We Don't Know How to Build Democracy

Stephen D. Krasner is a professor of political science and director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at the Stanford Institute for International Studies.

In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy this month, President Bush outlined the country's commitment to promoting democracy throughout the world, saying that "the advance of freedom" is both "the calling of our time" and "the calling of our country."

The president articulated clearly where we would like to end up: in a world composed of functioning, sovereign, democratic states. The advantages of such a world are obvious. In mature democracies, domestic institutions are stable and leaders accountable. The rule of law prevails and corruption is limited. Economic policy is constructive and incomes and opportunities increase. The appeal of terrorism lessens.

But with all our determination to promote democracy, the truth is, we don't have a very good idea of how to do it. Neither the United States nor anyone else has much experience in creating democracy where there was none.

The accepted international practices to promote democracy -- such things as United Nations peacekeeping operations, foreign assistance to support better governance, and transitional administrations like those set up in Kosovo and East Timor -- haven't proved to be all that satisfactory. Even our governmental institutions reflect our unpreparedness for the task: We have a Department of Defense, but we don't have a Department of Regime Building.

What we do know -- or should know -- is that getting from here to there will be hard. The states we're most interested in helping to transform today generally have low per-capita incomes, limited experience with democracy and long histories of autocratic and sometimes brutal rule. These are not conditions that tend to foster democracy.

Among the surprisingly few things we know about creating democracies is this: While it doesn't necessarily take higher per-capita income to establish a democracy, it certainly helps in sustaining it. No democratic country with per-capita income above $6,000 has ever reverted to autocracy.

We also know that democratic transitions are dangerous. Autocratic leaders feeling threatened by democratic reforms can respond by cracking down. A destructive sort of nationalism can surface (think Kaiser Wilhelm II before World War I, Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s or Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe today). And states in transition are more likely than either stable democracies or autocracies to become involved in wars.

Foreign occupation, even when accompanied by large amounts of money, does not guarantee a smooth transition to democracy. Since the Dayton accords of December 1995, Bosnia has effectively been under the control of the international community, led by Europe. Aid has flowed freely: In the late 1990s, foreign assistance amounted to a quarter of the country's gross national income. While this international effort has kept the lid on a volatile situation, it has hardly set Bosnia on a clear path toward democratic autonomy. The situation in Kosovo, which in 1999 became a de facto NATO protectorate, is no better.

The simple fact is that we do not know how to do democracy-building. We do not have clear historical precedents. Germany and Japan after World War II demonstrated that an extensive, sustained American presence can contribute to the establishment of stable democracies. But in 1945, Germany and Japan were countries with more wealth, better-educated populations and more experience with democracy than the countries with which America is now engaged.

In other countries where we have attempted regime change, results have been mixed. Over the last century, the United States has intervened both covertly and overtly in the Caribbean and Central America. But we have not done nearly as well as we would have liked in leaving successful democracies and market economies in our wake.

Several East Asian countries, most notably South Korea, have successfully moved from poverty and autocracy to prosperity and democracy. But the path was long, and the United States provided not only substantial economic assistance but also a strong military presence legitimized by a U.N. resolution. Even then, for decades, South Korea was neither fully sovereign nor democratic.

What judgments, then, can we make about American policy in Iraq, Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere?

First, we need to accept that regime-building is hard, and there are no templates. No American postwar plan can work seamlessly in Iraq or anyplace else.

Second, we must reject the arguments of President Jacques Chirac of France and others who have pushed for a rapid transition to full sovereignty for Iraq. Only Iraqis can create a stable, democratic Iraq, but those Iraqis who share such a vision cannot prevail unless the United States and others make a commitment to remain engaged over the long term.

Third, we must understand that we'll never have universal support from the international community. The United States is trying something difficult and risky -- jump-starting a transition to democracy and development in an area that has stagnated for decades -- and the outcome is not only uncertain but could have deleterious consequences for countries that did not support our policies in the first place.

Finally, we can't expect policy consistency. While it's true that a new Iraq must be fashioned by Iraqis, it is not clear today who these Iraqis will be. Meanwhile, the policies and strategies that we are employing may need frequent revision. Infrastructure development, rule of law, elections, security, and government effectiveness will not progress at the same speed. It may become essential to think in new ways and, for instance, encourage partnerships between Iraqis and non-Iraqis (nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, other countries) that could improve education, health care, fiscal policy, security, and the disposition of oil revenue. Accountability might have to begin with local rather than national elections.

Putting Iraq and Afghanistan on a path that will eventually lead to prosperity and democracy would be historic accomplishments that only the United States has the resources and, we should hope, the confidence to carry out. But we do not, and cannot, know now how this project might best be accomplished.

We are now, after all, operating in a very different world than in previous decades, one in which some of the most basic tenets of international relations have changed dramatically. Elementary concepts for understanding the world, like balance of power and deterrence; recognized policies such as treaties, economic sanctions and war; and organizational and administrative structures for implementing these policies such as departments of state and ministries of defense have become less relevant.

This familiar, if not always benign, world is now gone. Weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism have given the lie to the notion that only other powerful nations can pose major threats. States with only a fraction the gross national product of the United States could secure weapons that would allow them to violently end the lives of millions of Americans. Regimes in small, obscure countries could engage in terrorist activities themselves, provide support for transnational terrorist organizations or simply be unable to effectively regulate activities originating within their borders that could threaten others.

The fundamental problem of our time is not to balance against a challenger superpower or to reinforce the deterrent capability of our nuclear arsenal, but rather to change the nature of domestic political regimes in countries that could pose a threat to American security.

Nation-building, or perhaps better, regime-building, is what our foreign policy is all about now and will be for decades to come. We just need to learn how to do it.

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