November 21, 2003

Seeds of democracy can't be sown by force

As a thoughtful Democrat, I go to great lengths to comprehend the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration. Making sense of our military commitment in Iraq—not to mention other possible entanglements in North Korea and the Middle East—is not always easy, especially since President Bush has been less than eloquent in his defense of these commitments. But I've recently made some strides in understanding some of the underlying assumptions of Bush's foreign policy, which predispose us to short-change the value of democracy.

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek has suggested that the Bush administration believes in a "silver-bullet theory of democratization." This means that all countries throughout the world are willing and able to function as self-sustaining democracies. But the catch is that this is so at any given moment in history. Hence, countries like North Korea, China, and Cuba are all magically capable of transforming themselves into lasting democracies at a moment's notice. While this supposition might seem harmless, Zakaria correctly points to one of its very real consequences: the use of the military as the impetus for democratic transitions.

If all countries are instantly capable of becoming liberal democracies, then why not just eradicate the 40 or so dictators left in the world? Our military is big and strong enough; let them run amok all over the globe and watch democracy instantaneously spring forth! Do we honestly believe that the military is capable of converting countries like Iran and North Korea into American-caliber democracies? When did we start believing that genuinely liberal democracies, like our own, spontaneously come into being?

This impulse might well explain our policy in Iraq. A one-stop military expedition was once thought to be sufficient to defeat Saddam Hussein and lay the seeds of democracy. Indeed, in selling the war to Congress, members of the President's cabinet downplayed the long-term reconstruction costs of destabilizing Iraq. Few people, including the President and his advisors, would have imagined a supplemental bill totaling $87 billion. Now it has become sufficiently clear that Iraqi democratization will not abide by the "silver-bullet" theory—we will be there for years to come until a lasting democracy is born.

Upon reflection, the military has never been an effective conduit for democracy. Lasting democracies are not the result of hasty military action. They require structural changes in economies, legal codes, and social norms of representation and accountability. Latin America's experience in the latter half of the twentieth century confirms this point. After years of war and authoritarianism throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Argentina, Chile, and Peru are still struggling to consolidate democratic rule. The same is true of pre-Castro Cuba. Neither the United States in 1898, nor Batista and his military loyalists in 1952 were able to use the military as a democratic vehicle.

In fact, I can think of two instances where lasting democracies have emerged without the pains of war. In Russia, the failures of communism became so apparent that a (relatively) negotiated transition steered the country towards democracy. In Mexico, the PRI finally lost its grip on the electorate in 2000. The result, so far, has been a genuine rebirth of Mexican democracy. In Cuba and Venezuela, democracy will eventually take hold (though not without civil unrest). The point, however, is that war and militarization will not serve the democratic aspirations of Cuba and Venezuela.

Simply put, the military is not the answer. But if not the military, then what can bring about a lasting transition to democracy? I would argue that the development of democracy is best left to diplomacy and economic engagement. If we're sure about the virtues of democracy, then we must be confident and patient about its eventual existence in places like Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Adam Smith once remarked, "efficient markets are guided by an invisible hand." Perhaps more subtle—yet equally powerful—forces, and not precision-guided munitions, also guide democracy.

As for Zakaria, he concludes by saying that one cannot embrace the spread of democracy without first embracing the means by which to arrive at a democracy. These include free and fair elections, independent institutions and courts, a buoyant civil society, and liberalized markets. Absent from that list is military intervention—it is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure the onset, much less the survival, of democracy. Let us hope that the "silver-bullet" theory is also absent from the minds of policymakers in the years to come.