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Idealism Beyond Democracy

I'm not sure if I've done so already, but I'd like to commend Nadezhda's continuing efforts to move the foreign policy debate in the United States beyond a slightly childish pre-occupation with democracy-promotion. There are two kinds of problems this introduces. Other things like the rule of law, liberalism, pluralism, and self-determination can wind up getting slighted. More frequently, you wind up with a loose and baggy account of democracy so that it means something like "good stuff." I'm all for promoting good stuff, where possible, but it's better to have some kind of analytic clarity about what you're trying to do and that requires taking a fairly narrow conception of democracy and then putting it alongside other things that are also important.

When it comes to the core Arab states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I think it's plausible that democracy, as such, really is the most important thing. Creating a situation, in other words, where people who want to see new policies implemented have a chance to do that through peaceful political organizing. That, I think, would redirect a lot of energy and political support away from terrorism. In other places, though, we're talking about other things. In Lebanon what we're trying to do is promote self-determination. With regard to the Palestinian authority the goal is organizational efficacy and transparency, more than democracy.

March 13, 2005 | Permalink


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When it comes to the core Arab states, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, I think it's plausible that democracy, as such, really is the most important thing.

I would say a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian conflict is just as important, perhaps moreso. And reducing our military presence in the region.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Mar 13, 2005 2:43:42 PM

Oh god, democracy-nerds are so nuts. I'd say they are even loonier than the war-nerds.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 13, 2005 3:03:12 PM

"Creating a situation, in other words, where people who want to see new policies implemented have a chance to do that through peaceful political organizing."

The policies which many in the Palestinian Territories, Egypt and Saudi want are a decolonisation of the lands conquered by Israel in 1967. Yes, there needs to be a way to do that through peaceful political organising. Electing the Egyptian President will not do this however.

Posted by: Otto | Mar 13, 2005 6:38:31 PM

Um, in Palestine I think the issue is sovereignty above all, more than "organizational efficacy and transparency". Granted, clearing out corruption within Fatah is a critical component of Palestinian life. And perhaps having a serious challenger in Hamas may be enough to convince Fatah to clean up its act. But the real issue is sovereignty. How they get it is the big question, of course, but sovereignty is the number one concern for the Palestinian people.

In fact, what we're starting to see is the Marion Barry principle at work. When Barry was Mayor of DC he never cleaned up his own house because he could blame all of his problems on Congress. The problem was that he was partially right. There was no real incentive for him to clean house as long as Congress held the purse strings, and never seriously planned to give it up. Israel must commit to removing all 250,000 settlements on Palestinian territory and they can construct a wall to high heaven along the Green Line. Once that happens Palestine will have the incentive to start fixing up their house.

Posted by: Elrod | Mar 13, 2005 8:20:42 PM

Elrod, I don't think it's written into the stars that Fatah will even last much longer. Have you been following this weekend's festivities? I think Fatah is about to break.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 13, 2005 8:33:41 PM

It strikes me that we are buying the fairly attenuated definition of democracy that the BushCo folks are pushing -- elections are just fine, but they don't mean much at the end of the day if the government has no checks and balances and does not commit to the preservation of the rights of its citizens. That is part of what is so crazy about the current democracy promotion business -- the Bush folks seem to want to call GOAL when there is an election, even though there are governments in the area that have been elected and working in one form or another for decades.

Maybe this is what you are already saying, but it seems to me that there is a bigger and tougher to implement package that goes with democracy and it is these other items that need the real promotion. I grant though, that checks and balances don't provide any pretty pictures.

Posted by: cassandra | Mar 13, 2005 9:48:18 PM

Matt is a neocon afterall.

Posted by: democracynerd | Mar 13, 2005 11:12:15 PM

I think the most unsung reform that you can introduce in the Arab world is economic.

The whole discussion over democracy tends to revolve around form and less so over substance. More importantly the liberal democracy we are accustomed with is associated with free speech and voting, but our democracy works on so many more levels than that.

For example, one of the objects of politics in developing countries is patronage; who gets what from whom. While this is also happens to a certaine extent in western democracies as well, in countries like the US, the debate is over fundamental rules; what to do with abortion rights, defining marriage, the morality of taxation.

This tendency is greatly influenced by the way America (as well as English) democracy were born, i.e. as a debate over taxes in which the middle class held leverage over the state which wanted to conduct war. That in turn gave birth to the deeply held value of the citizen as a holder of basic rights.

In the middle East, as well as pretty much elsewhere, the state is seen as a much more benevolent force; not as a tax gatherer, but rather as benefit giver. This in turn makes the notion of the individual as a rights holder, less prevalent.

It also makes distributional coalitions over state rents much more prevalent. Combine that with the relatively unmoved sectarian composition of these states and you have the receipe for problematic democracies.

And that's before going to the issue of the Muslim reformation.

This stuff is difficult. I wish we weren't dealing with them with the mind-numbing hackeris of the the conservative movement.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Mar 13, 2005 11:38:18 PM

Oh. I forgot. Therefore, what makes the introduction of market reforms in the muslim world such an unsung cause is that if it's done successfully (which is a big if, because you can't just outlaw oil production), you can create a free-market and not state-dependent middle class which sooner or later will demand the kind of reforms that will lead to a democracy which is in substance much closer to ours.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Mar 13, 2005 11:41:41 PM

I think the most unsung reform that you can introduce in the Arab world is economic.

Great comments, Nick, I think you hit the problem square on the head. Which is why I'm completely skeptical of this simplistic "democracy will solve all our foreign policy problems" notion.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Mar 14, 2005 1:18:35 AM

Matt, as always, great foreign policy observations.

However, I do think that democracy is the prerequisite for everything else we want to accomplish in the Arab world. Trying to do things like economic development without democracy is like trying to walk into a house without first opening the door.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Mar 14, 2005 3:33:56 AM

I think the number of settlements is much less than 250,000, but the number of settlers on land conquered by Israel in 1967 may be rather more.

Nick K:

Difficult for the oil states as you say. But the EU could have a big impact in the creation of an Arab/ Muslim middle class by offering all the Arab Mediterranean countries a NAFTA style free trade area, unilaterally if necessary. Those textile factory owners will very soon demand legal protection for their investments and a voice in government.

Posted by: Otto | Mar 14, 2005 7:59:03 AM

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