A Democratic World Is No Neocon Folly

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“The world must be made safe for democracy,” Woodrow Wilson declared in 1917. Ever since (and arguably before), that imperative has occupied a central place in U.S. foreign policy. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have seen the need to spread liberty abroad to protect liberty at home.

Yet, because of the difficulties we are encountering in Iraq, the democratization imperative is under attack today from both left and right. From Pat Buchanan to Paul Krugman, the cry has gone up that the stress on exporting American ideals is a plot by nefarious “neoconservatives.” Even John Kerry -- the nominee of Wilson’s own party -- sounds disdainful of attempts to spread freedom to places like Cuba and Iran.

Maybe, the cynics suggest, some people (the Arabs, for instance) are simply unfit for self-rule. More sophisticated versions of this argument suggest focusing on economic development first, to be followed eventually by political liberalization. If impoverished nations rush to hold elections, realpolitikers fear, the result could be the rise of “illiberal democracies” or instability and civil war. Better to deal with enlightened despots like Hosni Mubarak or Lee Kuan Yew rather than risk the messiness of freedom.


Anyone seduced by these arguments would do well to peruse two important studies conducted by scholars with impeccable liberal credentials. The first is a new book called “The Democracy Advantage,” written by Joseph Siegle, a former humanitarian aid worker; Michael Weinstein, a former New York Times editorial writer; and Morton Halperin, a former staff member of the ACLU and the Clinton administration who now works for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. They’re hardly neocons, yet in a synopsis of their book published in Foreign Affairs they make a powerful case for democracy promotion.

Siegle, Weinstein and Halperin puncture the myth that democracy works only in rich nations. In fact, many poor countries have freely elected governments (think India, Poland and Brazil) while some rich ones (think Saudi Arabia and Singapore) do not. Far from economic development being necessary for democracy, they argue that democracy promotes economic development. Free countries grow faster than their more repressive neighbors. They also perform better on social measures such as life expectancy, literacy rates, clean drinking water and healthcare. And they are less prone to armed conflict.

Skeptics of democracy cite a few cases of impressive economic performance by authoritarian regimes such as South Korea and Taiwan in the 1970s and 1980s. But more common are dysfunctional kleptocracies like Congo, Syria and North Korea. According to Siegle, Weinstein and Halperin, autocracies are prone to wild swings in economic and political performance. Democracies, with greater openness and accountability, generally produce more consistent results. They note that “the 87 largest refugee crises over the past 20 years originated in autocracies,” and they cite Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s observation that “no democracy with a free press has ever experienced a major famine.”

In light of these findings, Siegle, Weinstein and Halperin urge the U.S. to eschew a “development first, democracy later” model in favor of spreading democracy first and foremost. That case is strengthened by a study last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton (and a Clinton administration veteran), and Jitka Maleckova, a professor of Middle Eastern studies in Prague.

They reject the conventional wisdom that terrorism is rooted in poverty and lack of education. It does not comport with data showing, for instance, that Palestinian suicide bombers are wealthier and better educated than the general population. After studying all the available research, they conclude “that any connection between poverty, education and terrorism is, at best, indirect, complicated and probably quite weak.” Why, then, do some places produce more terrorists than others?

Krueger and Maleckova write: “Apart from population -- larger countries tend to have more terrorists -- the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists. Poverty and literacy were unrelated to the number of terrorists from a country. Think of a country like Saudi Arabia: It is wealthy but has few political and civil freedoms. Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many of the Sept. 11 terrorists -- and Osama bin Laden himself -- came from there.”


Paul Wolfowitz couldn’t have said it better. Of course, even admitting that democracy promotion is in U.S. interests, there will be differences over how to go about it. Anyone not on the administration’s payroll would concede that its performance has been far from flawless. But President Bush is on the right track because he recognizes the democracy imperative that too many of his critics unfairly dismiss as neocon nuttiness.