Never in human history have so many states spent as much money and energy trying to “promote democracy” in foreign lands as the United States and the European Union have spent since 2001. Never have so many conferences on the topic been held; never have so many NGOs held so many training sessions, commissioned so many papers and hired so many staffers. National leaders make speeches about it, newspapers write editorials about it, foundations commit large sums of money to it, and religious leaders unite with secular intellectuals to praise it. This all adds up to a deeply inspiring spectacle, or it would if democracy promotion were having much impact on the ground.
But the grim reality is that democracy is in retreat in much of the world. China and Russia are less free than they were a decade ago. The Arab Spring failed to bring liberal democracy almost without exception. In Africa, Central Asia, and Latin America it is easier today to find countries falling back from democratic reforms than countries striding forward to make new ones. Authoritarian populism in Turkey, “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, and the rise of radical parties in many member countries of the European Union testify to the weakening appeal of democratic values.
There are some who think that, given so many disappointing results, democracy promotion has no place in American policy. Self-described “realists” are eager to make this point and long for the day when American foreign policy will be liberated from the messy, ideological baggage that it currently carries. But that is an unrealistic aspiration. The promotion of values has always been an important part of American foreign policy. There have certainly been ups and downs in political fashion, but there simply are no long periods in American history during which values-promotion was not an integral part of the U.S. foreign policy template. Successful and politically sustainable American foreign policy must address the moral convictions and aspirations of the American people. The question isn’t whether we must carry this burden; the question is how we can carry it well.
Values-promotion remains embedded in American foreign policy because American political culture is moral by origin and character or, as some would say, moralistic. Some believe this to be a singular product of the Puritan or early Protestant cultural foundations of American life. Our democratic politics at home rests on assumptions and beliefs about human nature, about how humans ought to behave toward one another, and about how institutions ought to relate to the citizens of a country. The political legitimacy of our domestic institutions rests on these values, and Americans constantly judge the performance of our politicians with reference to them.
By their nature, these beliefs cannot be limited simply to Americans. If one really believes that all people are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, it becomes very hard to believe that by “all people” we mean merely “all citizens of the United States of America.” There is a sense in which the legitimacy of American domestic institutions rests on a set of assumptions about what world society should be like, how all human beings should live. We could not escape this universalism even if we decided we wanted to. We cannot ignore the fundamental philosophical beliefs that shape our foreign policy without also giving up on things that make our domestic politics what they are. That has been true for more than two centuries and it is likely to remain true for a long time to come.
Beyond that, America is and always has been by nature a revolutionary force in world affairs. This is not primarily or only because our moral values compel us to become the avatars of a global transformation. It is rather because the way American society works is profoundly destabilizing to the rest of the world. When Al Gore “invented the internet” he did as much to destabilize the Middle East as George W. Bush did when he invaded Iraq.
More seriously—and with apologies to the former Vice President—the internet started out as a DARPA project to facilitate the secure sharing of classified information. No one in DARPA, the Defense Department, or anywhere else in America was thinking about how to flatten hierarchies or challenge the social status quo everywhere in the world once the technology went commercial. The concern was about how to communicate effectively, how a company could use a corporate website to its competitive advantage, and so on. But the internet turned out to be a profoundly revolutionary force in politics around the world, and it poses huge problems to cultures and governments with foundations different from our own. Technology is not and has never been socially or politically neutral; it embodies and usually transmits the attitudes, economic endowments, moral priorities, and even the aesthetics of the societies that create it. It is very hard to simply adopt the machine and not the less tangible biases that go with it.
In the same way, Hollywood movies have helped to create a situation in which many young people, for instance, no longer think they should marry whomever their parents tell them to marry. There are all kinds of ways in which the American presence in the world has been and remains culturally subversive. In the 19th century we were seen on the Continent as a dangerous nation. The United States wasn’t sending armies out into the world to overthrow other regimes, but the mere existence of a successful, stable, large, powerful, and economically effective democratic society was a terrible example from the perspective of Europe’s rulers and religious traditionalists, who argued that their hierarchical positions were necessary to the effective governance of society as a whole. The United States was a living, thriving reproach to the political legitimacy of autocracies abroad.
Inevitably, therefore, the friends of stability and authority around the world tended increasingly to be as anti-American as they were formerly anti-British, and for similar reasons. The British, of course, did send military forces out into the world, but their real disruptive power derived from the revolutionary impact of a wider and eventually more market-based global trading system that rewarded efficiency and creativity and punished institutionalized privilege and all related arguments from authority. Forces that wanted to see social change in their countries tended to be pro-American. We still see this pattern today. The United States is revolutionary by being as well as by acting. Any foreign policy that doesn’t take this into account will run into trouble.
Consider Google and other major Silicon Valley companies, whose business models depend on a relatively open internet, with freedom of association and freedom of communication. In important ways the boundaries of Chinese, Iranian, or Russian power are the boundaries that limit where their business model can reach. For commercial reasons alone, much of American business is pushing the U.S. government toward the promotion of a liberal model for internet governance and of freedom of communication in ways that are parallel or equivalent to a values-promoting foreign policy. The government of a country with global trading interests like the United States must prioritize questions like contract law in foreign relations; the contracts that American companies have entered into abroad must be enforceable in transparent and honest courts of law. All kinds of people who do not think of themselves as democratic reformers in the history of American foreign policy have been consistently pushing all kinds of reform agendas around the globe that are self-interested in motivation but expansively liberal in consequence. There is every reason to believe that this kind of commercially based liberal policy will endure, and, with the information revolution shifting the world’s economic center of gravity away from the production and exchange of physical commodities toward the production and exchange of design and ideas, the importance of liberal values to American commerce is likely to grow.
There are other factors at work. The rapid development of the international financial system tends to lower the barrier between international and domestic policy and between human rights and security policy. Policing the international financial system against the efforts of drug traffickers, tax cheats and terror groups to conceal or shift assets is a major and legitimate concern for American policymakers. The scrutiny of international financial transactions that becomes necessary for these purposes has implications for the tens of thousands of corrupt officials in countries large and small who rely on the international banking system to shelter the fruits of office. As Western countries progressively move to police the international financial system, the question of property rights becomes a global rather than a purely local one. Is a Chinese “tiger” or a Russian oligarch entitled to his offshore billions? Should international banks honor decisions of Chinese courts when those courts may not always follow what Westerners would consider appropriate procedures?
Moreover there is a history going back into the 19th century of spontaneous popular activism in the United States against human rights abuses abroad leading to sanctions and other measures against various foreign states. As a matter of fact, public support for such laws is not going away. From protests against Russian pogroms against Jews in the 19th century to protests against Russian anti-gay laws today, the moral convictions of the American people are going to affect the actions of their leaders. For more than a hundred years we have seen a rising tide of this kind of activism both in the United States and other countries; the trend is unlikely to reverse, even if the record shows that sanctions and boycotts are rarely effective in international life.
Those who think that American foreign policy can dispense with a values-promotion dimension of some kind—who think, for example, that a strictly realist or “Kissingerian” policy is possible—simply don’t understand how U.S. policy has worked historically and why. This is not just because the moral element is necessary to get public support for major foreign policy initiatives, though of course it is. The more compelling reason is that American values inevitably inform what we do, even and perhaps especially when we are not consciously thinking about them.
Natural as liberal democratic attitudes and institutions are to Americans, they are unnatural to many other peoples. If the study of democracy over the past two hundred years teaches anything, it is that democracy is historically rare and reluctant to evolve, and that willful transitions to democracy are really hard. They usually fail in the short term, and often fail in the long term as well. This means that happy-clappy enthusiasm about overseas Twitter-fueled “revolutions” is fundamentally naive, and any policy based on it is likely to fail.
The first prominent historical victim of this delusional naivety was Thomas Jefferson, who looked at the French Revolution in 1789 and believed that the French were only doing what the British had done in 1688 and the Americans did in 1776. The same thing happened again with the Greek struggle for freedom in the 1820s and the Latin American revolutions of the 1830s and 1840s. All kinds of Americans thought everything would be fantastic—democracy in Argentina, how could it possibly fail? It failed.
It did not end there. France had its first democratic revolutionary movement in 1789, but it took until 1871 for it to establish a stable, quasi-democratic government. The transition in Germany took even longer and was even more destructive. Think 1848; think Weimar Republic. The transition in Russia, assuming there really is one, certainly seems stalled today. How much closer is Russia to Western democracy in 2015 than it was in 1905? One hopes it is a lot closer, but there have been many disappointments along the way. Egypt has been trying to modernize, politically and otherwise, since Napoleon got there in 1798, but it’s further behind France now than it was in 1798 when the Egyptian elite first said to themselves, “We really have to change; what we’re doing is not working.” Iran and Turkey surged forward under secularizing and modernizing autocrats, Turkey emerging into democracy and Iran coming fairly close. Iran never quite made it, and Turkey is relapsing into deeply ingrained authoritarian habits.
Despite this geographically varied and highly mixed record, all kinds of people in the democracy-promotion movement failed to think historically in the years after 1989. Utopia was always just around the corner. A group of English-speaking liberals tweeted sweetly and democratically in Tahrir Square, and the democracy promotion world saw the millennium at hand. Brave Syrian activists called for non-violent resistance to the thuggish Assad regime, and many Western observers thought they discerned a Syrian 1688. History teaches that most revolutions fail; it also teaches that most people fail to learn what history has to teach.
Still, there are many more democracies now than there were in 1789 or in 1889. To say that the path of democratization is not smooth or simple is not to say that the path doesn’t exist. But the road is usually steep, rocky, treacherous, winding, and, above all, long.
Return to the German case. If a country like Wilhelmine Germany of 1913 were around today we would be calling it an “emerging democracy.” It had a parliament, freedom of the press on virtually any subject, real open debate over public policy, and academic freedom. It was certainly much, much closer to real democratic life than many countries are today. Yet the process by which Germany got from where it was in 1913 to the democracy it is today was not smooth or uni-directional, to say the least, nor was it in any way inevitable. It also seems unlikely that NGO activists with foreign funding would have done much to change Germany’s direction.
Why do so many informed observers so frequently underestimate the obstacles to democratic success in so many revolutions? What are the complexities that they so often miss?
One concerns state capacity. One cannot have a democratic state without a state at all, but the functional and historical distinctions between state, governments, nations, and countries, and between rule of law and various forms of accountability, seem too complex a challenge of political sociology for some people in the democracy promotion industry (and it has, sadly, become something of an industry) to grasp. I was in Ukraine about nine months after the Orange Revolution, and the American embassy was full of people who were sure that a great and unquenchable light had dawned. It felt as if nobody had even tried to learn about the complex history of democratic movements since Thomas Jefferson gushed about the French Revolution. The same naivety, the same blindness as to the complexity beneath the superficial meaning of events, the same incomprehension of state failure that Jefferson brought to his analysis of France, were informing American democracy enthusiasts looking at Ukraine.
Change is hard. Cultural and historical legacies don’t transform overnight. In many places, deeply rooted popular beliefs about how the world works are not compatible with effective economic management. Argentina is a good example, and it is far from alone. In these places democratic governments make poor economic decisions based firmly on beliefs widely shared by a democratic majority. The economy then goes into a tailspin due to poor policy choices, the society often falls into a deep social crisis, and democratic institutions and parties cannot cope very well with the consequences over time. People vote in democratic elections for parties that then screw everything up so completely that sometimes support for democracy itself collapses and even a coup is popular, at least for a little while.
In many places, ideas about what the state is and how it works are connected to feudalism. In feudal societies, the state and state offices are a kind of property. If you become the Duke of Normandy, you get all the properties that come with the dukedom, but you owe support to the king. And you distribute the income and offices of the dukedom to your followers, who can enjoy them on their own but are obliged to support you. That’s not very different from the situation in Russia today, where cabinet ministers and oligarchs are the “nobles” in the postmodern feudalism of the Putin regime.
Political parties are seen in similar terms in many societies: They are networks of patronage whose leaders are doing their job when they extract revenue from the state and distribute it to their loyal followers. It is often the case that these ideas are deeply engrained in popular consciousness and are more powerful among the voters at large than among elites. Paradoxically, the more democratic a political system is, the more corrupt it can become. That was certainly true in American cities in the 19th century; universal male suffrage among poor, often uneducated immigrants led to the development of corrupt political machines. A party that wasn’t corrupt would regularly lose elections to a party that was more focused on distributing rewards to its supporters.
Tolerance for some forms of corruption, and even a preference for them (as a more “humane” system, for example, than a “cold” and “heartless” system that adheres rigidly to written rules) is relatively widespread in some cultures and subcultures. This preference may not be conducive to better governance or modernization, but it’s real. It does not go away just because someone in Washington or Brussels publishes a white paper saying that corruption is a bad thing. It is very hard to develop laws that can displace this kind of “corruption”, or to establish institutions that can monitor it, when the people charged with such tasks believe that corruption and politics are not so different from each other as Westerners and others think. A tribal leader in Afghanistan or Iraq will, of course, distribute jobs and money to relatives; that is what being a leader means.
There are other cultural and historical factors that lead many people in other countries to accept and even to expect what Westerners think of as non-democratic and non-transparent governance. In a number of countries around the world, for example, it was only when a nation produced an authoritarian political party with a charismatic leader that it was able to drive out foreign rulers. In such cases, ruling parties that erode or override democratic norms may do so with strong public support. There is also a tendency for minorities and dissidents to be considered disloyal to the state; to protect the majority from the machinations of foreign powers, harsh measures against dissident minorities can easily win widespread public support.
The influence of ethnic and religious conflict should never be underestimated. Rulers like Paul Kagame, many of whose supporters see him as a bulwark against genocide, have a different relationship to democratic norms than leaders in countries with no history of ethnic and religious conflict.
There are also places where people have very strong religious beliefs about how the world should work, and these beliefs do not necessarily mesh well with the actual practices needed for economic success in a global, capitalist system based on continuing upheaval and innovation in technology. Under a democratic government, voters may and often do select leaders who have ideas about property rights or the place of women, for example, that are not compatible with effective governance in modern conditions. So democracy does not always lead to good government—examples extend from Kenya to Greece to Brazil and back through Bulgaria and South Africa—and economic development often depends more on good government than democratic government.
Popular beliefs and cultural patterns like these do not change quickly. A long process of forgetting and re-remembering history must precede the changes that lead to proto-democratic institutions, and even then those developing institutions will often not work as they ought to, because the people carrying out their functions may have an understanding of what politics is, and of what legitimacy is, that predates even the colonial epoch. A team of American political consultants is probably not going to change this in what we would call a policy-relevant time frame.
Of course, Americans and other democracy-minded folk like to think that after electing bad people, citizens will see that bad policies don’t work; they’ll learn from their mistakes and elect better people. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they learn the wrong lessons. Many conservative German nationalists turned to Adolf Hitler after what they saw as the failure of more moderate conservatives like Hindenburg and Brüning. Nations walk a narrow path; it is easy to fall off that path into extremes of various kinds, for genuine public sentiment to play into the hands of parties and movements that are anti-democratic and effective at being so.
Democracy can and does take root in imperfect conditions. Citizens do not need to become perfectly enlightened to build a reasonably well-functioning democratic state. The existence of one or more impediments to democracy does not mean that the path to democracy for a given country is necessarily blocked. But technocratic foreign experts are unlikely to be very successful at assessing the complex factors at work in any given case. Successful transitions to democracy are more likely to come from the efforts of insiders who are much more deeply grounded in the culture, religion, ideas, and history of a particular society than outside consultants and career democracy promotion experts can ever be.
There is also a deeper issue. America is the land of historical optimists and determinists. We believe history is heading upward on a certain trajectory; at heart we are still whigs, at least with a small “w.” American optimism means that even when history is going our way, we often underestimate how challenging the journey will be.
Americans have made this mistake before. Back in 1870 eastern and central Europe and the Middle East comprised five or so states, none of them democracies: the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, the new German Empire, and then Greece and a few small others. Many Americans were morally certain that democracy was about to transform this region, and that nationalist movements seeking self-determination would spearhead a movement of democratic change that would bring peace, justice, and freedom to the region in relatively short order.
Those optimistic Americans were not completely wrong. Today there are fifty or sixty states there; maybe thirty or forty are democracies. But to get even this far required the deaths of 150 million people, two world wars, and untold episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide, of which the Holocaust was just the largest and most dramatic.
Most of the ethnically homogenous, happy democratic states in central Europe are so in part because in one way or another they got rid of their pesky minorities. There was the ethnic cleansing of millions of Germans from Poland and the Czech Republic; massive numbers of Greeks were driven out of Turkey and Turks and Muslims driven out of Greece. Of those living in Turkey today at least 5 percent are descended from someone who was forced out as the Ottoman Empire shrank. Very often we like to think history moves from modernization to democracy to a stable democratic peace. It often turns out, however, that the rise of democracy is associated with a profound rise in ethnic tension.
In American history, too, Jacksonian democracy was partly about driving Indian tribes off the land so that the democratic individuals and families could own their own farms. In Austria, some democratic parties were composed largely of anti-Semites, while often it was the aristocrats who resisted vulgar anti-Semitism. Often, democratic movements were about uniting, say, the Czechs, establishing the right of self-determination for Czechs, having rich Czechs take care of poor ones as brothers—but not so much the Germans or the Roma or the Jews. The rise of democracy and the rise of ethnic tension, hatred, and violence are very closely connected historically; this is still sometimes the case today. We see in Egypt that a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood was not necessarily a vote for a happy life for the Copts, for instance. This is not new, not some surprising distortion or aberration. Yet over and over again democracy proponents are surprised when things that have happened repeatedly, year after year, decade after decade, suddenly and mysteriously happen again.
Clearly, while realists may underestimate the profound importance of democracy promotion, true believers underestimate its difficulty. In Africa, for example, it’s likely that in many countries tribal and religious identities will become more important as economic development proceeds. As states become richer and more effective, people often care more about who controls it, more about whether the state is run by people who think like they do, speak like they do, and operate in support of their interests than about the purity of its democratic credentials.
So we are likely to continue to see a link between the rise of democracy and the rise of various forms of social conflict and tension within and between countries, and not just in Africa. Both the Bush and the Obama Administrations looked to the spread of democracy in the Middle East as a solution to critical foreign policy problems; democracy, both presidents believed, was the best cure for the social and economic ills that inflamed radical jihadi ideology and hatred of the United States. This may well be true, but both Presidents learned that the Democracy Fairy does not show up on an American timetable. If democracy comes to the Middle East, it will come in a time, at a pace, in a form, and in a manner that are driven by local forces. One can make similar arguments about China, Russia, Central Asia, and many other places in this world. American policymakers need to understand that it is only in exceptional and fortunate circumstances that democracy promotion activities by the United States will affect grave international problems in a policy-relevant time frame.
The idea that the Democracy Fairy can be induced to arrive on an accelerated schedule and will solve intractable foreign policy problems is an attractive one. It is, however, almost always an error to base policy decisions on the immanence of democratic transformation. Rather than look to a democratic surge to make our stickiest problems go away, policymakers would do better to believe, and to argue, that democracy will be more likely to arrive in more places around the world if and as we solve our urgent foreign policy problems.
Democracy promotion should be seen as, at best, a long-term proposition. Its value in the short term is more as an instrument for changing perceptions than as an instrument for changing reality. Policymakers may choose to highlight democracy promotion as a way to build public support both at home and abroad; they should not, however, deceive themselves into the belief that promoting democracy in a country will often be an effective strategy for resolving America’s foreign policy problems with that country. Indeed, democracy promotion (especially if it fails, but sometimes even when it succeeds) may well make bilateral relations considerably more difficult. A democratically elected Saudi government might, for example, be more religiously radical and geopolitically aggressive than the current regime. Certainly the outcome of democratic elections in Israel has not always improved U.S.-Israel relations. A democratically elected Chinese government might take an even harder line than Beijing now does over China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Americans do not have to go abroad to learn about the difficulties of democracy promotion. The most sustained effort in American history to promote democracy at home is known as Reconstruction, the 12 years following the Civil War during which Federal authorities tried to create a genuine biracial democracy in the former Confederacy. Reconstruction involved a mix of many democracy promotion tools that we still use today. Washington supported civil society groups and political organizations in the South that were willing to accept black political rights. States and regions that accepted democracy received preferential financial and trade help. The Federal army, fresh from its triumph in the Civil War, was deployed to protect black voters, politicians, and their allies.
Reconstruction failed. The United States lacked the political will to continue the struggle, and Southern blacks were left to the tender mercies of Jim Crow. Republicans were intimidated or driven out of the South, and the American South, in open defiance of the U.S. Constitution, set up a one-party system under a racially limited franchise that survived Reconstruction for almost a century.
The American South was a much better candidate for democratization in 1865 than many foreign countries are today. While it had lived under the cloud of slavery and ferocious race prejudice, democratic ideology was a part of its cultural DNA. Great American exponents of democracy like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson had lived and worked there. The South had embraced a two-party political system and universal white male suffrage well before the Civil War. The conquering North was culturally less alien than Americans are today in the Middle East or were in 1945 Japan. The North and South read the same Bible, worshipped the same God, spoke the same language, and shared a common political tradition.
But with all these advantages, the North could not build a new and better democratic order in the defeated South. One wonders exactly why so many people are so quick to suppose that much more difficult feats of political transformation can be achieved in foreign countries today.
If the history of Reconstruction illustrates the limits of democracy promotion, the history of subsequent years also points to a longer-term, more patient but ultimately much more successful strategy that may help us today.
Some kind of new strategy is necessary; American foreign policy needs to have a serious approach to democracy promotion because American public opinion (and opinion in many of our important allies) expects and demands it. Moreover, in spite of all the objections that can be raised against particular policies or approaches to democracy promotion, the establishment of a progressively larger group of countries willing and able to be guided by the ideals of liberal democracy is very much in the interest of the United States.
The greatest success in American democracy promotion rose from the failure of Reconstruction, and even today few Americans are familiar with more than a few isolated pieces of the story. With the collapse of Reconstruction politics, the disarming of African-American Civil War veterans, the withdrawal of Federal forces, the triumph of terrorist racial groups, the rise of lynch law, and the institution of racial franchise and one-party politics across the South, the outlook for real democracy seemed poor. But a relative handful of dedicated people, supported by donations from the North and the sacrifices of generations of parents and students, did not let the story end there. George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and a group of other educators made the decision to bow to force and accept the limits of a Jim Crow society, but to work within it to educate new generations of African-American leaders who, when the time was ripe, would be able to lead a democracy movement to victory.
The years between 1877 and 1945 saw the gradual incubation and development of a broadly based and widely spread African-American leadership, educated along democratic lines across the South. From big cities to small towns, there were college-educated teachers, doctors, lawyers, clergy, undertakers, insurance agents, and other professionals and skilled workers. These generations of leaders came from schools that were educationally rigorous, focused on the development of personal character and spiritual growth, and imbued with a strong sense of democratic principle and group solidarity.
These people were the ones who provided the leadership that the African Americans of the post-Civil War period lacked. Educated, disciplined, skilled, they provided the local leadership without which the freedom movement could never have succeeded. They built the movement that brought democracy to the American South; from this community came the vision and the skills that transformed American life in the generation after World War II.
At the same time, educators had also been working to build up the educational levels among Southern whites, especially among the poor. Few Southern states offered free public schools even to white residents at the time of the Civil War; in the postwar decades networks of primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions spread across the region. Segregated as they were, such schools inevitably communicated information that broadened the minds of their pupils. If blacks were more able to fight for democracy in the 1950s than they had been in the 1870s, whites on the whole were less willing to fight against it.
There were other philanthropic initiatives that helped change the South. Andrew Carnegie and his foundation funded the construction of more than 1,600 free libraries across the United States and gave substantial grants to more than 3,000. Small towns across the South were provided with large book collections that opened the doors to a wider world for generations of young people. (Given the entrenched racial policies of the era, libraries were also built to serve African Americans.)
If we look at successful movements for social change around the world, we can see the tremendous role that educated professionals and businesspeople have played. Mission schools taught the children who would grow up to become ANC activists; independence and democracy movements around the world can trace their history back to groups of young people gathered around patriotic, democracy-minded teachers who created islands of dignity and civil life in universities and schools across the world.
Looking back over American society’s long engagement in the business of democracy promotion, it seems clear that, abroad as at home, we have done the most good through the universities we have founded and the students whose educations we have facilitated. Universities and their faculties act like yeast in dough; over time, they prepare the way for better things. Education is the most enlightened, most effective, and least condescending form of foreign aid; the recipient is free to use that education for whatever purposes she pleases, and the judgment of people on the spot is usually better than the opinions of foreign development think tanks and democracy promotion shops.
As we think about the failure of some recent revolutions and come to grips with the difficulties and obstacles that democratization faces around the world, our response should not be to give up on democracy. But as we face the reality that many countries experience a long and complex process of change and social development before democracy has a chance, we need to put education back at the center of the agenda. While there is a time and a place for everything, it is often much, much better to start a school than to fund an NGO, better to improve a mediocre university than to run a training session for activists, and in general better to prepare the ground for the emergence of democratic institutions and culture through education than to promote, from abroad, movements for political change.
There are many things the American government and American civil society can do that will help other societies find their way to better, freer lives in the whirlwind of 21st-century life. Besides starting and helping colleges and schools, we can step up programs that allow foreign students and professors to study in the United States. We can support the translation of important works into local languages, so that people in Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and Brazil don’t have to develop a reading fluency in a foreign language in order to keep abreast of the news and ideas in broader global society.
We can do these things without engaging in direct conflict with governments whose human rights policies we deplore. Just as George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington worked within existing political limits to build a reality that in due course could and would challenge them, so too can we work to enhance educational systems and broaden educational opportunities within non-democratic countries. In time, this is likely to produce change, but those changes, when they come, will grow out of a process of reflection and development that expresses the priorities and the values of the people of a given society.
Good schools and universities are the wellsprings out of which healthy civil societies and durable movements for democratic change ultimately emerge. They are also absolutely critical for economic development; even countries that oppose democratic politics increasingly understand the importance of universities, even with their irritating tendency to promote free thought.
Nothing can guarantee the triumph of democracy worldwide, just as nothing can guarantee that human beings will use democratic freedoms wisely or well. Still, experience tells us that building good colleges and good schools that offer an ethical as well as a practical education, offering students and teachers the opportunity to travel and study abroad, and making good books in local languages available to ordinary people are the measures most likely to promote both economic and political development. With democracy checked or in retreat in much of the world, it is past time for democracy’s friends to refocus their efforts on the policies that work.