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Freedom! and All That
Is Democracy Promotion a Failed Policy?

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.

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  • ShadrachSmith

    This raises the discussion, what does it take to be free and prosperous?

    Check out this great TED talk, in which British historian Niall Ferguson gives his theory of what it takes to be free and prosperous.

    • Corlyss

      Those are right out of his book Civilization, which was the subject of a recent 4 hr special on PBS.

  • Corlyss

    State used to have on its website the necessary societal characteristics for real democracy to flower. Large and strong middle class, rule of law, respect for minorities, freedom of religion and thought, robust fourth estate, free and fair elections of government with one vote per citizen, and some others I’ve forgotten. The list was long. Without those, democracy is just a word. As Robert D. Kaplan has said, “Democracy is best when it happens last,” i.e., after the precursors, not before, because without the precursors, democracy will not be real or lasting.
    Interestingly, a young State guy set about studying peoples’ acceptance of the precursors without attaching the word “democracy” to them. Even in the most benighted backwater, people wanted all those precursors, even if they denounced “democracy” as a concept. Because Western nations are obsessed with the razzle dazzle of elections, which should be the last characteristic implemented, they put several horses before the cart and then when democracy collapses for all the reasons we find in Egypt and Iraq and Afghanistan, they blame the concept instead of themselves for rushing the process. As one wag recently noted in an article, “How can you blame democracy as a failed concept when it has never been tried in these countries?”

  • Anthony

    Institutions, Institutions, Institutions – inclusive or exclusive historically – are signal indicators. “It may be that international democracy training programs amount to well-intentioned but ineffectual junkets.” Seriously, must one say more…

  • Arkeygeezer

    Now this discussion is getting someplace. Forcing the growth of democratic institutions in developing nations is a very tough task and perhaps it is impossible. President Obama is on the right track in refraining from the military solution in situations that do not further our national interest.

    However the overriding doctrine of preaching human rights to every country with whom we interact, does not work to further our national interest. Drawing lines in the sand and then not enforcing them does not further our national interest either.

    • Ulysses Noman

      Neither does pouring our treasure onto worthless ‘allies’ in name only. Or to service leftist ideological goals in those same foreign nations (or here, for that matter).

  • Andrew Allison

    At the risk of being repetitious, democracy is not for everybody. Specifically, it is not for societies unable to subsume ideological differences to the rule of law.

    • jb willikers

      Democracy is not for anyone. No one should trust their lives to being ruled by 50%+1. It is a far more complex compact as you can see from looking at Declaration, Constitution, Federalist Papers, Amendments etc.It is a bit of catch-22 when one tries to impose democracy or even think there is a clear template. Most of the complications arise from having the safeguards in place that prevent the tyranny of the 50%+1 and having a culture that has some history of self governance and “civilized” discourse. Without those imperatives it’s a lost cause.

      • Andrew Allison

        I argued that it is the willingness to abide by majority votes with which we may not agree is what enables us to live in peace. Parenthetically, the increasing tendency in the US not to do so is a very dangerous trend.

        • Ulysses Noman

          It doesn’t, though. The 50%+1 ‘we won’ mentality of the Obamunists is leading directly to armed insurrection. When the(ir) government picks and chooses which laws to uphold or enforce, then why on Earth should the citizenry then honor their laws? This regime chooses not to uphold the defense of Marriage Act. Refuses to enforce our regulations regarding the border and deportations. Refuses to secure this nation in any way against invaders. In fact this government / regime actively conspires to subvert the laws that we and our representatives have passed, by regulatory and executive fiat at every turn. The events re the EPA, BLM in western states demonstrate those abuses. So why obey the law when our govt will not?

          • Andrew Allison

            Because that way lies anarchy. The solution to the problems you enumerate is to throw the rascals out, not use their malfeasance as an excuse for lawlessness.

          • Jim__L

            I would say that the imposition of laws that cannot in good conscience be followed is what “breaks” the law — shatters it to pieces, in fact.

  • rheddles

    Funny, the founding fathers were not too keen on democracy. That’s why we aren’t one. So why should we be pushing it on others?

    • Arkeygeezer

      The USA is not a “democracy”. The founding fathers wanted to avoid “the dregs of democracy”. Consequently, we got a representative republic. As Ben Franklin said, “Keep it if you can!”

  • charlesrwilliams

    In the Middle East, the best structure seems to be a strong, stable government that rules by consensus among important stakeholders. These governments do not correspond to nations nor do these states have what we would call citizens. People affiliate first and foremost with tribes or clans or religious communities. Each of these groups has a power structure that has to be respected. The problem with a democratic election is that people believe any election will be the last and elections threaten the balance of power – a balance of power from which every group benefits. While people may be happy to vote, they are rarely satisfied with the results nor do they have a strong commitment to the outcome of an election.

  • Jim__L

    I suspect that a huge part of the problem is the culture that America is presenting to the world these days.

    I’ve seen too often comments from Iranians about what they like about their repressive regime, along the lines of “who wants their daughter to grow up like Britney Spears?” I’ve also seen too many articles — here on TAI — putting “anti-gay” sentiments on the same level as corruption or disenfranchising the majority, when criticizing regimes.

    The simple fact is, the rest of the world does not want to buy what America is selling these days. I suspect that democracy-promotion would have much, much better luck if it came along with 50’s-Life-magazine culture, instead of the trash we have now.

    • tomdperk

      Less the “Whites Only” signs, of course.

      • Jim__L

        Of course. I don’t think you’d get a whole lot of argument on that point these days.

        • tomdperk

          Then if we’re whitewashing history to provide exemplar periods of American History, I think 1775 is a better year.

          • Jim__L

            I’m not sure that “whitewashing” is a particularly good term. We know racism happened, and we know it’s a bad thing. (Just watch the opening scene of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! if there is any doubt that “race” is a totally irrelevant in terms of human capability — or Google pictures of Lt. Gen Arthur Percival in his short pants surrendering the Union Jack.)

            I don’t think that picking and choosing what you want to emulate in past generations is inappropriate at all. One could argue that that’s exactly the sort of judgement that makes reading the Classics (Plutarch, say) so useful.

  • Ulysses Noman

    ‘Is democracy promotion a failed policy?’ No. The Marxist policy of fomenting Islamic revolutions as precursors to a restoration of the Caliphate in order to ‘simplify’ international relations masquerading as ‘democracy promotion’ is the failure.

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