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Commentary: We should promote democracy around the world, but which approach works best?

POSTED: February 5, 2012 12:30 a.m.

Jonathan Miner

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The vast majority of Americans take democracy for granted. Despite ever present political disputes among people as to the political party in charge, the distribution of wealth, health care benefits and continuing involvement in Afghanistan, the United States has maintained its political system for over two hundred years and consistently broadened and deepened the civil and political rights it provides to all its peoples regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.

Even devastating attacks at Pearl Harbor and on 9/11 failed to bring down democracy in the United States. In fact, Americans refuse to let any such attack, crisis, or disaster be the undoing of our political system and the rights and privileges we enjoy; Americans "rally around the flag" and work tirelessly to create the conditions necessary to recover from the tragedy and emerge even stronger.

These experiences are the cause for such optimism in democratic governance, and Americans provide strong vocal, economic, and military support for its spread to the four corners of the earth. Communism was defeated during the Cold War with America's help, so many argue democracy will ultimately succeed in Cuba and China as well.

Authoritarianism was vanquished in Europe during the World Wars, and for every failure to bring democracy to places such as Vietnam and North Korea there exist a positive examples in Colombia, the Philippines, and (yes) Iraq. Americans continue to believe that all peoples have the right to self-determination and "governance by the people, of the people, and for the people" and support direct efforts by the United States to assist in the creation of democracy worldwide.

Yet even if most Americans agree with the assumptions that democracy is the most successful form of governance and support US efforts to assist in its establishment, they likely disagree on the best way to accomplish this goal. This raises a series of interesting questions, such as, how is democracy best promoted abroad? Does the United States have an obligation to spread democracy? If so, are lessons from the American experience self-evident and easily transferable, or must they be carried, explained and nurtured around the globe?

The history of democratic transitions since World War II illustrates many methods to promote democracy and illustrate both success and failure. While successful transitions to democracy in Germany, Japan, and Iraq were created using military force, similar attempts in Vietnam, North Korea, and Afghanistan have failed and lead to the argument that the use of force, at least by itself, is not a reliable means of spreading democracy.

Unfortunately for those who believe diplomatic, international legal and economic incentives to be the best path, stable and lasting democracy also remains elusive. While such tactics and incentives led to successful democratic transitions in South Africa, Poland, Georgia, and Tunisia, that optimism is tempered by failed transitions in Iran and North Korea, continuing troubles in Egypt, Nigeria, and Pakistan, and stalled revolutions in Yemen and the Ukraine. International economic and diplomatic efforts are finally bearing fruit in Myanmar, and yet leading Syria and Yemen towards civil war. History shows that non-military efforts alone are also not the answer.

Some scholars believe that prior economic development and/or free elections also are necessary for a transition to democracy, yet these options also provide a mixed bag of results. Economic development in Brazil, Turkey, South Korea and Thailand has led to a strengthening of democracy, but in China, Russia and Vietnam the result is "authoritarian capitalism."

Increases in the average standard of living leads to a desire for better governance and greater civil and political rights, yet cannot alone create democracy. While a hallmark of democracy, free and fair elections also do not guarantee democracy in either the short or long term. Recently manipulated "free and fair" elections in Iran and Russia have not established democracy in the short term, and when presidents in Senegal, and Venezuela, and the Ivory Coast "engineer" continuing rule despite constitutional and popular opposition, citizens wonder what happened to their promise of democracy.

History has also shown many examples of sudden yet peaceful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Military leaders in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Chile, South Korea and Indonesia have voluntarily or through popular pressure stepped aside in favor of strong and long-lasting democratic systems. Yet it is not often clear why dictators voluntarily stepped aside; is it grass-roots pressure or outside influence? Is it the unwillingness of the military to support a corrupt regime, or a leader's desire for a hero's legacy? Is it the promise of greater economic benefit, or the global march of democratic capitalism?

What's important to recognize is that no single and clear path exists to the establishment of a stable democracy. Free elections, economic development, public, military and diplomatic pressure, each is a complementary factor in the magic formula which when combined in a specific country may result in the emergence of a democratic system. Just as history and culture differ by country and region, the path to democracy and the form it takes are often unique. Democratic systems in the United States, France, Japan, Indonesia, and Brazil look different because they reflect different paths of establishment. Unique characteristics of each society combine to create slightly different forms of democracy; similar in the broadest sense but different in the specifics.

Americans are correct in proudly supporting democracy as a successful form of governance and sharing the lessons of our unique system of government with the world. Yet they should also recognize that countries arrive at democracy on their own path, and the means of American promotion should carefully consider what combination of force and incentive is most likely to bring about success. Democracy promotion requires a complex set of choices, and the more Americans know about their effectiveness given a specific set of conditions, the greater the likelihood of success and the better understanding of the reasons for failure.

Jonathan Miner is an associate professor of political science and criminal justice at North Georgia College & State University.


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