By the People: Democracy Isn't Everyone's Idea of Freedom
Weekly Standard, by Arch Puddington
Democracy Without Borders
Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy
by Marc F. Plattner
Rowman & Littlefield, 176 pp., $24.95
During the middle 1970s, the condition of global freedom had reached so discouraging a state that even Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man known for his bullish optimism about the strength of Western institutions, seemed ready to write the obituary of the democratic idea. In the wake of the suspension of constitutional rights by India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi, Moynihan was driven to lament that
Liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy. In the nineteenth century, a holdover form of government, one which persists in peculiar or isolated places . . . but has simply no relevance to the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going.
Others were writing similarly, if less flamboyantly, about freedom's perilous condition. Democracy, they declared, might function well in Western Europe and much of the English-speaking world, but as a method of governance it was utterly unsuited to the societies of the developing world. By contrast, communism, the principal alternative to liberal democracy, seemed on the march, having retained in toto the global empire it accumulated after World War II while gaining additional power in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Yet in less than two decades, the global balance of power had undergone a dramatic shift, as dictatorships, juntas, and Politburos collapsed in practically every region of the world, in most cases to be replaced by elected governments with a commitment to free speech and a range of civil liberties. With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992, Francis Fukuyama would confidently write that there was no viable political alternative to Western liberalism as a principle of government.
The subject that Marc Plattner addresses is the state of democracy, and the democratic idea, in the years that have followed the end of communism. And the release of Democracy Without Borders is well timed. Once again, critics have begun to doubt whether a government of free institutions is viable for all cultures and to question the wisdom, and even the morality, of an American policy to expand democratic freedoms to countries under autocratic rule.
While the proposition that (as more than one critic has put it) "democracy is not for everyone" has not won majority endorsement, it is certainly up for debate.
Democracy Without Borders is a collection of essays written by Plattner since 1992, when he became founding editor of the Journal of Democracy, a publication of the National Endowment for Democracy. Plattner's analysis is measured and clearly articulated. Though not a polemicist--indeed, he goes out of his way to give all sides their due--Plattner does have strong opinions, which are reinforced by his ability to distinguish between facts and real trends on the one hand and superficial theorizing on the other.
Thus, he dismisses claims that Western liberal democracy faces significant competition from either a Chinese or a Russian model. While China has gained considerable influence in East Asia and other parts of the world--a development that, in itself, should concern us--Plattner stresses that no country is emulating its unique blend of Leninist political control and state-driven capitalism.
Likewise, while Plattner calls Russia's autocratic course "the gravest setback for democracy in the post-Cold War era," he rejects the very idea that a Russian "model" exists at all. While Russian officials have concocted phrases like "sovereign democracy" to describe the system that has evolved under Vladimir Putin, Plattner correctly insists that the essence of Putinism is simply the accumulation of power by the leader and his associates.
Plattner is also unimpressed by the contention, most notably identified with Fareed Zakaria, that elections and democracy can actually undermine freedom and security in certain societies, especially those with ethnic or religious differences. First postulated a decade ago, the "illiberal democracy" theory has acquired new credibility in the wake of the coming to power via elections of Hamas and the more recent, and thoroughly tragic, events in Kenya.
Yet Plattner's argument remains convincing even in light of these setbacks. Where, he asks, are the "wise and benevolent" despots whose rule will be more effective, and humane, than would be the case under conditions of democracy? Fareed Zakaria, he notes, could muster just one example of a polity in which good government and civil liberties went hand in hand with unelected leadership: Hong Kong under British rule. He adds that, in ethnically mixed African societies, the usual practice was for one group to dominate the others through repression and without niceties like freedom of the press or the rule of law.
Furthermore, Plattner notes that far more often than they have contributed to civil strife, elections have actually played a significant role in resolving civil wars, pointing to such disparate locales as Liberia, Nicaragua, and Mozambique.
While Plattner is unimpressed by the illiberal democracy theory, he takes seriously the threat to democracy--or, at least, democracy as we understand it--posed by the erosion of national sovereignty that is the inevitable byproduct of globalization. He predicts a coming divide between those, especially in America, who support the traditions of liberal internationalism, with its emphasis on cooperation between sovereign states, and globalists, who are increasingly pressing for the creation of supranational institutions with the authority to override the democratically-arrived-at decisions of nation-states.
Plattner believes that this emerging debate between traditional liberal internationalists and the advocates of a new globalized internationalism will have profound implications for the future of democracy, self-rule, and accountability. On the one hand, globalists believe that the world's transnational problems--terrorism, AIDS, drugs, climate change--should be dealt with through networks in which international agencies, transnational nongovernmental organizations, and sovereign states, each compete for power and authority. For the globalists, the nation-state enjoys less moral authority than does global civil society.
While this new kind of internationalism has gained adherents, especially in Europe, it has been rejected in the United States. Plattner pointedly refutes the proposition that America acts as a rogue superpower that ignores universal principles and multilateralism. To the contrary: Americans, he says, are committed to universal ideals of democracy and human rights, but "hold that their implementation should be the business of democratically elected and accountable national governments."
He adds that Americans will firmly resist the surrender of sovereignty to international bodies whose decisions are influenced by dictatorships and autocracies. It is for this reason, and not due to a rejection of universal norms, that the United States has declined to ratify the various climate change agreements, or the International Criminal Court.
Though he doesn't directly say so, it is, one suspects, in part due to America's belief that sovereignty is integral to democracy that Plattner remains confident about the future strength of American democratic institutions, despite the current high level of polarization and the country's involvement in an unpopular war--a war, he notes, that has damaged the ability of the United States to mount an effective democracy promotion policy.
He is, by contrast, less certain about democracy's future in Europe, in part due to a democracy deficit in the functioning of the European Union, and in part due to its difficulty in integrating non-European immigrants and a potentially severe demographic crisis that looms in the coming decades.
Plattner warns that the ability of Europe to grapple with its emerging "diversity" dilemma is hampered by the increasing influence of a corrosive form of multiculturalism that demands a subordination of national identity, and democratic governance, to a "oneness" with immigrants. He also expresses doubts that the EU, with its emphasis on law and negotiation over force, will be capable of coping with states like Russia that are animated by traditional power politics.
Plattner's reasoned and basically optimistic argument is particularly important at a moment of confusion about democracy's condition and schadenfreude over the failings of the Bush administration's efforts to bring freedom to the Middle East. There is, Plattner contends, no emerging alternative to liberal democracy, save for the dead-end idea of anti-Americanism. Democracy's current distress is due to the increased repression of current autocrats, not the repudiation of freedom by the new democracies.
Equally important are his admonitions about the dangers to democracy in a "borderless" world. In the 21st century, Plattner seems to say, threats to democracy can come from both traditional despots and the benevolent advocates of global governance.
Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.