[By Michael W. Doyle. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030” (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]
World politics has often been said to be a dangerous “jungle.” But are its dangers a product of the absence of a world policeman or the presence of rapacious state “beasts”? The most sensible answer is, surely, both. But while global governance tends to focus on creating new rules for the “jungle,” we should not neglect reforming the “beasts.” Indeed, one transformation that appears to have long-run prospects for reforming world politics into a much more governable world is changing the character of states: democratic liberalism.
Democratic liberalism embodies constitutional government, representative institutions, minority protections, human rights, and roles for private property and civil society. It is one of those great 19th-century revolutions, together with nationalism and industrialism, that is still transforming world politics. These revolutions began in Western Europe and have swept outward with revolutionary effects. Democratic liberalism grew from the handful of constitutional regimes in the early 19th century to more than 60 spread around the world today.
“Democracy is … a vital source of transformation with enormous upside and downside potential.” These citizens celebrate the narrow victory of the opposition presidential candidate in 2009 in Ghana, one of Africa’s few stable democracies.
Democratic liberalism is still a revolutionary idea. Its positive effects are profound and extensive, as this partial list suggests:
• It promotes peace and mutual respect among democratic peoples. For two centuries, democracies that are committed to the ideal of individual liberty and endowed with well-established constitutional governments have tended to maintain, and likely will continue to maintain, a reliable peace with each other.
• Democracy, at higher levels of participation, promotes human rights and decreases state repression. It also serves to protect the mass of a population from state indifference during a natural disaster, thus reducing the danger of large-scale famine.
• It tends to foster economic growth. Although there is no appreciable direct effect, democracy not only does not harm growth (as some have charged), it has robust, positive, indirect effects by increasing human capital (education, etc.), lowering inflation, reducing political instability, and enlarging economic freedom—all of which are positively associated with economic growth.
• Expanding the democratic franchise tends, overall, to reduce economic inequality as politicians respond to the majority’s demand for greater welfare. Being a democracy, however, is no cure-all. The very international respect for individual rights and shared commercial interests that establish grounds for peace among liberal democracies establishes grounds for additional conflict in relations between liberal and nonliberal societies, as they do in U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations today. Liberal internationalism is no recipe; it needs constant, prudent vigilance to avoid crusades and misguided interventions. Liberal Britain, France, and the United States have been among the most expansionist empires, sometimes producing order and progress and at other times fostering chaos, oppression, and war. The “liberation” of Iraq is only the latest in these costly adventures.
Nor is becoming a democracy a cure-all. Globally, every step toward more democracy within countries reduces the chances of both international and civil war. That is the good news. But the good news needs to be qualified: where the rule of law and public institutions are weak, politicians will be tempted to use violence to achieve and hold office.
Democracy is thus a vital source of transformation with enormous upside and downside potential. The question remains: how to foster the first and avoid the second?
First, we need to avoid a repeat of the Bush administration’s “forced democratization.” Following the Iraq fiasco, it is unlikely to be repeated soon, but the ethical and practical lessons still need to be absorbed. Selfgovernment
should mean authentic “self” government, not laws and regulations imposed by foreigners, even if well-meaning. Democracy is not only government “for” and “of,” it is also government “by” the people. Unless the people see themselves as a people, are prepared to pay taxes, defend their borders, and abide by majority rule, democracy is not sustainable.
Second, we should also avoid attempts to replace the UN with leagues of democracies. It is a strategy of democratic association likely to do more harm than good. Few if any of the world’s major challenges can be met by dividing democratic sheep from nondemocratic goats. Effective trade negotiations and effective arms control need to include all the world’s major producers that are prepared to abide by agreed rules, whether they are democratic or not. Refusing to negotiate and shunning a potential Gorbachev or a new De Klerk is
not the best way to win their confidence.
Democratic transformation is best fostered peacefully. It spreads by good example, by incentives and assistance. Promoting democracy is best done indirectly through trade, investment, and foreign aid. These can help diversify societies. Diversified growing societies tend to demand responsive governance over the long run. Among the most powerful weapons in the arsenal for international democratic transformation—the shock troops of democratization—are students, tourists, and business investors.
For direct promotion, multilateral assistance is particularly useful because it frees the recipient organization from the taint of foreign control. The recently established UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) has an especially significant role in this endeavor. Authorized at the 2005 World Summit in a unanimous General Assembly resolution, it distributes about $30 million per year, predominantly to civil society organizations who apply for a grant to promote measures such as voter education and mobilization.
Strategies like these are the best prospects for expanding the zone of peace among fellow democracies and reaping the benefits of democratization.
MICHAEL W. DOYLE is the Harold Brown Professor of International Affairs, Law and Political Science at Columbia University. Professor Doyle is currently one of the Secretary-General’s personal representatives and the chair of the board of UNDEF. These comments do not necessarily reflect the views of UNDEF, its donors, or the UN.