The Obama Administration apparently does not share its predecessor's determination to promote democracy in Arab countries. Yet the questions of whether and, if so, how democracy can come to these countries are bound to remain on the American foreign policy agenda, both because of the importance of the Arab world and the deeply- rooted and longstanding American commitment to the spread of democracy. What lessons for democracy promotion in the region have emerged from the disappointing results of the Bush Administration's efforts and from a broader and very different historical trend – the remarkable flowering of democratic governments the world over during the last quarter of the twentieth century?
The most important lesson is that democracy fuses two distinct political traditions: popular sovereignty, in which the people choose the government in free and fair elections; and liberty – that is, freedom – which comes in religious, economic, and political forms. The practice of popular sovereignty without the safeguards of liberty, history shows, can have disastrous results. The United States should therefore oppose groups that reject liberty, such as Hamas, and should give higher priority in the Middle East to establishing liberty in its different forms than simply to staging elections.
Liberty is, however, difficult to establish. The relevant institutions, skills, and values take time to develop and cannot be imported, ready-made, from abroad. In many countries, the free-market economy has served as a template for liberty and democracy: the practices required to operate a market economy, when transferred to the political sphere, provide the basis for democratic politics.
Market economies are underdeveloped in the Arab world chiefly because of the massive revenues that the countries of the region earn from oil. The United States can therefore make a major if indirect contribution to furthering the cause of Arab democracy by reducing the American consumption of oil, which would reduce the total consumed globally, which in turn would deprive the Arab regimes of the massive resources they have used to ward off pressure for democratization.
Even without financial windfalls from oil, three formidable barriers to Arab democracy would nonetheless still remain: the local version of Islam; the ethnic, religious, and national divisions that mark most of the countries of the region; and deep-seated anti-Western sentiment. These cannot be eliminated quickly or easily. The anti-democratic impact of each will be affected, however, by the political future of Iraq. If a genuine democracy should ultimately develop in that country, this would strengthen the long-term prospects for democratic governance throughout the Arab world.
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What are the prospects for democracy in the Arab world, and for American policies that seek to promote it? The Bush Administration, which was strongly committed to both, left office with a disappointing record on this score. Despite its efforts, no full-fledged democracy was established (or, indeed, has ever been established) in any Arab country. The most obvious beneficiaries of the more open politics the administration encouraged were terrorist organizations: Hezbollah expanded its role in Lebanon and Hamas triumphed in what was, by most accounts, a free and fair election in Gaza.
The Obama Administration apparently does not share its predecessor's enthusiasm for democracy promotion, at least not in the Arab Middle East. In his January 27 interview with the Saudi Arabia-based satellite television station Al-Arabiya – the first such interview he gave after taking office – President Obama discussed American relations with the Muslim world at some length, but never mentioned democracy.
Despite all this, however, the question of Arab democracy will not disappear from the American foreign policy agenda. Because the United States is a political community created on the basis of a set of founding principles rather than being, as are most other countries, the political expression of a group that has lived together in the same place for centuries, those principles – which happen to be democratic ones – are bound to be important in all aspects of American public life, including its foreign policy. In fact, every president since the first one, George Washington, has endorsed the proposition that the American form of government should spread beyond North America and Barack Obama will surely continue the tradition in some fashion.
Establishing democracy abroad turns out to be, as well, a useful goal for American foreign policy. The United States has a strong interest in a peaceful world and many studies have demonstrated that democratic governments tend to conduct more peaceful foreign policies than non-democracies. Americans have made an enormous and ongoing investment, moreover, in establishing, protecting, and nurturing a government in Iraq, in the heart of the Arab world, with the hope that it will some day meet democratic standards. The belief that democratic politics may indeed be possible in the Arab world, on which that effort rests, draws much of what credibility it has from democracy's remarkable rise elsewhere over the last quarter of the twentieth century. Whereas in 1975 a mere 35 countries could be counted as genuine democracies, in 2005, according to the respected think tank Freedom House, fully 119 of the world's 190 sovereign states had democratic governments.
The Arab world, however, remains the exception to this powerful global trend. The reason for this is that Arab countries lack some of the conditions that have fostered democracy in other parts of the world, while having other social and economic features that actively obstruct the establishment and flourishing of democratic politics and government. (The conditions that make for democracy and the historical trends that
led to its remarkable spread in the final decades of the last century are the subjects of my 2007 book Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government, (PublicAffairs, 2007), on which much of the analysis that follows is based.) Understanding both what it is that has caused democracy to flourish in recent decades and the chief obstacles to it helps to explain the failure of American attempts to promote democracy in the Arab world and also points the way to the policies that the United States should – and should not – adopt for this purpose in the future.
Democracy's Two Traditions
An explanation for the presence and absence of democracy must begin with a proper definition of the term. Although it is generally used to refer to a single form of government, democracy actually combines two distinct political traditions. One is popular sovereignty, rule by the people through representatives chosen in free elections. This was the original meaning of the word, but the political systems to which it now refers include another, older tradition. That tradition is liberty, which is often called freedom, and comes in three forms: economic liberty, at the heart of which is private property; religious liberty – freedom of worship; and political liberty, which is encoded in the American Bill of Rights.
For most of recorded history democracy's two component parts were considered incompatible with each other. If political power were given to all the people, it was believed, they would destroy liberty. Property rights, in particular, were thought to be in jeopardy if the population as a whole were ever allowed to choose and control the government.
The history of the last hundred years has demonstrated that popular sovereignty and liberty can coexist, and their coexistence has become so common that the term democracy, as commonly used, now assumes it. But the history of the last hundred years also demonstrates that when liberty does not accompany popular sovereignty the consequences can be dreadful. In recent years, for example, free elections in countries where liberty was not well established have led to large-scale violence, as candidates have bid for the votes of some groups by demonizing others. This was what happened, to take one case, in the Balkans after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
The proper definition of democracy has important implications for American policy in the Arab world. It means that simply holding an election, even a free and fair one, does not, in and of itself, make for democracy and that groups that win elections, no matter how many votes they receive, do not qualify as democratic without a commitment to liberty. Such a commitment is entirely lacking in the program and policies of Hamas, for example, which does not recognize the rights of non-Muslims, or even of non-males, and for which violence is the preferred political tactic. It follows that the United States should not deal with such groups and that it may well be counterproductive to press ahead with elections in the absence of liberty. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have resisted American pressure to open their political systems on the grounds that to do so would enhance the power of radical, anti-American forces such as the Muslim Brothers and al-Qaeda. Coming from Arab autocrats this argument is self-serving, but that does not mean that it is invalid. The election results in Gaza should serve as a cautionary example. Insofar as American resources are devoted to democracy-promotion, fostering liberty should take priority over conducting elections.
While liberty is crucial for democracy, it is not easy to establish. Indeed, the difficulty of establishing it is the single most formidable obstacle to the creation of democracy. Establishing liberty is difficult, in the first place, because it takes time. It cannot be done quickly, as can the implementation of democracy's other component part, popular sovereignty, through elections.
Liberty involves institutions – a legal system to protect economic and political rights, most notably – which can only be built slowly. The relevant institutions, in turn, require people with the skills to operate them – lawyers for a legal system, for example – and accumulating a critical mass of skilled personnel is the work of at least a generation. Even when the necessary institutions and skills are present, liberty will not endure unless the values that underpin it – respect for the rule of law above all – are diffused throughout the society in which they are embedded. Plenty of dictatorships have had impeccably democratic constitutions, the provisions of which were, however, never carried out. Values do not spring up overnight like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
Liberty is difficult to establish, as well, because it cannot be imported, fully formed, from abroad. To be sure, American military occupation brought democracy to Germany and Japan after World War II, but both these countries had had previous experience with liberty and popular sovereignty, and in both countries the Cold War lent legitimacy to a continuing American military presence, which helped assure the perpetuation of democratic practices in each. The British similarly brought democracy to India, but governed it directly for almost a century, and even that did not assure democracy's survival when they withdrew in 1947. Independent India chose to conduct free elections and to protect liberty: Pakistan, the other country to emerge from Britain's empire on the Asian subcontinent, did not. Perhaps Iraq, with a prolonged American occupation, will follow the German, Japanese, and Indian pattern; but that is far from guaranteed, and neither the United States nor any other democracy will be willing or able to provide comparable tutelage to many, if any, other non-democracies.
Democracy, and especially liberty, therefore, are not like a pizza that can be ordered from elsewhere ready made. The process of creating a democracy is better compared to planting a tree. Outsiders can provide the seed and water and guard what has been planted; but the growth to maturity takes time and in any event, in order to flourish, a tree, like democracy, requires what outsiders simply cannot provide: fertile soil and a proper climate. The lesson for American policy here is that democracy-promotion programs, no matter how well-intentioned, well-designed and well-funded, can achieve at best limited results.
They have achieved no results at all in the Arab world, where the environment is plainly not propitious for democracy. But given the difficulty of establishing liberty anywhere, a general question arises: where does democracy, and especially liberty, come from? How has it been possible to create them in so many countries?
The answer is, in no small part, that they arise from the workings of a market economy. The free market has served as the template for democratic politics throughout the world. The institutions, practices, and habits that a market economy involves, when transferred to the political realm, provide the foundations of democracy.
A market economy includes, for example, private property, the original form that liberty took. A market economy generates the wealth that produces a middle class, the social backbone of a democratic political system. From a market economy emerges civil society – the organizations and groups that are independent of the government that serve as both a buffer and a link between individuals and the authorities. Participating in the free market, finally, fosters two habits that are indispensable for democratic politics. One is trust: buyers and sellers in a market economy must trust each other to carry out the terms of the bargains they make, and in a democracy citizens must trust the government not to violate their rights. The other habit is compromise: in any bargain both buyer and seller must agree on less than what each would like, and in democracy the differences that are inevitable in any political system are resolved by peaceful compromise rather than by violence.
The presence of a market economy alone, however, does not guarantee the flowering of a political democracy. Historically, and indeed today, many countries have had both free-market economies and dictatorial governments; but no twenty-first century democracy lacks a free-market economy of some kind, and in most of the places where democracy appeared in the last quarter of the twentieth century – in Southern Europe, Latin America, East Asia – a working market economy had preceded it by a least a generation.
Even autocratic governments that resist democracy permit and indeed actively support free-market economic institutions and practices within their borders because free markets are widely seen as indispensable for what virtually all twenty-first-century governments seek: prosperity. So the free-market economy acts as a kind of Trojan Horse for democracy, penetrating the defenses of authoritarian regimes and paving the way for liberty and popular sovereignty – except in the Arab world. Why have the Arab countries failed to follow this pattern?
The major reason is oil. The large reserves of oil in the Arab Middle East, and the vast revenues they confer on the undemocratic governments that preside over the countries in which they are located, obstruct the growth of democratic politics in three ways. First, oil-rich countries do not develop the democracy-fostering institutions, practices, and habits of a free-market economy because they do not need a full-fledged free market economy: they can become rich simply by extracting and selling their oil.
Second, the governments of oil-exporting countries use the revenues from its sale to offer those they govern a bargain: a high standard of living in exchange for political passivity. The rulers of the oil-rich countries of the Middle East in effect bribe the people they rule to forego political liberty and the right to decide who governs them. Third, the oil revenues that accrue to the holders of power in oil states act as a powerful incentive to maintain that power indefinitely rather than run the risk of losing it, and with it the wealth it brings, in free and fair elections. If Saudi Arabia were to become a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain, the Saudi ruling family might conceivably hope to receive an annual allowance, as does the House of Windsor, but even in that case the thousands of members of the al-Saud tribe could hardly expect a stipend that would permit them to continue to live in the lavish style to which they have become accustomed. This third feature, in particular, operates in countries outside the Middle East with similar resource endowments. Oil is a major reason that democracy has not flourished in Russia, Iran or Venezuela.
Not all Middle Eastern countries have substantial oil deposits, but those that do not have them have benefitted from the largesse of those that do, and the largest Arab country, Egypt, has found another source of support that is independent of a working market economy. For signing and observing a peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptian government has received, for three decades, a generous annual financial contribution from the United States.
The United States can do something to remove this obstacle to Arab democracy. Reducing the oil revenues that flow into the Middle East would weaken, if not topple, the major regional barriers to popular sovereignty and liberty. Reducing revenues would be the result of reducing the amount of oil consumed globally, and here the United States, as the world's largest consumer, has a vital role to play.
Reducing oil consumption has two components: conservation – using less of it, which requires vehicles with greater fuel efficiency; and substitution – using non-fossil fuels for transportation, which requires developing such fuels and producing them on a commercial scale. The most efficacious way to achieve both is to raise the price of gasoline. Western Europe and Japan have imposed high taxes on gasoline. The United States has not.
The rapid rise in the price of oil to more than $140 per barrel in 2008 did raise the price of gasoline, and consumption did begin to decline. But the price then dropped sharply, as occurred after the oil shocks of the 1970s. The lower it goes, and when the global recession ends, the more gasoline will be consumed and the less investment there will be in energy-saving technologies and alternative fuels. What is needed is a government-imposed floor below which the oil price will not be allowed to fall.
Reducing American consumption of oil by raising the price of gasoline is the most important contribution the United States can make to the cause of Arab democracy. Because oil revenues prop up regimes in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela that carry out anti-American policies, some of which – the Iranian nuclear program above all – are extremely dangerous, over the long term reducing the nation's consumption of oil is probably the most important initiative of any kind that the United States can undertake.
Enduring Obstacles to Democracy
Even if the United States and the rest of the world used less oil, however, other causes of democracy's absence from the Arab world would still remain. Three particular features of Arab society contribute to it.
One is the form of Islam that predominates in the region. That faith is not wholly incompatible with democracy. There is no simple, standard version of the religion and some predominantly Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia, and Mali, have had working, if imperfect, democratic governments. Moreover, virtually all religions have at some point in their histories made claims to authority that conflicted with democratic norms. Such claims are, however, unusually strong in the Arab version of Islam. From the beginning, faith and power, the divine law and worldly governance, were fused. The fusion of the two creates a bias against liberty. Placing the limits that protect freedom in democracies on a government that claims to be carrying out the divine will seems not only unnecessary but an act of impiety. The fusion of faith and power in Islam also calls into question popular sovereignty. The task of government for a devout believer is to apply God's law, on which human legislators, even those whom free elections empower for this purpose, cannot, and therefore should not, attempt to improve.
Another feature of Arab societies that makes them resistant to democracy is the ethnic, religious, and national heterogeneity that mark most of them. Where more than one such group inhabits a country in appreciable numbers democracy is often difficult to establish because in a stable democracy people must be willing to be part of the minority. They will accept minority status if they feel confident that the majority will respect their liberties. In multi-group countries such as those in the Arab Middle East such confidence is not always present. It was the absence of such confidence led to brutal warfare in the Balkans in the 1990s.
The third deeply rooted anti-democratic aspect of Arab societies is anti-Western sentiment. The historical memory of rivalry with and, over the course of four hundred years, defeat by the Christian West still resonates in the Arab Middle East in the twenty-first century, serving as a source of popular anger and resentment. Ruling dictatorships have tapped those sentiments to mobilize support for themselves as the stalwart defenders of the Arabs against what they describe as the cultural and political onslaught of the West and its local surrogate, Israel. This strengthens the dictators' hold on power. Moreover, resentment of the West helps to discredit everything of Western origin, including what has become its dominant political system, democracy.
These three anti-democratic features of the Arab Middle East cannot be quickly or easily eliminated, and American policy can have little effect in reducing their political salience. Their persistence has two final implications for American democracy-promotion efforts, and American policy more generally in the region.
One implication is that democracy-promotion will continue to encounter stiff resistance for the foreseeable future. Full-fledged systems of popular sovereignty and liberty are not coming soon to this particular theater of American political and military operations. It would therefore be foolish to base American policy in the region on the expectation that it is on the verge of following the political example of Latin America and Eastern Europe in the last quarter of the previous century.
The other implication is that, to the three obstacles to democracy that will endure even if and when the world consumes less oil and the states of the region are compelled to try to construct working market economies, American policy toward one particular country is especially germane: Iraq. That country is more stable now than it has been for several years, but its future, and the level of American commitment to it, which will surely affect that future, cannot be predicted.
If Iraq should evolve, over the course of years if not decades, into a genuine democracy, with regular, free and fair elections and the assurance of property rights, religious liberty, and political freedom, this would have a powerful, and positive, impact on democracy's prospects throughout the region. It would have such an effect because Arabs, like other people, are influenced by what happens in neighboring and culturally similar countries.
The establishment of an Iraqi democracy would set a powerful example as well because it would involve overcoming the enduring obstacles to Arab democracy. It would demonstrate that Arab Islam and democratic politics can coexist, and in a country not lacking in religious piety. Other Arabs would see uncoerced harmony between Sunni and Shia, and between Arabs and Kurds. And a democratic Iraq, with which Iraqis would presumably be content, would owe its existence in no small measure to the efforts of the United States, the leading twenty-first century member of the Arab world's traditional political rival – the West.
Whether, on what schedule, and at what price genuine democracy can be established in Iraq, and, if democracy is possible, whether the American public will be willing to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to bring it about, cannot be known in advance. What is clear in 2009 is that, far more than any explicit attempts to promote democracy, and perhaps even more than the pattern of global oil consumption, the future of Iraq will determine the fate of democracy in the Arab world.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and author, most recently, of Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government (PublicAffairs, 2007).