction: While governments in democratic societies depend on the people, the people in nondemocratic societies depend on the government. Democratic rulers have incentives to serve the interests of their citizens; nondemocratic rulers serve only their own interests through the coerced acquiescence of their subjects.

Here as elsewhere, Sharansky's ham-handed oversimplifications get in the way of essential distinctions. Not all peoples are equally benign, and not all nondemocratic rulers are equally dangerous. Yes, rulers have often diverted popular discontent from internal failures to external foes. But peoples are sometimes less enlightened and pacific than their rulers. The late King Hussein of Jordan was not a democrat, but toward the end of his life he had become a man of peace whose word many Israeli leaders came to trust. There was no reason for Israel to wait for a democratic Jordan before signing a peace treaty, any more than Israel should have spurned Anwar Sadat's outstretched hand just because Egypt lacked a representative legislature and essential political liberties. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that peace with Israel would not have received democratic assent in either country at the time these leaders acted, or even today.

Sharansky will have none of this. Democratic governments can be trusted to keep their word; nondemocratic governments cannot. Anyone who tries to make peace with an autocrat is naive, or worse. Sharansky castigates Jimmy Carter for suggesting that Syria's Hafez al-Assad might have been trusted to keep the terms of an agreement with Israel: Stalin was a dictator; so was Assad; Stalin couldn't be trusted, and neither could Assad. QED. Sharansky's doubts about the Oslo process turned out to be well-founded, but he was right for the wrong reason. The problem with Arafat wasn't how he was elected; it was that he never really accepted Israel's right to exist or prepared his people for the compromises that a Palestinian state would entail. And unlike President Sadat or King Hussein, he was unwilling to risk his personal security in the pursuit of his people's long-term interests. Sharansky brusquely dismisses fears that installing democratic governments in countries (such as Algeria) facing takeover by religious extremists might be more of a risk to U.S. interests than backing the nondemocratic rulers who keep fanatics out of power. “The democracy that hates you,” he insists, “is less dangerous than the dictator who loves you.” He has not yet managed, he admits, to convince Ariel Sharon that this theoretical aphorism is an adequate substitute for a serious examination of facts on the ground.

Isaiah Berlin memorably warned us against assuming that all good things hang together and that a single course of action can advance them. In the real world of politics, we must almost always choose among competing goods, based on the facts of specific situations, hoping that we get our priorities and facts right. This uncertainty is what makes political leadership a wager on history. In Sharansky's world, by contrast, good things fit together in a neat package -- “the values and interests of the free world are one and the same.” Well, sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't. Suppose that pressuring Pervez Musharraf to democratize Pakistan would bring to power an unholy alliance of radical Islamists and the Pakistani security services. With those fingers on the nuclear button, would India and the United States be safer? You can either rule out this possibility by theoretical fiat, as Sharansky does, or you can do what serious statesmen do: examine the facts on the ground, assess the balance of risks, and make a prudent, all-things-considered judgment that you are willing to revise in light of newly discovered facts and unanticipated events.

The essays edited by Thomas Carothers and Marina Ottaway offer a welcome corrective to a foreign policy built on abstractions. The authors stress differences among Middle Eastern nations, along dimensions such as social structure, the balance of political forces, and the degree of autocracy. They emphasize the weakness of the constituencies favoring liberal democracy and the contrasting strength of Islamist organizations. They point to subtle paradoxes that impede the path to democracy -- for example, the fact that secular liberal democrats and proponents of women's rights, if forced to choose, will often make common cause with autocrats rather than risk an Islamist takeover. Nineteen-fifties-style modernization theory is not the whole truth, but neither is it wholly misleading: Under some circumstances, economic liberalization and growth may have to precede democratization.

No doubt most Americans would welcome a world in which more nations become democratic, and they would be right to do so. As Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle, and Michael M. Weinstein show in their important empirical study, democracy tends to promote not only freedom but also prosperity and peace. The proponents of '50s-style modernization theory were only half-right. Yes, a liberalizing autocracy can foster economic growth that expands the middle class, laying the foundation for a democratic transition. But it is also possible to establish democracies in relatively poor countries, whose subsequent economic track records are at least as strong as those of economically dynamic autocracies. And as they grow, democracies with low per-capita income do a better job than autocracies in providing for the basic needs and welfare of their people.

Lower-income democracies are somewhat more likely to “backtrack” to nondemocratic forms of governance, especially in circumstances of economic stagnation. But the authors argue convincingly, “Holding off on all democratization until there is absolute certainty that backtracking will not occur is akin to never getting into a car so as to avoid having an accident. You may achieve your objective but … you are not going anywhere.”

The “democracy advantage” extends beyond economics to security. Not only are democratic nations less likely to go to war (with nondemocracies as well as other democracies); they are also less likely to generate the frustration and rage that provide such fertile ground for the growth of radical ideologies and nonstate terrorism.

For these reasons, among others, most Americans will cheer when their president confidently articulates American values, and they will not object if the president links foreign aid to progress toward democracy. Halperin and his co-authors find little fault with the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge Account, which ties aid to progress against corruption and toward governance that is more transparent and responsive to popular will.

These propositions do not divide Bush and Sharansky from their critics. The real issue is whether, how, and to what extent we can successfully promote democracy. What means should we be willing to employ to promote it? Can we assume that all individuals everywhere yearn for democracy and that all nations are equally ripe for democratization? What difference do history, culture, and religion make in delimiting the prospects for democracy? How should we understand and deal with nondemocratic regimes? Would democratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere be better disposed to the United States than the regimes they would replace? Will the promotion of democracy address life-and-death issues such as proliferation of nuclear weapons to global terrorist organizations? What should we do if the promotion of democracy comes into conflict with other vital objectives of U.S. foreign policy?

John Quincy Adams urged his countrymen not to venture abroad in search of “monsters to destroy,” and advised that America instead be a “well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all” but “champion and vindicator only of her own.” There are intermediate options, of course, including investing in civil society, civic education, and democratic institution building in nations struggling to liberate themselves from autocracy. President Bush is right that a more democratic world would be a better world. The question is whether spilling American blood and treasure in the sands of Mesopotamia is the best way to create it.

William A. Galston is the Saul I. Stern Professor of Civic Engagement and interim dean at the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy.