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Compressing Democracy's Timelines

What are realistic expectations and guidelines for fostering democracy worldwide?

February 29, 2004

What are realistic expectations and guidelines for fostering democracy worldwide?

In the media-driven quarterly profit sheet-style timetables that today define the American nation-building agenda for other countries, there is never time.

No time for mistakes, no time to build a civic foundation on which to ground a democratic superstructure.

No time to educate women and men for citizenship, no time to cultivate the arduous habits of the heart essential to democratic behaviors.

How could policymakers in the White House and the Pentagon have really believed that Iraq's violent, unstable, multicultural society held together by brute tyranny for thirty years could be both liberated and liberalized overnight?

Iraq is dominated demographically by disempowered Shiites who outnumber Saddam Hussein's ruling Sunnis. It is tribal, even clannish, in its sectarian loyalties.

It is encumbered by Kurdish and other minority populations in the north and the south whose only real "nation-building" ambition is partition and autonomy. It is threatened by Turks from the north and Iranian Shiites from the east with their own agendas of expansion.

Can such a nation be fitted into a model Middle Eastern democracy in a few months? Or years? Or decades?

Ongoing instability, looting and criminality (asylums and prisons were emptied), tribal infighting and civil war of the kind that afflicted Yugoslavia following the defeat of communism there are more likely in Iraq than instant democracy.

Such national breakdown has already prompted the deferring of an interim government and may mandate prolonged U.S. military rule — hardly a prescription for self-government.

Forgetting their own gradualist democratic history, Americans too often not only urge others to do it quick — and do it easy.
They also urge others to do it à l'Americain, as if Americanization and democraticization are the same thing, as if the United States has proprietary rights in and a political patent on the quintessential democratic process.

There are, to be sure, universal ideals that undergird the human struggle for freedom everywhere.

But democracy's forms are as various as the struggles through which it is won — and as distinctive as the myriad cultures that win it. They are as difficult to secure as all noble human aspirations are difficult to secure.

In the years before the American Revolution and between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Puritan Massachusetts had one constitution, progressive Pennsylvania another, free Rhode Island still another and the royal charter colonies of the slave plantation South still others.

Some colonies were much less free than others, and a few were hardly less autocratic than the background colonial government of Great Britain under which they all labored.

America's regional and local institutions are marked by differences that can be traced to such variations even today.

Against that historical background, why then does the U.S. government move in such a rapid-fire fashion in Iraq?

The argument of preventive democracy is that the war against terrorism can succeed only in a world of peaceful democracies — and that war and the annihilation of sovereignty are less than ideal instruments for converting tyrannical regimes into democratic ones.

Nor are soldiers ideal guides for mapping the topography of democratization in cases where wars do precede democratic development.

Representatives of the conquerors will be inappropriate advisers to the conquered on thorny issues of how to reestablish autonomy, restore domestic credibility and achieve global legitimacy — especially where society is simultaneously being radically transformed at other levels as well.

Democracies grow from inside out and from bottom up — rather than from outside in and top down. This is one of the reasons why democratization takes so long. It also suggests that the objective for those seeking a democratic world ought not to be "democracy" in the singular, on the American model or any other, but "democracies" in the plural.

Even within the parochial Western democratic canon, democratic practices have been as variable as the distinctive European and North American cultures in which they originated.

Democracy is, after all, a process not an end, and it moves in stages. The patience of process needs to be recognized as indispensable to the success of those who today have embarked on the difficult journey.

Impatience arising out of some democratic overseer's timetable is disastrous, particularly when its benchmarks are borrowed from the stories of other quite different "successful" democracies.

Monitoring corruption — as Amnesty International has done — is of real importance as long as it is understood that some corruption may be unavoidable in opening up a closed society.

Linking development assistance and loans to progress in building legal and civic infrastructure, as the World Bank and the American State Department are doing, makes good sense if it is appreciated that funding must actually find its way to the groups and institutions who build that infrastructure.

The goal must be movement in a democratic direction, stages in growth of liberty that are progressive and not regressive. In contrast, we should be wary of movement that is impressively rapid, yet superficial and fragile because outside monitors and funders simply refuse to grant other nations the timelines their own democratization once demanded at home.