31 July 2005 - Sunday

Notes on CfD: Chapter 3

In the third chapter of The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky attempts to demonstrate that open societies are inherently better for security than despotisms are. Despite the appearance of stability provided by the dictator's iron fist, the author argues, tyrannies actually encourage belligerence because when governments lack the support of their own people, they need external enemies to divert attention away from their own problems.

The chapter is entitled "Dognat Y Peregnat" after Stalin's contest with the West -- "catch and overcome" -- in which the Soviet people were mobilized to fight the economic power of the capitalist nations. This campaign exploited patriotism and fear, blaming collectivist economic failures on outside sabotage. This program of deliberately manufacturing hostility carried over into military invasions of neighboring countries, which of course were necessary for national security. Thus, Stalin's dictatorship, perhaps the most effective in history, was not an aid but rather a grave threat to international stability. His was not the only despotism to follow such a strategy:

Because external enemies are an effective means of maintaining internal stability, governments in countries as diverse as Cuba, North Korea, and Iran all regard inculcating hatred towards outsiders as critical to their rule. By carefully indoctrinating their subjects, fear societies can keep them mobilized against an enemy and transform potential adversaries within their societies into supporters. (84)
In comparison, Sharansky says, democracies are quite peaceful -- possibly too peaceful:
In response to their voters, most democratic leaders will be inhibited by a pacific reflex, be slow to act, and be overly cautious. This propensity for appeasement can be extremely dangerous if potential threats that could have been nipped in the bud are instead allowed to grow more dangerous. (80)
So far, so good. Democracy often provides a check on militarism. However, this last observation about hesitation could also be applied internally. And this is the kind of insecurity I am really worried about.

Right now, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq are struggling with powerful -- and in some cases, popular -- domestic elements that threaten their freedom. Old wounds have been ripped open, and the fragile new elected governments are struggling to act decisively. Some Americans working as advisors in the transition to democracy have expressed grave concern about the lack of security, which they believe threatens the future of the country. Without security, democracy cannot survive, and the resulting chaos might be even worse than the brutal rule of Saddam was.

Oddly enough, Sharansky seems to agree:

Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place -- such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties -- can free elections be held. ... Until the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and Afghans live without fear of speaking their minds, elections are just as likely to weaken efforts to build democracy as they are to strengthen them. (74)
Sharansky notes that national elections were not called for four years in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich.* He argues that Afghanistan and Iraq present a similar situation; until the people are safe to express their opinions freely, elections could be counterproductive.

So Sharansky believes that internal security (protection for those who wish to speak their minds) is a prerequisite for democracy. This seems to invert the relationship between democracy and security he has described elsewhere. Actually, I think he is including security in the definition of democracy, which probably makes his assertion that "all free societies will guarantee security and peace" into a tautology. Perhaps he makes a distinction between internal (domestic) and external (international) security in these discussions. My view, however, is that the line between internal and external security is getting very hard to draw.

Sharansky confirms that he is including security in the idea of freedom. "The dangers that the skeptics have in mind," he writes, "have nothing to do with democracy per se. At most, they deal with the dangers involved in the transition to democracy" (75). So if a nation (revolutionary France, for example) establishes a constitution and elections, then quickly reverts to a form of tyranny (the Terror and Napoleon), it was never a democracy at all under Sharansky's definition. He is defining away the problem by refusing to recognize as democratic any but fully stable states.

I'm not sure such a definition is usable in foreign policy. Why? Because it is precisely the transitions and failures that some of us fear the most. Allow me to indulge in analogy. Suppose I said, "I need to drive to the store," and someone else said, "It's too dangerous; the roads are iced over." Could I argue that the store was perfectly warm, so it would be silly to worry about ice?

So, in the end, when Sharansky frames the democratic question this way, I believe he is arguing straight past many of his opponents. After all, nobody in the American foreign service would support Iran over the United Kingdom. But that's rarely the sort of alternative we face in our foreign relations. We don't have to pick between full-fledged tyranny and stable democracy. Instead, we face dillemmas like Afghanistan in the 1980s, where many of the people fighting Soviet dictatorship were Islamic extremists. Considering how much more success we had negotiating with Gorbachev than with Bin Laden, one wonders whether Sharansky's prescription for the success of democracy would have required the United States to give active support to the Soviets.


* Although it does not compromise Sharansky's argument, this is an oversimplication. Federal elections were delayed in postwar Germany partly because federal unity was impossible for some time (and was never fully achieved until 1990); the joint Western/Soviet occupation posed obvious difficulties. There were widespread misgivings, but the first local elections in the US zone took place just eight months after the surrender. I do not believe this threatens Sharansky's argument, however; the US military occupation of Germany lasted until 1955. Likewise, it is worth noting that in postwar Japan, national elections were held just seven months after the surrender -- but also that General MacArthur imposed a US-drafted constitution on the government and that the American occupation lasted another six years.

| Posted by Wilson at 17:23 Central | TrackBack
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