Tarek Masoud was once an enthusiastic believer in America’s effort to promote democracy abroad. The Harvard political scientist and many of his colleagues thought the U.S. could sow Western ideals of democracy, freedom, and prosperity by funding political parties and encouraging the growth of democratic institutions in developing nations. Masoud now thinks their reasoning was flawed, and that the mission itself is perhaps impossible.“We should be much more humble about what the best possible outcomes are,” he told the Boston Globe. The the Arab Spring uprisings that gave way to civil war in Syria and ongoing chaos in Libya have been a reality check, says Masoud: “Maybe in a place like Syria or Libya the best possible outcome is one in which the old regime is at the table.” As the Globe‘s writer, Thanassis Cambanis, puts it, “our desire to see freedom spread has been clouding our judgment about what actually allows it to take root.”Those who favored promoting democrocy abroad believed that “individual actions can change the course of nations, and that democracy can be nurtured by giving the right skills to promising leaders and activists,” says Cambanis, but that viewpoint is falling into disfavor. Even if such efforts don’t lead directly to democratic reform, their supporters often argue that they are still “good for society” and will occasionally “yield a great leap forward in freedom.” According to Masoud and his colleagues:
[T]he biggest determinant of whether authoritarian regimes survived had nothing to do with civil society, individual protest leaders, or even the workings of the political system. […]It may be […] that international democracy training programs amount to well-intentioned but ineffectual junkets.
Take the time to read the whole Globe story. And for the study by Masoud and his colleagues, which may soon be expanded into a book, go here.