What Do We Do Once We Decide to Take Action?

By Richard Pera


The theme of the upcoming conference hosted by the Center for the Study of American Democracy poses the question, “should America promote democracy abroad?” I believe we should. If you agree, the next question is, “how?”

Promoting democracy overseas does not start with free elections; it starts with recognition of absolute rights held by all men and women. For Americans, these rights are affirmed in the Declaration of Independence and fulfilled in the Constitution. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are recognized as natural rights because they exist at birth and are neither approved nor earned.

In the American model, inalienable rights come from God and are based on the concept of free will, although other countries may derive natural rights from secular sources. No government can grant these individual rights and no government can revoke them. These individual rights must be recognized before collective rights (e.g. free elections) can be seriously considered.

In a perfect world, the international community would be comprised of democratic national governments. Acceptance of democracy may change a nation’s behavior, but it is unlikely to change its fundamental national interest. Democracies are more likely to negotiate and trade and less likely to pursue armed conflict, but unique determinants like geography, language and minorities remain. China, for example, has a number of minority nations that Beijing controls through oppression. If China were democratic, its foreign policy would still be influenced by its treatment of these minorities.

Moreover, a democratic world does not mean that every democratic government would agree with the United States; a newly democratic Iraq disagrees with the American position on Israel. While democratic nations disagree with each other on policy issues, they are linked by shared values that engender mutual respect. For example, while many Americans find French policies and attitudes frustrating, the democratic natures of both countries create an underlying notion of cooperation in at least some respect. Promoting democracy overseas does not necessarily create a pro-American world, but it does reorient the foundation of international relationships from suspicion and doubt to assurance and trust.

While the U.S. should encourage democratization everywhere, we must recognize that each nation is unique. For purpose of generalization, however, non-democratic states may be viewed according to their level of economic development. More economically advanced nations are likely wealthier and more technologically advanced. As a result, they may be less predisposed to democratic change and hence U.S. encouragement.

In this group, China comes to mind again. While the Communist Party has relaxed economic controls in the past two decades, it still wields violence with an iron fist. As such, substantial American encouragement of democratic uprisings would be counter-productive, fostering more oppression and making democratization less likely. Instead, the U.S. should quietly encourage China’s long but peaceful march toward democracy. Whether over the next two years or two decades, the Chinese population has the potential to develop economic and political expectations leading to inexorable change. If they are lucky, a populist reformer will emerge as a catalyst, as has been the case in the past. Gorbachev grew up as a hard-line Soviet but opened the door to democracy; King Juan Carlos of Spain was another visionary who rejected four decades of Franco-style fascism in favor of parliamentary democracy.

Developing countries, on the other hand, are a different story. I am not talking about abjectly poor countries whose main priority should be to provide its population with the bare essentials. In those poor countries, political development should be limited to the creation of things like an effective food distribution network, rather than creation of an effective legislature. It is also important to note that the support of these nations often falls outside of American national interest. In developing countries that have established institutions and a functioning economy, the U.S. could and should play a more active role.

The potential for democratization in developing countries is far higher than those previously discussed. Unlike poorer nations, developing countries enjoy relatively stable political institutions that can be altered to fit the democratic ideal. Furthermore, they tend to support a large enough population and cover significant territory to provide the potential for economic development. This alone might be reason enough to attract Western economic and political investment.

These kinds of states are found on nearly every continent. The government of Myanmar, for example, is currently transitioning from a military dictatorship to a quasi-democracy, largely due to American political influence. With the maturity of democratic institutions, the hope is for the Southeast Asian nation’s economy to grow in similar fashion. Other non-democratic developing states that could blossom into liberal democracies include Venezuela (poised for political change post-Chavez), Cuba (post-Castro), Syria (post-Assad), Zimbabwe (post-Mugabe). And we have already begun to witness democratic change through the Arab Spring, most notably in post-Gaddafi Libya.

It should be noted that the Obama administration and the Clinton State Department have done admirable work in careful promotion of democracy, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. However, the administration should continue to operate its foreign policy with great caution; the removal of scoundrels is not tantamount to establishing democratic government. Political development takes time and nurture, much like a new tree sprouting from a single seed. Only the first chapters of the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian democracies have been written. Seeds have been planted. Hopefully with water and sunlight from the U.S., democracy will take root.

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