Surviving the Democracy Backlash

By Carl Gershman
Friday, June 8, 2007

Today marks the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's "Westminster address," in which he called upon the world's democracies to launch "a global campaign for freedom" that he predicted would "leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history." As presidential speeches go, this one has had unusual staying power, and not just because it foresaw the collapse of communism. It captured a moment of renewed democratic optimism after the Vietnam debacle and set in motion the institutionalization of democracy promotion as a core element of American foreign policy.

Democracy promotion remains a key U.S. priority; the opening sentence of the National Security Strategy adopted in 2006 declares that America's policy is "to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." But the Bush administration has encountered enormous resistance in carrying this out.

The first obstacle is the circumstances in the Middle East, the geographic focus of the administration's democracy agenda. This focus was understandable in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Moreover, President Bush was correct, in his address to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, to have officially repudiated the doctrine of "Arab exceptionalism," according to which democracy could progress everywhere except in the Arab world. His courageous pronouncement actually had the effect of stirring ferment in the only major region bypassed by the third wave of democratization in the 1980s and '90s.

Still, conditions for advancing democracy in the Middle East are far from promising. Liberal reformers occupy a narrow political space between authoritarian regimes and Islamist opposition movements, both of which benefit from their mutual antagonism at the expense of the small democratic center. And the president's call for "a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" has been blunted by the continuing violence in Iraq and the deepening crisis with Iran. One cannot expect to see democratic breakthroughs in this troubled region in the near term.

The second obstacle is that the conditions for democratic progress globally are more challenging today than at any time in the last generation. If Reagan spoke at the moment the third wave was gathering momentum, Bush launched his own democracy campaign on the threshold of the "reverse wave," the long-anticipated reaction against the period of rapid democratic expansion. We see this reaction on many fronts -- the backlash against nongovernmental organizations and democracy assistance by governments seeking to preempt uprisings similar to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine; a new populism that feeds off widespread disenchantment with the performance of many new democracies; the belligerence of autocrats in Russia, Venezuela and Iran whose influence is enhanced by high oil prices; and the rise of China as a global power supporting many rogue and dictatorial regimes, and offering an authoritarian model of economic development.

We should not despair about the prospects for democracy, but it is necessary to take a long-term and realistic view. The third wave raised hopes, but it also fostered illusions about how democracy comes about and can be properly assisted. It encouraged the view that stable democracy can come quickly even to countries lacking significant democratic experience and that our own will and resources could be the decisive factor in bringing it about.

In addition, with the collapse of communism, democracy came to be seen as an uncontested norm of the new international order. With the element of contestation removed, democratization became an aspect of development policy, divorced from politics and largely taken over by professionalized bureaucracies, often tied to governments and multilateral agencies. As the field of democracy promotion expanded along these lines, programs and strategies became driven more by donors than by indigenous democratic forces. And as resistance to democracy grew, this approach also became increasingly irrelevant.

It is time to return to a few simple truths, the first being that assisting democracy is an inherently political enterprise, and a deeply contested one at that. A successful approach will be multifaceted, but it should have three core features: (1) organizations for providing aid that can flexibly adapt to local conditions and connect in a discreet but transparent way with indigenous democratic forces; (2) political and diplomatic solidarity with those on the front lines of struggle; and (3) the patience to persevere over the long haul.

Future opportunities for democratic breakthroughs will present themselves, and we will need to be ready to take advantage of them. As Reagan said at Westminster, "democracy is not a fragile flower" but "needs cultivating." Even in the face of current challenges, providing effective help to people who are fighting for democracy on many fronts should be something we can readily do.

The writer is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.


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