Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Limits of Democracy Promotion

From Stephen Krasner, at Foreign Affairs, "Learning to Live With Despots":

Throughout its history, the United States has oscillated between two foreign policies. One aims to remake other countries in the American image. The other regards the rest of the world as essentially beyond repair. According to the second vision, Washington should demonstrate the benefits of consolidated democracy—free and fair elections, a free press, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and an active civil society—but not seek to impose those things on other countries. The George W. Bush administration took the first approach. The Obama administration took the second, as has the Trump administration, choosing to avoid actively trying to promote freedom and democracy in other countries.

Both strategies are, however, deeply flawed. The conceit that the United States can turn all countries into consolidated democracies has been disproved over and over again, from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. The view that Washington should offer a shining example but nothing more fails to appreciate the dangers of the contemporary world, in which groups and individuals with few resources can kill thousands or even hundreds of thousands of Americans. The United States cannot fix the world’s problems, but nor does it have the luxury of ignoring them.

Washington should take a third course, adopting a foreign policy that keeps the country safe by working with the rulers the world has, not the ones the United States wishes it had. That means adopting policies abroad that can improve other states’ security, boost their economic growth, and strengthen their ability to deliver some services while nevertheless accommodating a despotic ruler. For the purposes of U.S. security, it matters more that leaders in the rest of the world govern well than it does that they govern democratically. And in any case, helping ensure that others govern well—or at least well enough—may be the best that U.S. foreign policy can hope to achieve in most countries.


Homo sapiens has been around for about 8,000 generations, and for most of that time, life has been rather unpleasant. Life expectancy began to increase around 1850, just seven generations ago, and accelerated only after 1900. Prior to that point, the average person lived for around 30 years (although high infant mortality explained much of this figure); today, life expectancy is in the high 70s or above for wealthy countries and approaching 70 or more for many poor ones. In the past, women—rich and poor alike—frequently died in childbirth. Pandemic diseases, such as the Black Death, which wiped out more than one-third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century, were common. In the Western Hemisphere, European colonists brought diseases that devastated indigenous populations. Until the nineteenth century, no country had the rule of law; at best, countries had rule by law, in which formal laws applied only to some. For most people, regardless of their social rank, violence was endemic. Only in the last century or two has per capita income grown significantly. Most humans who have ever lived have done so under despotic regimes.

Most still do. Consolidated democracy, in which the arbitrary power of the state is constrained and almost all residents have access to the rule of law, is a recent and unique development. The experience of people living in wealthy industrialized democracies since the end of World War II, with lives relatively free of violence, is the exception. Wealthy democratic states have existed for only a short period of history, perhaps 150 years, and in only a few places in the world—western Europe, North America, Australasia, and parts of Asia. Even today, only about 30 countries are wealthy, consolidated democracies. Perhaps another 20 might someday make the leap, but most will remain in some form of despotism.

The United States cannot change that, despite the hopes of policymakers who served in the Bush administration and scholars such as the political scientist Larry Diamond. Last year, Diamond, reflecting on his decades of studying democratization all over the world, wrote that “even people who resented America for its wealth, its global power, its arrogance, and its use of military force nevertheless expressed a grudging admiration for the vitality of its democracy.” Those people hoped, he wrote, that “the United States would support their cause.” The trouble is that, regardless of such hopes, despotic leaders do not want to provide benefits to those they govern; they want to support with arms or money those who can keep them in power. They will not accept policies that aim to end their rule. What’s more, organizing against a despot is dangerous and unusual. Revolutions are rare. Despots usually stay in power.

Yet although the United States cannot build wealthy democracies abroad, it cannot ignore the problems of the rest of the world, either, contrary to what Americans have been told by people such as U.S. President Donald Trump, who in his first speech after he was elected said, “There is no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American flag. From now on, it’s going to be America first, OK? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first.”

The trouble with wanting to withdraw and focus on home is that, like it or not, globalization has indeed shrunk the world, and technology has severed the relationship between material resources and the ability to do harm. A few individuals in badly governed and impoverished states control enough nuclear and biological weapons to kill millions of Americans. And nuclear weapons are spreading. Pakistan has sold nuclear technology to North Korea; the North Koreans might one day sell it to somebody else. Nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of jihadi groups. Pandemic diseases can arise naturally in badly governed states and could spread to the developed world, killing millions. The technology needed to create artificial pathogens is becoming more widely available. For these reasons, the United States has to play a role in the outside world, whether it wants to or not, in order to lower the chances of the worst possible outcomes. Revolutions are rare. Despots usually stay in power.

And because despots are here for the foreseeable future, Washington will always have to deal with them. That will mean promoting not good government but good enough governance. Good government is based on a Western ideal in which the government delivers a wide variety of services to the population based on the rule of law, with laws determined by representatives selected through free and fair elections. Good government is relatively free of corruption and provides reliable security for all citizens. But pushing for elections often results only in bloodshed, with no clear improvement in governance. Trying to eliminate corruption entirely may preclude eliminating the worst forms of corruption. And greater security may mean more violations of individual rights. Good government is not in the interests of the elites in most countries the United States wants to change, where rulers will reject or undermine reforms that could weaken their hold on power.

A foreign policy with more limited aims, by contrast, might actually achieve more. Greater security, some economic growth, and the better provision of some services is the best the United States can hope for in most countries. Achieving good enough governance is feasible, would protect U.S. interests, and would not preclude progress toward greater democracy down the road.

Policies aiming for good enough governance have already succeeded. The best example comes from Colombia, where for the past two decades, the United States has sought to curb violence and drug trafficking by providing financial aid, security training, military technology, and intelligence under what was known until 2016 as Plan Colombia (now Peace Colombia). The results have been remarkable. Between 2002 and 2008, homicides in Colombia dropped by 45 percent. Between 2002 and 2012, kidnappings dropped by 90 percent. Since the turn of the century, Colombia has improved its scores on a number of governance measures, including control of corruption, the rule of law, government effectiveness, and government accountability. That progress culminated in 2016 with a peace deal between the government and the guerilla movement the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)...


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