When Democracy Backfires

By Bruce Nussbaum


Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad

By Fareed Zakaria Norton -- 286pp -- $24.95

Spreading democracy by the sword has become a central feature of Washington's foreign policy in the Middle East. The scenes of Iraqis celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein make the approach appear all the more successful. Who could not wish for a swift transformation of Iraq from a vicious dictatorship to a Western-style democracy, as the U.S. plans?

Fareed Zakaria, for one. His The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad has arrived with uncanny timing. It leads one to think that the U.S. should wait a minute, look at those other Iraqis -- the looters and sectarian religious killers -- and ponder its next move. Zakaria reminds us that democracy and liberty are not identical, that the form of electoral politics should not be confused with the substance of liberalism. In short, says the editor of Newsweek International and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, the rush to democracy in Iraq may be premature and, in the end, terribly harmful.

Democracy, Zakaria warns us, can be illiberal. Voters in Yugoslavia installed Slobodan Milosevic and a policy of ethnic cleansing. In Algeria, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, hateful religious fundamentalists have won elections -- leading to violence. In Venezuela, the electorate empowered a caudillo. India, where Zakaria was born, has a freely elected Hindu-fundamentalist party in power that is vehemently anti-Muslim.

Zakaria reminds us that the whole bundle of individual freedoms that we associate with liberalism -- the rule of law, the rights of free speech and religion, protection of property, separation of powers -- has nothing intrinsically to do with elections. After all, Adolf Hitler's ascent as Chancellor of Germany resulted from a free vote. Under British rule, Hong Kong had few elections -- yet had strong legal protections for individuals and property. In China now, Hong Kong votes, but legal protections are slowly eroding.

Zakaria even says that there are times when authoritarian rulers may be more progressive than the people they lead. While General Suharto governed, Indonesia had ethnic peace and strong economic growth. Today, free elections have brought to power anti-American Muslim extremists, Christians are being killed, and growth is failing. Zakaria says that Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia have authoritarian rulers who are more liberal than their people. Elections would probably bring anti-American fundamentalists to power.

What about Iraq? The author advises Washington to build liberalism before democracy. Create a civil society and a legal system that ensure the rights of minorities and individuals and protect private property -- then try elections. But even this political two-step may not be enough, according to Zakaria. Iraq's oil may be as much a political curse as an economic godsend. Nearly every oil-rich Third World country has had difficulty evolving into a true liberal society. By owning or controlling the revenues generated by oil, the state is able to dominate society entirely, making all classes and all groups economically dependent on it. Oil tends to centralize state power in the Middle East.

Zakaria reminds us that the rise of liberalism in Europe -- and in Korea and Taiwan -- required the creation of independent business and professional classes separate from the state and willing to challenge its authority. These groups are desperately needed in the Middle East, including Iraq. Zakaria doesn't offer prescriptive policies, but if he did, he would argue for putting much of Iraq's oil industry into private hands. He might also suggest creating a loose, federal government that shares oil revenues with the provinces.

Zakaria is an elitist who worries that too much democracy can easily lead to mobocracy, or the "tyranny of the majority," as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his 1835 Democracy in America. In fact, he fears that the U.S., too, is becoming another illiberal democracy. Once-closed meetings in Congress are open, and referendums and initiatives abound. Democratic institutions have been popularized. But the result has been a decline in freedom. Lobbyists control Congress. Religious, union, business, and other organized interest groups control political parties. Which is why, according to Zakaria, "most Americans have lost their faith in democracy."

Zakaria says that professional elites -- accountants, lawyers, investment bankers, doctors, regulators, and others -- are also turning their backs on their traditional duties of protecting and guiding individuals and consumers. Washington sees the wave of corporate fraud as simply a few bad apples spoiling the fun. Zakaria believes the system is in trouble. I agree.

But I don't agree with his solution. He prefers unelected organizations, such as the Federal Reserve Bank, as models for governance because they make policy away from outside pressures. Sounds good, but it isn't true. The Fed is a deeply political animal, much influenced by the White House and the general political climate. Besides, it was precisely the unelected institutions -- the Supreme Court and the Electoral College -- that in 2000 gave the U.S. a President who had lost the popular vote. Americans are caught between too much and too little democracy.

Zakaria is clearly a classic Tory, and I am not. Yet I found his book intensely provocative and valuable. I suspect policymakers and thinking people everywhere would concur.

Nussbaum is editorial page editor.

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