Pitfalls and Pushback Will Not Halt the Spread of Democracy
By: Fred Hiatt, Guest Blogger
The following text is drawn from a speech delivered by Fred Hiatt, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor, at the conference on “Civil Society Under Assault” on September 12 in Washington, DC.
Twenty years ago, I don’t think many people would have predicted a conference like this being needed two decades down the road. In 1993 I was in a newly freed Russia—in what we now might call Russia’s brief, golden age of democracy—but those who witnessed the downfall of communism weren’t alone in predicting the triumph of democracy. Today, things seem, at best, more complicated.
One major mistaken assumption after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union was that the remaining dictators would sit back and let themselves be acted upon. It turns out they weren’t ready for history to end them; they decided to play a decidedly active role in shaping history. It turned out also that they did not really need an ideology to motivate them, or even the shell or pretense of an ideology, as communism had become. Of course they are willing to put various ideologies to cynical use when convenient, whether communism or nationalism or racial purity of one kind or another. But really, staying in power, and maintaining access to national wealth, is motivation enough. Some of them don’t even feel the need to pretend otherwise.
Over these years, and particularly over the past decade, the dictators came up with a tool kit of repression. There may be no National Endowment for Dictatorship, but often it seems as if there might as well be: dictators learn from each other, copy each other, refine each other’s mechanisms. They have learned how dangerous elections and honest vote counters can be, and so they have gotten far more skillful at producing show elections. They know how to turn xenophobia against civil society, to exploit conspiratorial thinking, to balance censorship with production of faux journalism. Some of them have learned that a few arrests can be almost as useful as mass arrests while attracting less notice in the world. Some of them have become adept at smearing their opponents just credibly enough to make outsiders wonder. They’re good at what they do.
A second mistaken assumption, or maybe it was a subset of the first, was that if the end of ideology wasn’t enough, then the internet surely would spell the end of authoritarianism. The World Wide Web was an inexorable force for freedom; no dictator would be able to withstand it, or so it was commonly said. But once again, the dictators did not sit around waiting for Google and Twitter to upend them. They discovered that the internet not only could be controlled, but could be turned around—it could become a highly useful tool for surveillance and repression.
So to some extent, the democracy movement, or at least some part of it, suffered from a degree of complacency—from a failure of imagination.
On top of that came some bad historical breaks.
One was the man Boris Yeltsin anointed as his successor. Since Yeltsin wanted assurance that he would live out his years in peace, and that his family would not be bothered, it’s not surprising that he selected someone well versed in the ways of what Russians call the security organs. But I doubt he really knew what kind of person Putin was, and I think Putin’s nature has had a lot to do with the history of the former Soviet space over the past dozen years. Individuals don’t entirely determine the course of history, but they’re not irrelevant either.
A second bad break was the intelligence fiasco leading to the Iraq war. That was bad for many reasons, of course, but one of them was the spillover effect on democracy promotion. The United States went to war primarily to enforce United Nations norms regarding weapons of mass destruction and the thwarting of weapons inspectors. By the time it was discovered that there were no weapons, U.S. troops were deep into the war, and the Bush administration had to come up with another justification. It turned to democracy promotion, to a large extent, certainly a larger extent than President Bush originally intended, and the Iraq war was just too big a burden for democracy promotion to bear. When people argued against “imposing democracy at the barrel of a gun,” it was just too complicated to say, well, in point of fact, no one really ever thought that was a good idea. Iraq became an argument not just against reckless war or false intelligence but against all democracy promotion—it was a war that supposedly proved that Arabs couldn’t be democrats, or that culture couldn’t be changed, or that religious rivalry always trumps democracy, or whatever other lesson people were inclined to take in any case. Certainly the hard slog in Iraq took a lot of the steam out of Bush’s Freedom Agenda.
Then came the financial collapse in 2008. This distracted the West and sapped its resources and its confidence. It allowed China to suggest and, for many Chinese, to believe that it had a better model, especially for the developing world. It guaranteed that when the Arab Spring got under way, countries that might have seized upon the opportunity instead were absorbed in their own problems.
And of course the Arab Spring did not live up to hopes. In Tunisia and Libya, things still hang in the balance. But in Egypt, neither Islamists nor liberals seemed prepared for the give and take of actual politics. Peaceful demonstrations in Syria spiraled down into terrible civil war. Other leaders intensified repression in an effort to ward off contagion. And it’s not just the Arab world that has some people wondering whether freedom and security can coexist, whether some places might be better off with the stability of autocracy. In Burma, Buddhist nationalists are staging pogroms against Muslims. Buddhists! For Westerners who agonized through the Saffron Revolution just a few years ago, it is disorienting.
To these I would add one more accident of leadership, one that might surprise you: I’m thinking of President Obama, who contrary to expectations is turning out not to be all that inclined toward democracy promotion.
I’m sure this is not how he or his administration think of themselves. It is not how they speak to the world. But the record by now is hard to dispute. President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq, passing up a chance to consolidate hard-won democratic gains. He is on track to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the goals he states for the United States in that country almost never include democracy or women’s rights, but only U.S. security and combating Al-Qaeda. The Obama administration let Iran’s Green Revolution pass with little support or encouragement. The attempted reset with Russia took attention away from that country’s sharp downward slide in rights and civil society freedom. Human rights do not seem to be a priority in the administration’s agenda with China. The United States joined a bombing campaign to unseat Qaddafi but didn’t stick around to help consolidate democracy in Libya. More than two years ago the president said Bashar al-Assad was finished, but he committed little in the way of American power or prestige to make that prediction come true. Overall, the administration missed what may have been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to encourage openness and freedom in the Arab world. Meanwhile Obama tells Americans, repeatedly, that it is time to focus on nation building at home.
All of this is unfortunate, in my opinion. We are getting a look at what the world looks like with diminished U.S. leadership, and it is not a pretty sight.
But this is, in an odd sense, one basis for optimism. For just as the Russians aren’t destined by their culture, or their history of serfdom, or anything else to be forever unfree—just as the accident of Putin’s bullying personality has played an outsized role in that country’s history—so the United States is not destined to a backseat role forever. America cycles between activism and withdrawal; the country may be in an isolationist mood right now, and Obama may be surprisingly well suited to that mood. But other leaders will emerge, more committed to encouraging values of freedom and democracy, and the United States will return to a more supportive posture.
That’s one reason not to get too discouraged. Here’s another: This always has been hard. We tend to misremember the past; people often speak nostalgically of how simple everything was during the Cold War. Well, actually, pretty much nothing was simple during the Cold War. The United States supported terrible dictators as well as occasional democrats, and fought bitterly within itself about which was the right course. We fought bitterly over whether we should care about human rights inside the Soviet Union, and if we cared, how much we should do about it. The very idea of promoting democracy was enormously controversial. And the revelation that freedom can uncork long-suppressed enmities and hatreds—there’s nothing very new in that, either. I was in South Korea when dictatorship came to an end in 1987, and I remember being astonished at the regional animosities that were laid bare. Here was a country of one language, one ethnicity— I mean, more than one in five Koreans is named Kim — and yet they managed to find something to hate each other about.
They also — and this is what really counts — found ways to overcome those divisions, to handle them within democratic politics. And that brings me to the second-most-important basis for optimism: However hard things may seem for the good guys in parts of the world right now, it’s quite obvious to everyone, on a purely objective basis, that the bad guys are not winning. Compare life in North Korea to life in South Korea, most obviously; compare life in Chile to life in Venezuela; compare life in Estonia to life in Belarus. Of course there are no straight lines or universal rules, but in general people can see that freedom works better than the alternative. Democracy is hard, it doesn’t always work on the first or second or maybe even third try. But in the long run, it’s clear that Putin and Putinism have nothing to offer.
Of course, the first-most-important basis for optimism is so evident that I probably don’t need to mention it to this group. It is that you folks are right and the bad guys are wrong. People do want to live in freedom and dignity. They want to form associations of their choosing, and if permitted to do so, they quickly form the organizations that become the sinews of a free society and that impart the habits of a society that cannot be cowed. These groups around the world deserve more help than we are giving them. No single triumph is inevitable or should be taken for granted. But in the long run, with or without outside help, they will prevail.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.