SPECIAL REPORT: The Spread of Democracy

May 31, 2005

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government — except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Winston Churchill, 1947

How often have you heard these famous words? Yet the explosion of democratic movements around the world over the last thirty years would have dumbfounded Churchill and his colleagues. In 1947, most took it for granted that apart from a few exceptions such as India, a former British colony that gained its independence that year, democracy was for affluent western countries only. It was seen as a luxury that poorer non-European nations could not afford and might not even desire, a system only feasible under certain economic and cultural conditions.

But if we take Larry Diamond’s minimum criterion for democracy — a system of government in which the principal positions of power are filled through regular free and fair elections — then there are over 100 democratic countries in the world today, many of them poor, developing nations.

What’s more, many would now agree with President Bush’s sentiments, if not his methods; people the world over want the freedom to govern themselves. For example, Noah Feldman observes that Iraq’s most senior cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, has made his reputation by pressing for democracy according to the principles of Islamic law. Increasingly, democracy is no longer seen as an alien western ideal, but as a universal one.

Given that this is so, says Andrew Kuper, surely we should be thinking about multilateral ways to promote democracy in other countries. To start with, argue Morton Halperin and his co-authors, the international community (including America) should stop favoring non-democratic countries over democratic ones when giving development assistance.

According to their examination of forty years of data from poor countries, the assumptions behind the theory of “development first, democracy second” are simply not justified. They declare that the key criteria of a democracy — accountability, openness, and a legal mechanism for getting rid of ineffective leaders — give democratic countries a development edge over autocracies. And why waste aid on corrupt governments, when we could help poor democracies instead?

A note of caution, however, before we Americans are blinded by our almost religious enthusiasm for the “D” word. Elections alone do not make a democracy, as Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and many others point out. Theodore Friend cites the Philippines as an example of “electoralism” — an endless appetite for elections, but no accountability afterwards. In Iraq this year, millions took the first step to democracy, putting their lives at risk by going to the polls — yet a fully democratic system is surely still a long way off. What’s more, according to Adam Przeworksi’s research, although more countries than ever before have competitive elections, many “suffer from dissatisfaction and shallow political participation all around the world, in developed countries as well as in less developed”.

But who said democracy was perfect? Yet given a chance to flourish, it provides a means for citizens to get their views heard and to eventually bring about change. Churchill may not have foreseen democracy’s spread, but his words still say it all.

This special report cites the following Carnegie Council resources:

LARRY DIAMOND, SENIOR FELLOW, HOOVER INSTITUTION: When I am challenged on the question of whether any country can be a democracy, one of the reasons why I am inclined to say yes is the following: If democracy can emerge and persist, now so far for a decade, in an extremely poor, landlocked, overwhelmingly Muslim country like Mali, which has none of the supposed preconditions for democracy, in which the majority of adults are illiterate and live in absolute poverty and in which life expectancy is 44 years, then there is no reason in principle why democracy cannot develop in most other very poor countries. Read more...

NOAH FELDMAN, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF LAW, NYU: Democracy has within it the appealing — and I think correct — idea that people ought to decide how to govern themselves. You can't advocate democracy without believing in self-determination in some way or another. Now, given that that was the case, everything that we the United States were going to do in Iraq, everything that a transitional unelected government was going to do in Iraq, up to the point when there was an elected Iraqi government, was going to be seen as illegitimate. Read more...

MULTILATERAL STRATEGIES TO PROMOTE DEMOCRACY: First Report of the Empire and Democracy Report, with Thomas Carothers, John Cavanagh, Michael Doyle, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, Adam Przeworski, Mary Robinson and Joseph Stiglitz: How can the United States and other powerful actors avoid the perils of empire and instead become credible leaders in promoting democracy and human rights around the world? Read more...

MORTON HALPERIN, DIRECTOR, OPEN SOCIETY POLICY CENTER: One of the reasons why this [the Millennium Challenge Account] is the right way to go is that we want to use development assistance, even though it is very small, to create an incentive towards democracy of the kind that the European Union has created in Europe. The countries of Central Europe have had a powerful incentive to democratize, because they want to get into the EU to protect democracy or to improve their standard of living. By making democracy an essential criterion for membership, the EU has encouraged countries, whether it is Ukraine or now Belarus, to become democratic. Read more...

THEODORE FRIEND, SENIOR FELLOW, FOREIGN POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE: If Indonesia falls into mere electoralism, it will have failed the hope of the last few years. Suharto felt as dictator that the people only needed what he called "a festival of democracy," which means sham elections. He actually called elections "a democratic festival" — let the people whoop it up and then let's close them down. Read more...

--Prepared by Madeleine Lynn, Communications

You may also like

AUG 5, 2021 Podcast

The Doorstep: How Shipping Can Help Reenergize Globalization, with BIMCO's Peter Sand

BIMCO shipping analyst Peter Sand joins Carnegie Council Senior Fellows Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin to discuss how the effects of the pandemic on shipping--container ...

OCT 23, 2020 Podcast

The Doorstep: America in the Middle East & the "Caliphate" Controversy, with NYU's Mohamad Bazzi

On this week's "Doorstep," hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev are joined by NYU's Professor Mohamad Bazzi, an expert on the Middle East. The discussion ...

USNS <i>Comfort</i> arrives in New York City, March 30, 2020. CREDIT: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/navymedicine/49721679586/in/photostream/">U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Adelola Tinubu (Public Domain)</a>

APR 2, 2020 Article

Narratives, Priorities, and Defense Spending

Is the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic going to have major changes in how Americans perceive foreign policy? Senior Fellow Nikolas Gvosdev considers this question ...