Markets and Democracy Briefs are published by CFR’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy initiative. They are designed to offer readers a concise snapshot of current thinking on critical issues surrounding democracy and economic development in the world today.
Stakes in Democracy
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Furthering democracy is often dismissed as moralism distinct from U.S. interests or mere lip service to build support for strategic policies. Yet there are tangible stakes for the United States and indeed the world in the spread of democracy—namely, greater peace, prosperity, and pluralism. Controversial means for promoting democracy and frequent mismatches between deeds and words have clouded appreciation of this truth.
Democracies often have conflicting priorities, and democracy promotion is not a panacea. Yet one of the few truly robust findings in international relations is that established democracies never go to war with one another. Foreign policy “realists” advocate working with other governments on the basis of interests, irrespective of character, and suggest that this approach best preserves stability in the world. However, durable stability flows from a domestic politics built on consensus and peaceful competition, which more often than not promotes similar international conduct for governments.
There has long been controversy about whether democracy enhances economic development. The dramatic growth of China certainly challenges this notion. Still, history will likely show that democracy yields the most prosperity. Notwithstanding the global financial turbulence of the past three years, democracy’s elements facilitate long-term economic growth. These elements include, above all, freedom of expression and learning to promote innovation, and rule of law to foster predictability for investors and stop corruption from stunting growth. It is for that reason that the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the 2002 UN Financing for Development Conference in Monterrey, Mexico, embraced good governance as the enabler of development. These elements have unleashed new emerging powers such as India and Brazil, and raised the quality of life for impoverished peoples. Those who argue that economic development will eventually yield political freedoms may be reversing the order of influences—or at least discounting the reciprocal relationship between political and economic liberalization.
Finally, democracy affords all groups equal access to justice—and equal opportunity to shine as assets in a country’s economy. Democracy’s support for pluralism prevents human assets—including religious and ethnic minorities, women, and migrants—from being squandered. Indeed, a shortage of economic opportunities and outlets for grievances has contributed significantly to the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East. Pluralism is also precisely what is needed to stop violent extremism from wreaking havoc on the world.
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Evolving U.S. Policy
To say there are major interests in democracy’s “enlargement”—that central concept in both national security strategy blueprints of the Clinton presidency—does not settle what role the United States should play and what policy tools are appropriate. These are the questions not of why but of how. A look at waves of U.S. policy since World War II offers apt lessons.
After World War II, the United States played a significant role in deepening and widening democracy in Western Europe. The United States encouraged European integration to stabilize the West European democracies, and NATO was a bulwark within which Italy, West Germany, Portugal, and Spain democratized. Later, after the Cold War, the twin institutions of NATO and an integrated Europe together created powerful incentives for emerging East European democracies to join Western multilateral institutions.
Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, however, frequently led the United States to support illiberal governments. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s revealing quip about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza—“He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”—too often became U.S. policy during the Cold War years.) Eventually, a consensus emerged in the 1980s—arguably President Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacy—that the United States had strategic interests in urging its autocratic Latin American and East Asian allies toward democracy. And so, in the 1980s, the United States supported land reforms in El Salvador that were deeply unpopular among ruling elites; facilitated the departure of General Augusto Pinochet as Chile’s leader; and pushed Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines in the direction of veritable electoral democracy.
After 9/11, President George W. Bush elevated democratization in the Middle East as a strategic priority. This apt aim, however, was undermined by several factors: the association of democracy promotion with military intervention in Iraq (which did not yield democracy with ease); the use of harsh counterterrorism measures that undercut the symbolism of freedom; the tendency to flinch when likely winners of elections were worrisome (such as in the Palestinian territories); and the failure to meet democracy rhetoric with action in places like Egypt and Pakistan.
The protests sweeping the Middle East in early 2011, which have so far caused the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and rocked the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, are now confronting President Barack Obama with a familiar challenge. In Egypt, the United States appears to face a classic dilemma: how to handle the potential demise of a friendly autocrat in a strategically important country. On the one hand, President Obama is under pressure to offer more vocal support to those demanding democracy on the streets of Cairo and call for an early change of leadership. On the other, many argue that President Mubarak has protected American interests in the Middle East for thirty years, and there is no guarantee that a new democratic government in Egypt would do the same if the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood should be elected.
President Obama’s struggle to reconcile these pressures comes after he began his term distancing himself from Washington’s mixed democracy-promotion legacy. His failure to embrace Iran’s inspiring Green Movement in the summer of 2009—presumably to keep a door open for dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program—was a clear indication of the Obama administration’s more realist turn. Now several signals indicate greater comfort with the bipartisan democracy consensus of the Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush presidencies. These include President Obama’s 2009 Nobel Laureate address; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s unveiling of another U.S. fund to help besieged human rights defenders; and President Obama’s 2010 address to the UN General Assembly, where he said, “There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny.” A record of implementation now needs to follow these public statements, whether in Egypt or any number of countries where democracy is absent or at risk—and where long-term U.S. interests are abundantly at stake.
Questions of Means
These historical legacies help highlight the central questions of how to promote democracy. First, is democracy most legitimately and effectively achieved through U.S. or multilateral action? At times, this might prove to be a false choice. If the action of the United States (or another power) is truly in the service of the consent of the governed, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms as understood in the UN Charter, then it ought not be rejected out of hand. Yet multilateral action has more perceived legitimacy.
Second, is the use of military force or covert action justified to promote democracy? Sometimes military action may be necessary not just to facilitate or restore democracy, but to end a particularly inhumane form of autocracy. Military intervention in Rwanda in 1994 to prevent or stop genocide would have been just such a case. However, intervention should be a truly last resort.
As for covert activity, the United States conducted secret operations to help forces of democracy in Western Europe early in the Cold War and in Eastern Europe later. Some covert action was justified as promoting democracy when it was merely promoting anti-Soviet actors. Using transparent means to support democratization is best whenever possible.
One effective alternative to direct intervention that the United States has pursued is to engage and support civil society around the world. For a quarter-century, operated separately from the U.S. government and working through affiliates of the Democratic Party, Republican Party, Chamber of Commerce, and AFL-CIO, the National Endowment for Democracy has assisted civil society actors to establish or consolidate democracy all over the world. In addition, private foundations, often in partnership with government, have funded grassroots organizations to help build civil societies globally as well. Support for indigenous, locally led movements is better than direct U.S. government action, whether civilian, military, or covert.
In the past five years, the United Nations has gone farther in actively promoting civil society. In 2006, Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan launched the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) to support an array of civil society organizations. Eighty-five percent of the funds are required to go to nongovernmental organizations rather than UN agencies or governments as implementers. Prior to UNDEF, a great deal of dialogue occurred in the UN about the importance of civil society to economic development and human rights, but the rhetoric was unmatched by empowering programming. UNDEF is beginning to change that. To date, its four rounds of grants have wisely funded a broad range of democracy’s building blocks, including women’s empowerment, civic education, and anticorruption measures. Although UNDEF remains underfunded, it is a step in the right direction. President Obama was right to note in his 2010 address to the UN General Assembly that “it’s time for every Member State ... to increase the UN Democracy Fund.”
U.S. enthusiasm for democracy promotion has been shaken in recent years due to a number of political and economic setbacks. These include the turmoil in post-invasion Iraq, election results favoring extremists, growing doubts about the neoliberal economic model, and the rise of an alternative Chinese statist model. Yet the need for democracy is as great as ever, and the most effective means to encourage it are in plain sight.
THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since 1947 (apart from a couple of years of emergency rule) and Brazil since the mid-1980s for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.
Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Mr Morsi tried to pack Egypt’s upper house with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Yanukovych reduced the power of Ukraine’s parliament. Mr Putin has ridden roughshod over Russia’s independent institutions in the name of the people. Several African leaders are engaging in crude majoritarianism—removing term limits on the presidency or expanding penalties against homosexual behaviour, as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni did on February 24th.
Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it. But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.
Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. The combination of globalisation and the digital revolution has made some of democracy’s most cherished institutions look outdated. Established democracies need to update their own political systems both to address the problems they face at home, and to revitalise democracy’s image abroad. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. America’s Senate has made it harder for senators to filibuster appointments. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters. Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. Italy’s parliament has far too many members who are paid too much, and two equally powerful chambers, which makes it difficult to get anything done.
But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make. The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men”, Madison argued, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The notion of limited government was also integral to the relaunch of democracy after the second world war. The United Nations Charter (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so.
These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny. But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. One is the growing size of the state. The relentless expansion of government is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests. The other comes from government’s habit of making promises that it cannot fulfil, either by creating entitlements it cannot pay for or by waging wars that it cannot win, such as that on drugs. Both voters and governments must be persuaded of the merits of accepting restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overreach. Giving control of monetary policy to independent central banks tamed the rampant inflation of the 1980s, for example. It is time to apply the same principle of limited government to a broader range of policies. Mature democracies, just like nascent ones, require appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government.
Governments can exercise self-restraint in several different ways. They can put on a golden straitjacket by adopting tight fiscal rules—as the Swedes have done by pledging to balance their budget over the economic cycle. They can introduce “sunset clauses” that force politicians to renew laws every ten years, say. They can ask non-partisan commissions to propose long-term reforms. The Swedes rescued their pension system from collapse when an independent commission suggested pragmatic reforms including greater use of private pensions, and linking the retirement age to life-expectancy. Chile has been particularly successful at managing the combination of the volatility of the copper market and populist pressure to spend the surplus in good times. It has introduced strict rules to ensure that it runs a surplus over the economic cycle, and appointed a commission of experts to determine how to cope with economic volatility.
Isn’t this a recipe for weakening democracy by handing more power to the great and the good? Not necessarily. Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution. But technocracy can certainly be taken too far. Power must be delegated sparingly, in a few big areas such as monetary policy and entitlement reform, and the process must be open and transparent.
And delegation upwards towards grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalisation, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.
Tocqueville argued that local democracy frequently represented democracy at its best: “Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it.” City mayors regularly get twice the approval ratings of national politicians. Modern technology can implement a modern version of Tocqueville’s town-hall meetings to promote civic involvement and innovation. An online hyperdemocracy where everything is put to an endless series of public votes would play to the hand of special-interest groups. But technocracy and direct democracy can keep each other in check: independent budget commissions can assess the cost and feasibility of local ballot initiatives, for example.
Several places are making progress towards getting this mixture right. The most encouraging example is California. Its system of direct democracy allowed its citizens to vote for contradictory policies, such as higher spending and lower taxes, while closed primaries and gerrymandered districts institutionalised extremism. But over the past five years California has introduced a series of reforms, thanks in part to the efforts of Nicolas Berggruen, a philanthropist and investor. The state has introduced a “Think Long” committee to counteract the short-term tendencies of ballot initiatives. It has introduced open primaries and handed power to redraw boundaries to an independent commission. And it has succeeded in balancing its budget—an achievement which Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the California Senate, described as “almost surreal”.
Similarly, the Finnish government has set up a non-partisan commission to produce proposals for the future of its pension system. At the same time it is trying to harness e-democracy: parliament is obliged to consider any citizens’ initiative that gains 50,000 signatures. But many more such experiments are needed—combining technocracy with direct democracy, and upward and downward delegation—if democracy is to zigzag its way back to health.
John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” He was clearly wrong. Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature.