Saturday, September 18, 2004


By William Fisher

“From Pat Buchanan to Paul Krugman, the cry has gone up that the stress on exporting American ideals is a plot by nefarious ‘neoconservatives’. “

So writes conservative columnist Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times (September 16). But not until the final paragraph of his 800-word piece does Boot even come close to the heart of this issue: ”there will be differences over how to go about” spreading democratic values around the world.

Even Pat Buchanan and Paul Krugman would agree that this is what the debate is about. These gentlemen agree on very little. But I suspect they would agree on at least two things: First, spreading democracy is a worthy objective; second, it cannot be achieved by military might.

That is where they, and most reasonable people, part company with the neoconservative construct: use the military to remove miscreant dictators, and freedom and democracy will emerge naturally. The United States should have learned this lesson from its own history, and from the past misadventures of many other nations. But if America insisted on ignoring the past, there can be no question that it learned the lesson in Iraq: US forces were not greeted as liberators. Their gun barrels were not filled with flowers.

So what should the US do?

Boot cites a number of highly regarded scholars who frame the issue as economic development versus political development. He writes that these experts “puncture the myth that democracy works only in rich nations. In fact, many poor countries have freely elected governments (think India, Poland and Brazil) while some rich ones (think Saudi Arabia and Singapore) do not. Far from economic development being necessary for democracy, they argue that democracy promotes economic development. Free countries grow faster than their more repressive neighbors. They also perform better on social measures such as life expectancy, literacy rates, clean drinking water and healthcare. And they are less prone to armed conflict.”

They note that "the 87 largest refugee crises over the past 20 years originated in autocracies," and they cite Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's observation that "no democracy with a free press has ever experienced a major famine."

This argument seems to me designed to set up a straw man. The ‘choice’ is spurious. It does not need to be made at all. Almost any development professional will tell you that economic development and the growth of democratic institutions are self-reinforcing sides of the same coin.

Which leaves us with the more central question: How?

It seems to me that the answer tilts persuasively in the direction of the ‘soft power’ formula proposed by Joseph Nye, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and now Dean of the Kennedy School at Harvard.

Soft Power means attracting people or co-opting them -- getting them to want what you want. Nye’s thesis is that there are times when the US needs to use military power in the face of a clear and present danger to the country (Afghanistan / The Taliban), or economic power (sanctions, relationships with trading blocs, etc.) to counter other kinds of threats. But, he contends, it is ‘soft power’ that has the best chance of securing cooperation from others – without which the terrorists cannot be vanquished. And without which the debate over economic development versus democracy promotion becomes irrelevant.

The application of Soft Power depends on the skillful use of a quiver of carrots and sticks. America spends a substantial amount on foreign aid each year – though it is right to question whether, in light of current challenges, this budget is anything like large enough. But too much of this aid is spent encouraging economic development in countries that have autocratic or authoritarian governments. A relative pittance is spent on helping to introduce democracy. This imbalance is a vestigial remain of the Cold War, and it has tended to give dictators a free pass, favor economic elites, and achieve little in terms of narrowing the chasm between rich and poor.

In contrast, far too little is spent on programs to help build and strengthen democratic institutions. When the US has attempted to strike a healthier balance, it has often done so in clumsy and ineffective ways. Not long ago, the US took Egypt to the woodshed and insisted that the Mubarak regime show some evidence of real political reform. The response was largely cosmetic and short-lived. The Bush Administration’s Greater Middle East Initiative was seen in the region as a one-size-fits-all attempt to impose democracy from outside. And America’s pitiful efforts to use the tools of mass communications to broadcast its ‘message’ to this region have been met with skepticism and an audience of about two per cent of the Arab and Muslim world.

One of the reasons for our inability to use Soft Power more effectively is our use of military power inappropriately, i.e. in Iraq. Another is the precipitous decline of American prestige among Arab populations because of the invasion of Iraq and the failure to make the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a more important priority. And,
to be realistic, some of our failures have to be attributed to the desire of the authoritarian non-democratic regimes we support to simply hang on to power.

Max Boot refers to a study by Alan Krueger, a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton and former Clinton administration official, and Jitka Maleckova, a professor of Middle Eastern studies in Prague. They write: "Apart from population — larger countries tend to have more terrorists — the only variable that was consistently associated with the number of terrorists was the Freedom House index of political rights and civil liberties. Countries with more freedom were less likely to be the birthplace of international terrorists.”

Which should tell us we need to be much more skillful in persuading these regimes that it is in their self-interest to promote democratic change as an effective means of combating terrorists.

This will mean optimizing our use of both carrots and sticks. The United States has many of both. The process won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. But the status quo is not an option. Sustaining dictators will not win the ‘war on terror’.