The Power of the Ballot

Monday, January 19, 2009; Page A19

Martin Luther King Jr., born 80 years ago, would not have taken kindly to any suggestion that blacks should delay their push for voting rights while tending to other concerns: low wages, say, or police brutality. Civil rights leaders understood that political power was a prerequisite to fixing income disparities, ending unequal justice and curing other ills.

Yet the incoming Obama administration seems to be inclining, in its foreign policy, toward a philosophy that says: Voting matters, but maybe not as much as economic development, or women's rights, or honest judges. Its adoption as U.S. policy would be a terrible mistake, for America's security as well as its moral standing.

President Bush has soured many Americans, and especially many Democrats, on democracy promotion. His after-the-fact invocation of democracy as a rationale for war when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; his abandonment of democrats in Egypt and elsewhere after his extravagant promises, in his 2005 inaugural address, to spread liberty across the globe; and his betrayal of liberal ideals in America's treatment of foreign detainees -- all this tainted his "freedom agenda" for many.

So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, in a lengthy opening statement at her confirmation hearing, invoked just about every conceivable goal but democracy promotion. Building alliances, fighting terror, stopping disease, promoting women's rights, nurturing prosperity -- but hardly a peep about elections, human rights, freedom, liberty or self-rule. She expressed support for democracy promotion, but in less prominent written answers submitted for the record.

If her policy follows this template, it would break not only with Bush but with U.S. tradition stretching back long before him. It was Clinton's husband, after all, who said in his 1994 State of the Union: "Ultimately the best strategy to ensure our security and to build a durable peace is to support the advance of democracy elsewhere."

So when President-elect Barack Obama visited The Post last week, I asked where democracy promotion would figure in his administration. His answer, unhesitating, showed that he gets it: "Well, I think it needs to be at a central part of our foreign policy. It is who we are. It is one of our best exports, if it is not exported simply down the barrel of a gun."

Obama went on to say, though, that Bush had mistakenly equated democracy with elections. The first question, Obama said, "is freedom from want and freedom from fear. If people aren't secure, if people are starving, then elections may or may not address those issues, but they are not a perfect overlay."

Hillary Clinton expressed a similar worry, in a written answer for her hearing, saying that elections are important but "often fail when they precede the establishment of institutions that bolster democratic society -- strong legislatures, independent judiciaries, free press, vibrant civil society, honest police forces, religious freedom, and the rule of law."

Elections by themselves don't guarantee progress, it's true; the Soviet Union held them like clockwork. But people are more likely to be starving, and insecure, in dictatorships than in democracies. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated, "no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press." Other scholars have shown that, on average, democracies sacrifice nothing in the way of economic development -- and in fact grow faster than dictatorships, if you take China out of the comparison -- and that at comparable income levels they provide better welfare for their citizens.

Corruption can be a scourge in democracies or dictatorships. But it is more likely to fester when people have no way to hold their rulers accountable. People die of hunger in North Korea because of Kim Jong Il, not infertile land; they are dying of cholera in Zimbabwe because of Robert Mugabe's misrule, and grants to improve the water supply won't help much as long as he remains. Institutions such as a free press and independent judiciary are, as Clinton noted, crucial -- but if you delay elections until dictators have allowed such institutions to emerge you will wait, in most countries, forever.

It is heartening that Obama already has ordered, as he told us, a "thorough review" of the nation's aid and democracy programs. Questions of sequencing, of where the United States can help and where it can't, are complex and surely vary case by case.

In the end, given Obama's understanding of the world and America's moral role in it, I believe he will keep self-governance as a priority. He'll be swayed not only by the research that shows democracies do a better job in the long run delivering prosperity and peace but also by an even more powerful argument: the dignity of man. Every human, no matter how rich or poor, wants and is entitled to a say in his or her government. And very few would willingly accept a delay in enjoying that natural-born right, no matter how well intentioned the reason.

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