When Democracy Bites Back

Donald K. Emmerson is a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.

As Washington prepares for war in Iraq, the question arises: Who, if anyone, will counterbalance American power?

Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, Osama bin Laden and his imitators all have the motive, but they lack the means. Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow and Hu Jintao in Beijing may have the means, but in this post-Cold War world, so far, they lack the motive.

In the end, the greatest and most enduring challenge to American primacy may come not from our current or traditional antagonists -- but from democracy itself.

Never have there been more electoral democracies in the world: 121 today, by Freedom House's latest count, up from 66 in 1987. So far, this trend has been cause mainly for American celebration. Viewed from the United States, democratization has been easy to construe as imitation, the sincerest form of flattery. American politicians routinely project American democratic values as not just humane but human: what, deep in their hearts, everyone thinks and wants or would want, if they knew what was best.

Whatever the accuracy of this presumption, it by no means follows that giving people the right to vote will make them sympathetic to American foreign policy. Even as they seem to share our form of government, they may oppose what our government does and how it operates around the world.

We should not be surprised, therefore, that recently elected governments in Turkey and South Korea should so viscerally resist abetting American attacks, respectively, on Iraq and North Korea. Living adjacent to the "axis of evil" makes Turks and South Koreans uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of American belligerence. Their electoral democracies assure that public fears based on this vulnerability cannot be ignored.

As a senior advisor to Turkey's new prime minister recently observed, "Everybody knows that 80% to 85% of the Turkish people would say no to war in Iraq. As a democratic country, how can we say yes?" Gerhard Schroeder's decision to comply with such logic in Germany's latest election is a main reason he remains chancellor of that country. And these countries are American allies.

Nor is the prospect of democratic divergence limited to these countries. In foreign democracies generally, other things being equal, it is implausible that candidates and voters should consistently favor U.S. positions. Most Muslims, for example, are moderate. But in countries with large Muslim majorities and without strong secular traditions, it is not hard to imagine an election whose results reduce the distance between state and religion, regardless of what the U.S. Constitution recommends. Nor is the chance of such outcomes limited to balloting among Muslims; witness the recent electoral success of hard-line Hindus in the Indian state of Gujarat.

Democratization need not be inimical to American foreign policies. But democratic divergence in a more and more democratic world can be expected to limit the ability of American administrations to act unilaterally in ways that significantly threaten or burden other countries. What is an election, after all, if not a multilateral consultation among voters rather than states?

On Jan. 3 in Texas, President Bush said of Hussein that "he really doesn't care about the opinion of mankind." Three days later, Bush urged his nemesis to "listen to what the world is saying."

Whatever the outcome of this administration's plan to finish the business of the earlier Gulf War by finishing off Hussein's regime, should American assertiveness persist and democratic divergence become more common, future custodians of American predominance may increasingly find themselves on the receiving end of such remarks.

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