If the question be viewed historically, it is clear the idea of democracy can be exported. Numerous examples exist of it having been spread in such a fashion. The idea of liberal democracy is now virtually unchallenged as a source of legitimacy for political authority, with the world’s dictatorships forced to justify their oppression by appeals to specific problems and circumstances, such as the 'state of emergency' in Syria or the threat of U.S. 'aggression' in North Korea. Most dictatorships pay at least lip service to democracy or exhibit the forms of it, even though the people in reality have no formal say in who governs them. It has been repeatedly asserted in the West over the last hundred years that various cultures or peoples were unprepared for democracy, but the pessimists have been proved wrong in Germany, in East Asia, on the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America. The number of liberal democracies in the world stood much higher in 2000 than it had in 1900.
In most cases the idea of liberal democracy has spread by a sort of osmosis, moving into countries to fill a vacuum of political legitimacy as old systems and elites become discredited. This remains the surest way for it to spread, but there also exist examples of the forcible imposition of democracy on a country from outside, such as Germany, Italy and Japan after World War II. Democracy was able to flourish in these countries as there was no other available source of political legitimacy apart from the universalistic appeal to the rights of every human being, as opposed to the exclusivity of their past systems which were so recently discredited by defeat in the war.
Democracy can only flourish when it is virtually unopposed by rival ideologies, as its legitimacy gives it a certain amount of political capital that is expendable in crises and prevents the disintegration of the state despite pressing social, economic, or security problems. The future of democracy is less certain in countries where there is a credible undemocratic opposition which appeals to the people, or where the institutions of the democratic system are considered untrustworthy. This is the lesson that democracy should take from its own failure in the early twentieth century.
As it is hard to dispute that democracy is capable of spreading itself peaceably, it is necessary to consider the most salient question in foreign policy today: can democracy be forcibly exported? In a recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush reaffirmed his belief that it can be and must be. In his view, the "security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind." It is the policy of forcibly exporting democracy that is currently on trial in Afghanistan and Iraq, the result uncertain. By examining the problems faced by the nascent democracies of these two countries, it is possible to draw some lessons about the exportability of democracy in general.
Before examining these countries, a cruder argument against the exportability of democracy, especially to Muslim countries, should be dismissed. It is sometimes argued that certain cultures or peoples are in some way unsuited to democracy. This is nothing more than cultural arrogance. As noted earlier, pessimists have repeated this line throughout history about other cultures and peoples and found themselves proved wrong. It is the very flexibility of democracy that makes it exportable.
Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, someone who surely knows the difficulties of trying to spread democracy, put it thusly: "We do not accept the notion that democracy is a Western value. To the contrary; democracy simply means good government rooted in responsibility, transparency, and accountability." The view that a culture or people can be in some way unsuited for democracy surely stems from a mistaken belief that all democracies must look the same, and that they must look Western. Yet if we accept Aung’s broader definition of democracy, then surely there is no culture incapable of good government so-defined.
However, there are sure to be significant obstacles in the way of any attempt to export democracy. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the first obstacle is the existence of an ideology opposed to democracy and with appeal to segments of the population – Islamism. The need for such a universalistic ideology to oppose the universal rights of the citizen is plain in the virtual disappearance of Ba'athist elements in the Iraqi resistance at an early stage and even the reported conversion of individuals from secular Ba'athism to Islamism, the former ideology being bankrupt and more a hindrance than a help to the resistance. Remaining elements of the resistance who are pro-Saddam or nostalgic for the old Sunni-dominated order do not have appeal outside their local, sectional power base. The significance of Islamism is that it is an ideology than can appeal to men as men (though hardly to women) rather than as members of a particular ethnic, class or national group. It is this resemblance to democracy that makes it a challenge, as it claims to offer all equality in an Islamic community (ummah) as opposed to equality as citizens in a secular democracy.
For the vast majority of Muslims, and for all non-Muslims, Islamism cannot offer a viable alternative to democracy, especially in a cosmopolitan country such as Iraq. It is radically exclusive, foisting an untraditional and harsh interpretation of the Shari'ah that seeks to circumscribe rights in a way that can only be described as totalitarian. It also robs a country of half of its productive capacity and intelligence by forbidding women from participating in any aspect of public life. In Iraq, the battle of ideas between Moqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah al-Sistani personifies the struggle between religious extremism and moderation: it is clear who is winning the moral contest. Islam is clearly not incompatible with democracy, for half of the world’s Muslims live in democracies. Islamism simply cannot win the war of ideas; democracy, which gives people the dream of having a say in how their own society is run, is a more appealing idea than totalitarianism. This is especially true to a people who have just emerged from another form of dictatorship.
Yet in the uncertain environment of an occupation, for a people who have adopted the habits that come from living under a dictatorship, the transition to democracy cannot be smooth. In principle, it seems as if it should be. The occupying forces seek only to establish democratic institutions run by the people and for the people, and then stop interfering in the country’s affairs. The credibility of this claim is vital to the project's success, for a people who were occupied forcefully by foreigners will be inherently distrustful of their 'liberators'. Ulterior motives will be suspected, and suspicion is easily transferred from old rulers to new. Like the democratic process itself, the transition period must be transparent and accountability to the people must be displayed. It is clear that after decades of repression the will for democracy is strong – ten million people have registered to vote in Afghanistan. However, this good will and intent must not be squandered by a poor handling of the country in the transition period.
Trust matters, especially during the period of transition and reconstruction. Democracy cannot thrive without a civil society built on trust between the people. As Edmund Burke recognised so many years ago, "To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections." In practical terms, this means that during the transition period democracy must be shown to bring concrete benefits to people's lives. Local and municipal councils should be set up to direct reconstruction, and this reconstruction should be directed by the people and for the people.
Only by delivering to people what they really want – security, economic growth, and social justice – can faith in the democratic project be kept. If people feel oppressed by the transitional government then they will not trust it to establish a fair democracy, and hence the democratic institutions erected will lack legitimacy. What is at stake is not the legitimacy of democracy itself, but of the power implementing it - tell formerly oppressed peoples that they are to have a say in the running of their own society and they will greet you not with hostility, but with suspicion.
Iyad Allawi was right when he recently stated that "any time ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom not tyranny, democracy not dictatorship, and the rule of law not the rule of the secret police." It is vital that the choice be spelled out clearly in this manner. This is a difficult task, and America's difficulties in engaging with it will provide instructive lessons for the future. Events and actions that diminish the moral legitimacy of the power seeking to impose democracy must be avoided at all costs; this is a difficult mission, given that it is equally essential to deal forcefully with democracy’s enemies. To tread this tightrope is difficult but not impossible, and it requires a detailed understanding of the occupied country so that enemy can be identified from ally. Success in exporting democracy will only be achieved if the occupying force works closely with native pro-democratic forces that understand the culture and society of the occupied country better than the occupiers ever could.
Democracy certainly can be exported. No culture or people of any faith are unsuited to good government that is accountable to the people, and few would reject it. Democracy's shining ideal remains the dream of oppressed peoples the world over, and the fear of their oppressors. But we must realise that a strategy of aggressively exporting democracy entails risks, not least the risk of outright rejection and failure. Introducing the democratic virus into a new host will provoke a reaction by parties that have an interest in the status quo or that do not trust our intentions. If our intentions are indeed pure, then we should ease democracy's export by simultaneously displaying benevolence to the oppressed and forcefulness to those opposed to democracy's spread. People who have languished under dictatorships are not children, and given the opportunity they are perfectly capable of moral courage and statesmanship.
If the gift of democracy be offered graciously, with no strings attached and in a manner that does not seem to belie our claim to be acting for the general good, it will be accepted. If it is harshly imposed with scant respect to the welfare and security of the occupied people while the transition takes place, the mood is likely to turn sour and difficulties will arise.
The process of building a civil society which can foster a healthy democracy is not an easy one. But it is achievable. History shall pass judgement on the transition to democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the story so far has furnished us with some lessons. As much as possible, trust between the occupying force and the occupied people must be maintained. It is in the interest of the multinational force, Iraqis and Afghanis for democracy to come to the two countries speedily – anti-democratic forces must be denied the oxygen of credibility which they are given by the blunders of the multinational force. A decent respect for human rights, accountability to the people, moderation in the use of force and transparency of purpose – all components of democracy’s beauty – are as important in the transition process as in the polity that is the goal at the end of it. Equally important is the ruthless marginalisation of democracy's enemies so that their violence cannot destroy the hopes of a nation. If this tough course be navigated with skill, compassion and wisdom in the use of force, then the prospects for democracy's further spread throughout the world look bright.
The above is an essay I wrote for the consideration of the Webb Prize Committee at London's Foreign Policy Centre. It was written shortly before Afghanistan's national election in which over ten million people participated. Although a rather uncomplicated statement of neoconservative idealism, I strongly believe that democratising the world is a noble task and that those who oppose it, despite their good intentions, are on the wrong side of history. I was glad to see the American people vindicate me in the recent election. The Webb Prize Committee however, were not so impressed; my essay failed to be shortlisted.
Although I would welcome well-reasoned discussion on the topic, I think we have all had our share of partisan slanging matches this year.