Democracy is not always the solution

The Thinker by Rodin

The United States is in the proselytizing business. No I don’t mean Bush’s odious Faith-Based Initiative which contrary to our constitution seems to say it’s okay to shower religious institutions with tax dollars. I’m not talking about proselytizing religion at all. No, the United States is in the democracy-proselytizing business. No matter what the problem is overseas with some non-democratic government, democracy (with rabid capitalism) is our solution. One size fits all countries.

Given our heritage it is understandable that that we would want all other countries to also be democracies. Our country was founded on equal representation, liberty and freedom. It generally works for us. Democratic governments are unlikely to wage unilateral wars against other governments (present administration notwithstanding, of course.) Democracy certainly seems better than the usual alternatives such as theocracies, communism, socialism, despots, strongmen, anarchies and monarchies. And I’d have to generally agree. My problem is I don’t always agree that democracy is the best approach for any country.

As we are learning in Iraq, I don’t think democracy can be imposed from the outside. For it to work it must come from the citizens of a country. To work really well the citizens must crave democracy. It helps for them to be completely fed up with their non-democratic government. But it also requires a strong belief in the people in their ability to solve their own problems collectively. Democracy is like a garden. A garden requires good soil, lots of effort, persistence and tender loving care. Lacking these you end up with a lot of weeds, and the result may not be what you intended.

The same is true with democracy. In much of the Muslim world at the moment we have nations embracing theocratic versions of Islam. Clearly this is not a form of government that seeks much guidance from non-clerics. I anticipate that for the next 20-50 years Muslim countries that have not yet embraced democracy (the vast majority) will need to work through their issues of separating religion from government. Until that happens democracy is unlikely to take hold.

Still I suspect a lot of Muslims are quite pragmatic. Most would like to give their mullahs the heave ho. There is a lot of cultural baggage to deal with in Muslim countries. This is a problem shared by countries with a predominant faith. Islam’s predisposition toward theocracy makes it very difficult if not dangerous to speak out against any religious authorities that want to run a state.

Iraq’s experiment with democracy might actually succeed. The odds are at best 50/50 that it can be pulled off over the next decade. (My guess is it is actually about 1 in 5). But Iraq is more fertile a place than most in the Mideast for democracy. Why is this? It is clear that Iraqis have tried the strongman approach with Saddam and at best it was a mixed experience. It certainly gave order and security, but tyranny caused a lot of murders, death, hardship and repression. On the other hand in some ways Saddam Hussein was ahead of his time. One was in the area of education. Overall Iraqis have much more access to education (including higher education) than most people in the Middle East. There is a thriving middle class. The conditions in Iraq are not all that different from those of our country in 1776. So let’s keep our fingers crossed. Against the odds Iraq may actually live up to Bush’s vision as a democratic state at peace in the middle of the Middle East.

But then there is much of the rest of the Muslim world. There is also much of the third world. There is hope that even in third world countries democracy can take root. Bangladesh for example is a country mired in poverty and low educational standards and yet it has a reasonably successful democracy. Part of its success has to do with being in fertile democratic soil. India is next door and has been democratic for fifty years or so. It is poor enough so that it is not a likely target for invasion. It is also predominantly Muslim. And although it has seen its share of wars and ethnic conflicts more often than not their conflicts can be worked out through a political process instead of civil strife.

Unlike Bangladesh there a lot more places like Afghanistan. Here is a country where I can almost guarantee democracy will not work in the short term. First of all we would like all citizens of Afghanistan to have the right to vote. It seems reasonable enough from our perspective. Unfortunately a very conservative form of Islam embraces most of the country. It is hard enough for women to leave their house without wearing a burka. Most women have to be escorted by a male relative if they want to go anywhere. In many places they cannot even get medical care. The sad facts are that this is a culture that does not appear ready to give women much in the way of civil rights.

Then there is their education problem. While education improved somewhat in places like Kabul in the 1970s and 1980s, Afghanistan is an overall educational disaster. Women are rarely educated. The average educational level of an Afghani is 1.7 years! Think about this: the average person doesn’t even have a second grade education. It’s a good bet that most citizens have not studied democratic models nor developed critical thinking skills. I know I would be concerned about placing trust in the people if I knew they were operating at a second grade level.

So what works for these countries? It depends on the country’s culture and history. Progress should unfold in the context of that unique story. Historically monarchy has been a fairly successful way to get between feudalism and democracy. A succession of kings and queens gives a country a certain stability.

The Afghani loya jirga process is not quite democratic, but it may be the most realistic short-term solution for Afghanistan if it can be pulled off. It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan can bind together as a nation at all. No such nation existed until the British created it in the 20th century. Like Yugoslavia it may make more sense for the country to balkanize into ethnic areas. There has to be shared interests on many levels in order to have a real country. It’s not clear these yet exist in Afghanistan.

The United States needs to stop pushing democracy as the solution to non-democratic states. Rather we require an enlightened approach to encourage democracy where the climate is favorable and encourage benign forms of government in places where it isn’t.

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