Sehaty Foreign Exchange


Which Democracy?

September 1996
The Iranian

From "Promoting Democracy in a Postmodern World," by Thomas Carothers, in the Spring i996 issue of Dissent. Carothers is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

I was in Kazakhstan not long ago, on a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to assist the Kazakh Parliament with its drafting of an electoral law. The trip was going smoothly until we hit a critical moment. I was working closely with a senior member of the Parliament, a wise and patient man who approached his work with great seriousness.

I had just reviewed a number of the draft law's provisions and highlightedsome choices available for to his committee. He looked at me gravely, pushingaside with one hand the raft of possibilities I had been outlining, andsaid with quiet firmness, "We want our Parliament to be just like yourCongress." Our eyes met as I tried to think of something to say otherthan the three words that had come streaming into my mind: "No you don't!"

I mumbled something to the effect that our Congress was, in fact, imperfect, that there was much value in exploring a range of ways to organize legislatures and draft laws. My host's eyes narrowed: the American expert has come all this way to say he has no model?

Among those Americans involved in the business of promoting democracy -- a minor growth industry populated by people from nongovernmental organizations, consulting firms, think tanks, universities, and the U.S. government itself, who careen around the world helping to draft constitutions, observe elections, reform judiciaries, strengthen parliaments, build civil societies, empower local governments, and train journalists -- the relation between the proffered ideal and the actual state of democracy at home is rarely discussed.

As a result, little attention has been given to the paradoxical fact that the United States and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe have moved into a particularly active phase of promoting democracy in other countries precisely at a time when the health of their own democratic system is in doubt.

Despite America's growing lack of faith and interest in the political process -- a notion much bandied about in the press -- very little of this vague but troubling situation is presented in U.S. democracy-promotion programs overseas. What gets taught instead in such programs is generally a high school civics vision of democracy as a gleaming edifice made up of larger-than-life institutions and structures. Its values are characterized as self-evident truths, the assumption being that once these values are properly introduced, they will take hold naturally and cement into the proper political system.

In conferences on political party development sponsored by U.S. assistance programs, I have gotten used to watching the visiting American experts diagnose the shortcomings of the host countries' party system. They smile and shake their heads sadly at the proliferation of parties that has followed the initial steps toward democracy.

They devise strategies to reduce those systems along two- or three-party lines, in which parties are to be defined by mild ideological shadings rather than by politically explosive religious, ethnic, or regional differences. Yet I never hear the American experts seriously explore the waning legitimacy of political parties in the West.

Similarly, I have observed many meetings in which U.S. experts helped foreign parliamentarians revise their committee systems, train their staffs, or even hold mock congressional hearings -- all so that the host countries can help mold their legislatures in the form of the U.S. Congress.

But I have never witnessed a detailed presentation on why the U.S. Congresshas performed so poorly in recent years, why it is held in such low regard by many Americans, and how parliaments in transitional societies mightavoid its shortcomings.

What lies at the core of this persistent disjunction between realities at home and ideals abroad?

To the extent that democracy promoters concern themselves with the factthat all is not well with the political process in America and Western Europe, they assume that such problems are the symptoms of "mature democracies" and that prior to the current malaise in Western politics there was a long, golden period in which democracy bore its fruits painlessly, when its citizens were uniformly engaged and contended.

They then go on to assume that newly democratizing countries around the world all experience a similar pattern of development. First, these countries will build the basic institutions of democracy, then they will live out their own golden periods, and only after they are far down the democratic road will the various elements of the Western malaise touch them.

According to this scenario, these countries are at some inchoate stage of political development -- they are striving to become modern. Therefore, they must first grapple with modernism before they need worry about the problems it is bound to present. They must learn to walk, in other words, before they need worry about stumbling.

One major fault of this outlook is the simple fact that there never was a golden period of democracy in the United States, or any other Western country; all periods of Western democracy have been fraught with problems.

Another, deeper flaw lies with the perception that our own dissatisfaction with the alienation from the political process is unique to us, bred of the particular experience of life in developed countries that have made democratic transitions in recent years -- particularly Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union -- have come to the process suffused with a sense of political history and well versed in the problems of governance.They are, in short, learning to walk while they already know about stumbling. We need not shield them from the complex problems of "mature democracies."

Along with the tendency to hold out an idealized vision of U.S. democracyto foreigners, Americans abroad tend to read far too much ideological certainty into the many recent transitions to democracy. They often view such transitions as society-wide epiphanies, large-scale conversions to liberal democratic values. This view is tied to the deeper, seductive idea that late-twentieth-century history is defined by the triumph of liberal democracy.

Current transitions to democracy need to be seen for what they are: highly pragmatic or, perhaps more accurately, highly functionalist experiments. People around the world are trying out democracy to see what it can deliver to them. What they want it to deliver depends somewhat on the particular country involved, but material interests usually dominate.

They want a life that matches the expectations raised by the media images of Western prosperity. They want a government that can accomplish basic tasks with a semblance of competence and honesty. They want to be left alone at the personal level but taken care of at the social and economic levels.

In supporting democratization they are hoping less for the establishment of a new participatory, civic-oriented relationship between citizens and the state and more for what might be called the professionalization of the state -- the establishment of a political process that works.

These matters are all too often lost on those who run U.S. assistance programs aimed at promoting democracy. The problems usually begin at the early stageof political transitions, when opposition groups are challenging existing non-democratic regimes. In such situations, Americans are quick to assume that anyone challenging a dictatorship is a democrat.

They project the simple framework of democracy versus dictatorship into local power struggles, which, although often concerned with political liberalization, are also closely linked with historical conflicts between different regional, ethnic, or religious factions. They are then surprised when the people they support turn out to be primarily interested in gaining and consolidating power rather than building democracy.

these problems continue as democratic transitions proceed. Once the old regime is out and a new government comes to power through elections or general affirmation, U.S. assistance organizations undertake political education programs throughout the country.

Civic educators funded by the United States fan out across the countryside armed with brochures, pamphlets, charts, and books -- translated into the local language -- explaining what political rights are, what voting is,what parliaments do in democracies, what the separation of powers means, and so on.

But much of this heartfelt educational work avoids the essential task. It assumes that the people in a transitional society want to become democraticand simply need to know more about how to do so.

In fact, many citizens in such countries feel a strong skepticism about the utility of politics itself and a disinclination to be stirred by any ideological education, particularly one in which political values are presented as self-evident truths rather than correlates of clear individual interests.

Civic educators are dismayed when political apathy follows hard on the heels of initially energizing democratic transitions. Rather than question the tenets of their educational approach, they simply prescribe larger doses of the same medicine.

I do not mean to say that we have nothing to offer the world, that the deficiencies of our own democracy disqualify us from venturing out into the world to help others make their societies more democratic.

But it does seem we are promoting democracy in ways that are habitually two-dimensional and even disingenuous. We need to concentrate less on trying to reproduce certain institutional forms and more on fostering the underlying values and principles of democracy.

When faced with a dysfunctional parliament in a transitional society, we should not immediately think in terms of a checklist of institutional modifications needed to make that parliament resemble our Congress. Instead, we need to help empower those people and organizations who wish to change the patterns of representational objectives.

If we are trying to assist the development of political parties in another country, we should try to help stimulate debate about the full range of possibilities for political association on the assumption that we do not have the final answer on the form and function of political parties.

The challenge of promoting democracy abroad turns out to bear important similarities to the challenge of reinvigorating democracy at home. If we have been falling short in our approaches in other countries it is perhaps because we have not been seriously engaged in the task within our own borders.

We need to reimagine our own relationship to the democratic principles and values we espouse if we genuinely want to be helpful to the young democracies around the world.

Related links

* THE IRANIAN Opinion section
* How to nurture democracies abroad - The Christian Science Monitor
* Cover stories
* Who's who


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