The teleprompter providing President Bush with his second inaugural address had scarcely gone blank before American and European commentators turned to dismissing his calls for a “war against tyranny” and progress toward universal democracy as naive, dogmatic, overstated and a recipe for chaos in U.S. foreign policy.
The White House sought to meet these objections by pointing out that a statement of values was not a straitjacket and that U.S. foreign policy would promote these values in a nuanced, flexible and strategic way. So the criticism shifted. Bush was no longer a feckless naif: He was an arch-cynical hypocrite. Clearly, this president can’t please some of the people any of the time, but beyond Bush’s PR problems lie some bigger questions.
Does democracy matter in a war on terrorism? Is democracy gaining or losing ground in the world today? Can it work everywhere, or does it work only in certain cultures and regions? Can U.S. foreign policy make significant contributions to democracy’s spread? On the whole, the answers support the idea that, whether or not the Bush administration knows how to do it, the promotion of democracy abroad can be a positive and practical element of U.S. foreign policy.
Let’s start with the relationship between terrorism and democracy -- a complex one. Weimar Germany, after all, was a democracy before Adolf Hitler took power, and political assassinations and terror attacks roiled that unhappy society. Election violence in countries such as Jamaica (not to mention Iraq) suggests that, under some circumstances, democracy becomes a focus for terrorism as armed groups try to affect the outcome of elections. The IRA in Ulster and the Basque terrorists in Spain show that terrorism can infest even well-established democracies. Closer to home, Timothy McVeigh’s attack in Oklahoma City and the history of the Ku Klux Klan suggest that democratic societies are not immune to homegrown terrorism.
Still, the signs point to a significant connection between tyranny and terrorism. According to one study, 70% of all deaths because of terrorism from 1999 to 2003 were caused by terrorist groups from nondemocratic countries. Other researchers have similar findings, and although, as economist Jeff Faux points out, “if you torture a statistic long enough, it will confess to anything,” these studies are at least straws in the wind.
What may matter most is whether democracies are better than other types of government at meeting the needs of their citizens. If most of the people feel that most of their needs are being addressed most of the time, and if they also feel that they have a fair say in deciding who governs them, common sense suggests that they will be less interested in terrorism and war. Here the evidence is overwhelming. Almost all of the world’s richest countries are democratic. Almost all of the world’s poorest are not. Look at lists of democracies and you see names such as Canada, Finland, the Netherlands and New Zealand. Look at the dictatorships and find names such as Cuba, Myanmar, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.
This stands to reason. In democratic countries, voters are quick to toss out officeholders who can’t make the economy work. Myanmar’s citizens can’t vote out their odious military government no matter what the economy does. Perversely, bad economic news can be good for tyrants. People who are poor and unemployed become more dependent on government assistance and, therefore, more vulnerable to government pressure.
Whatever the effect on terrorism, democracy continues to spread. The best statistics come from Freedom House, a human rights organization based in New York. Its 2005 report, Freedom in the World, leaves little doubt that in the long run, democracy is on the march. In 1974, Freedom House criteria showed that 41 countries qualified as free, covering 27% of the world’s population. By 2004, the number of free countries had more than doubled, to 89, and the world’s population living in free countries was up to 46%.
Most of that progress comes from two regions: Latin America and east-central Europe. According to Freedom House, Haiti and Cuba are the only nondemocratic countries in the Western Hemisphere. In Europe, only Belarus, Azerbaijan and a backsliding Russia count as not free. Conditions are mixed in another seven, but fully 13 formerly communist countries are now considered fully free.
Latin America and Europe, however, aren’t the only parts of the world where freedom is gaining ground. Africa, Asia and the Muslim Middle East also have seen significant progress. Indonesia, the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world, has now held two sets of free presidential elections. Afghanistan, Malaysia and Turkey saw significant progress in 2004, while -- also according to Freedom House -- Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Qatar registered modest civil liberties gains in 2004.
The road to democracy is not, unfortunately, a one-way street. Countries such as Haiti, Russia and Venezuela are less free than they recently were. Zimbabwe once was a vibrant multiparty state with a free press and honest courts. Today, it is a nasty thugocracy, as an increasingly isolated and discredited Robert Mugabe clings sullenly to power. Corrupt government and poor economic performance have undercut public support for democracy in parts of Latin America. Yet despite the eddies and crosscurrents, the long-term trend is clear: The world is growing steadily more democratic.
Can outsiders speed up the process? Although it is fashionable to be skeptical about the potential for outside pressure to produce democratic change, there is a lot of evidence that the outside world matters. The desire to join NATO and the European Union motivated the political evolution of many of Europe’s new democracies. The same forces are at work today in Ukraine.
The Muslim world also seems to work this way. The reforms that are making Turkey more democratic are coming about because democratic reform is part of what Turkey must do to join the European Union. The United States made a strategic decision to support democratic change in Indonesia after decades of supporting President Suharto’s autocratic government. That decision seems to be paying off: Even with the recent tsunami tragedy in western Sumatra, Indonesia today is significantly more stable, more prosperous and less hospitable to terrorists than many observers have predicted over the years. Progress in countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Morocco reflects at least in part a response to U.S. pressure.
Ending tyranny, Bush said, will be “the concentrated work of generations.” It’s far from clear that his administration has found the right policy mix to end tyranny in the Muslim Middle East, much less in the rest of the world. But about some of the big things Bush is almost certainly right. The world wants more democracy, and the United States wants a more democratic world. Somehow, that coincidence of interests and values should and will help shape U.S. foreign policy in the turbulent times ahead.