TOPICS > Politics

Experts Discuss Global Democracy

July 4, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies’ defeat.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been one of the rhetorical themes of the Bush presidency: the spread of global democracy and freedom. It was the theme of the president’s second inaugural address and remains at the center of his foreign policy.

GEORGE W. BUSH: And I was impressed by the growing Vietnamese economy.

RAY SUAREZ: Just two weeks ago, he told the visiting president of Vietnam — one of the world’s more repressive dictatorships — that democracy is as important as new markets for trade.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I also made it very clear that in order for relations to grow deeper, that it’s important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Bush has also carried that message abroad, most recently on his trip to Europe.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Part of a good relationship is the ability to talk openly.

RAY SUAREZ: He spoke in Prague, in a country that made the transition from communism to democracy just 18 years ago.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The most powerful weapon in the struggle against extremism is not bullets or bombs; it is the universal appeal of freedom. Freedom is the design of our maker and the longing of every soul. Freedom is the best way to unleash the creativity and economic potential of a nation. Freedom is the only ordering of a society that leads to justice. And human freedom is the only way to achieve human rights. Expanding freedom is more than a moral imperative; it is the only realistic way to protect our people in the long run.

RAY SUAREZ: But in recent years, the spread of self government has been slow, stalled and even reversed in some countries, and, for the first time since the Cold War, from China to Russia to Venezuela, there are competing ideologies and systems proclaiming themselves in opposition to U.S.-style democracy.

Freedom House, a nonpartisan group that tracks the progress of democracy around the globe, described the current situation as “stagnation.” It said, “The year 2006 saw the emergence of a series of worrisome trends that together present potentially serious threats to the stability of new democracies, as well as obstacles to political reform in societies under authoritarian rule.”

And while three billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, are now living in free societies, some of the recent setbacks have been glaring, especially in the Middle East, where President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a special target for spreading democracy.

Palestinians held legislative elections in January 2006 that resulted in a Hamas victory that the U.S. and European Union refused to recognize. And after two weeks of civil war in Gaza, the Palestinian territories are now split into two, with Hamas controlling Gaza, and President Mahmoud Abbas in charge of the West Bank.

In Iraq, several elections and referendums have produced an elected legislature, presidency, and constitution, but sectarian deadlock in government has been mirrored by armed conflict in the streets. In Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, the U.S.-backed monarchies and autocracies have done little or nothing to implement democratic reforms.

And beyond the Mideast, the struggle over democracy continues. Just last week, the president of China again rejected multi-party democracy and said his country would forge its own forms of political expression.

We now get four perspectives on U.S. efforts to promote democracy abroad. Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of the National Interest magazine, published by the Nixon Center in Washington. Lorne Craner is president of the International Republican Institute, which works on overseas elections and democracy projects on a nonpartisan basis. He served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during President Bush’s first term.

Amr Hamzawy is an Egyptian political scientist and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Anne-Marie Slaughter is dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. She’s also the author of “The Idea That is America.” Ms. Slaughter and Mr. Craner are members of the State Department’s advisory committee on democracy promotion.

And, guests, as we mentioned earlier, the president began his second term sending out a call to the world, putting the world on notice that America was in the business of democracy promotion. It’s been two-and-a-half years since that speech.

Nikolas Gvosdev, what do you think?

Assessing the president's vision

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV, National Interest Magazine: I think that the president laid out a vision but didn't really connect all the dots. On the one hand, there was an assumption that, if more countries are democracies, they suddenly become more pro-American and help us out in concrete interests. And we've seen that that hasn't been the case, that, if you take India or France, two great democracies, don't see eye to eye with the U.S. on a lot of issues.

The other one was, how do you square the problem of changing a government that is autocratic, but may be friendly to the United States and cooperating with it on a number of key issues, how do you get that government to continue to work with you if they perceive that the United States is also trying to remove that government?

So these two gaping holes in this thesis have never really been filled. And we see, in essence, a zigzag back and forth, where we go from promoting the democracy to suddenly returning to what the president said we weren't going to do in the Middle East and elsewhere, which is to support existing governments even when their democratic credentials aren't exactly that solid.

RAY SUAREZ: Lorne Craner, at two-and-a-half years, your report card?

LORNE CRANER, International Republican Institute: Well, I think it's important to remember the inaugural speech that he gave was also the culmination of his first term, when he continued the bipartisan tradition that goes back to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan of promoting democracy overseas. And in that period, you've seen 80 nations, from Asia to Africa to Latin America, become more democratic. Certainly, in his watch you've seen changes in places like Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.

But I also think he began -- helped begin an important debate in the Middle East. If you entered on Google "Middle East and democracy" six or seven years ago, you would have gotten very few results. I think what his diplomacy and to a degree his AIDS programs have done is to enhance the climate for discussion, at least, of democracy in the Middle East.

RAY SUAREZ: Amr Hamzawy, do you see that same progress?

AMR HAMZAWY, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: I tend to disagree. Discussions about democracy and human rights did exist in the region long before the Bush administration came to office. And what the Bush administration has been doing, especially in the last years, in a way has resulted in pushing the rhetoric and debates on democracy back. So, in a way, it's quite to the contrary of what was just said.

Secondly, the picture in the region is not as negative as we tend to see it right now. I mean, we had, in a euphoric way, we spoke about the Arab spring in 2005 and 2006. By the end of 2006, especially after the elections of Hamas, everyone was giving up on Arab democratization.

But if we look at the region and different shape between different patterns of reforms that have been taking place, there are some encouraging steps. Look at Morocco, look at Jordan, to an extent, and a country like Yemen had transparent presidential elections last year. So we do have minor reforms, not so extensive, but minor reforms taking place.

The problem was that we kept focusing on three countries that are in terrible conditions, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. And here it's not really an issue of democratization or democratic reform. It's more about failing state institutions and lack of public order.

Continuing bipartisan policy

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we'll come back to the Middle East. But, Anne-Marie Slaughter, as you look over the whole world, how do you mark the American effort since the second inaugural?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER, Princeton University: I think it's mixed. I think what is positive, as Lorne Craner said, we are continuing, the Bush administration, is continuing a bipartisan policy really from Jimmy Carter through Reagan through Clinton through Bush.

But what I think the Bush administration has gotten right, particularly in the Middle East, has been an insistence that, even where governments are our friends, like the Saudi government or the Egyptian government, we don't give them a free pass on issues like oppressing political dissidents, not allowing minority parties, having political prisoners.

And the Bush administration has tried to both talk about issues of common interest, but also, at the same time, to make clear that we really do expect progress, if we're giving aid or if we have a close relationship on those issues.

So, from that point of view, I think the administration is going in the right direction. Where I think it's fallen really short is in emphasizing democracy, democracy, democracy -- which almost inevitably means elections -- instead of thinking about the entire complex of the popular government, accountable government, and rights regarding government.

If we go back to our own Declaration of Independence and our own Constitution, you can't find the word "democracy." It's nowhere in the Declaration of Independence; it's nowhere in the Constitution. Our founders were thinking about, how do you achieve a representative government that has the sufficient check on power through checks and balances and through the Bill of Rights to prevent the abuse of power? And that's actually a much better way to think about safeguarding liberty in countries in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Nick Gvosdev, build on that idea of no free pass. Do you agree, for instance, that the United States has really brought that democratizing impulse to countries that it's had good relationships and has necessary relations with, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: The question first is whether or not there were trends ongoing in those countries towards greater pluralism, towards greater reform that would have happened anyway with or without U.S. pressure.

I mean, one of the interesting things -- to build on Anne-Marie's example of our founding fathers -- is we did it on our own. We didn't have another country coming in, sending advisers or linking aid. We came to these decisions about how our own form of government would be run largely through our own devices.

And so, to some extent, what's been happening in some places, this is a natural process that we've seen really for last 50 to 100 years of greater moves towards representative government and rights and so on. So I'd be a little leery of sometimes pointing to every example of democratic change in the world and assuming that there must be American causality behind it.

Where we've had some difficulty is, if you look at the six countries that the president and others will identify as the key ones that need to be democratized, they're usually countries that are already opposed to the United States in some form, so Syria, Iran, North Korea, or they're countries that are largely peripheral to U.S. economic and political interests, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Belarus.

When we start looking at countries that are more important to the U.S., either in economic terms, beginning with China or Saudi Arabia, or we look at countries where there's a security relationship, and we see these two forces coming into play, which I think are very difficult to balance, our short-term interests versus our desire for long-term change, and it's that issue of how you're dealing with countries that are important to your interests but that are also autocratic that I think we still haven't quite gotten this mix together.

Balancing U.S. interests

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Amr Hamzawy, if you're a democracy campaigner in Egypt, where does that leave you? Because the Egyptian-American relationship is seen to be important in Washington, do you then just take a tremendous risk and hope the United States notices?

AMR HAMZAWY: Well, we do not need to put it in an either-or logic. It's not either you go and support Mubarak 100 percent or you decline your support to Mubarak, and then you end up risking the stability of the regime. Egypt, like Saudi Arabia, like most of Arab countries -- in fact, we leave aside Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, these are very stable countries with stable political elites, countries that have had very little in terms of political change over the last decade.

So governments will not be pushed aside or removed by the Bush administration or any American administration pressing them on human rights, on political freedom. So there are spaces between risking the stability of American-friendly ruling establishments and between submitting to the autocratic mode of governing societies and of managing politics.

So in Egypt, like in Saudi Arabia -- and there are differences. The U.S. has leverage in Egypt because of the economic and military aid package. In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. might lack the leverage, because Saudi Arabia is as important to the U.S. as the U.S. is important to Saudi Arabia, especially in the current regional environment against the background of what's happening in Iraq, but yet there are spaces of gradually promoting political opening, gradually promoting better protection of human rights, without risking the security relevant alliance with the Saudi or Egyptian ruling establishments.

RAY SUAREZ: Lorne Craner, how have you seen the United States striking that balance between its interests and its desire to spread democracy?

LORNE CRANER: Well, the important thing to remember is the prime job of the United States government is to safeguard U.S. interests. It's not to spread democracy overseas. At the same time, I found, when I was in the administration, you don't have to choose between the two; you can do both. And often being engaged with a country gives you the opportunity to press those issues.

I think one of the things we've been able to do in the Middle East, as elsewhere, is to help keep political space open, understanding that we're not going to create democracy in a country that people in a country are, but to give them assistance by talking to the government, by trying to persuade them not to put reformers into jail, if they have, to let them out. And then, in addition, to have U.S. groups work with them -- civil society, political parties, newspapers, et cetera -- to try and give them technical assistance, always understanding, again, we cannot export democracy. We can only help the people in a country who want to build democracy.

The next steps for democracy

RAY SUAREZ: Well, to use an example of a country you're familiar with, in Uzbekistan, the United States wanted access to bases during the period of the invasion of Iraq. Eventually, the regime was shooting down people in the street. There was some question how hard the United States would push back against a clearly authoritarian regime that was killing its own civilians.

LORNE CRANER: And that was a very good example of where the United States was able to do both. One of my proudest moments in the administration was reading a cable from our ambassador there a few weeks after 9/11, where he had been trying to persuade Karimov to let us have bases on the one hand and on the other hand talking about the need to release political prisoners.

And I think we did work for three years there, basically, to try and open up, keep open, political space. In the end, you had the events in Andijan, and the administration was forced to make a choice. And I think they made the right choice in withdrawing from Uzbekistan.

RAY SUAREZ: Anne-Marie Slaughter, is this -- we just heard Lorne Craner that the prime job of the U.S. government is to protect the interests of the country, not spread democracy. If you accept that premise, what could the U.S., what should the U.S. be doing in the world now, with the table set as it is, to pursue both?

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: I think there are two different ways to look at this. We all agree that you don't impose democracy. I actually don't like the term "promote democracy." I think "support democracy" or "stand for democracy" is the right thing.

But there are two ways to think about this. One is, does supporting democracy around the world advance our interests because it makes us a more secure place? And the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, have focused on the fact that a liberal democracies are far less likely to go to war with one another, so that, long term, it will be a safer world for us if it's a world of liberal democracy.

At the same time, a transitional democracy, a weak democracy, a democratizing country, those countries are often very unstable and often more warlike. So, it's like the old Maine joke, you can't get there from here. Long term, it is in our interests, but short term -- and certainly trying to topple a regime to establish a democracy -- that's not going to help our security.

But there's another point: We don't stand for democracy just because we think it's going to advance our interests. We stand for democracy because that's who we are. And when we don't stand for democracy, when we are in an Uzbekistan or if we're in Egypt or in many countries around the world, if we say, you know, we want you to help us on terrorism or we want you to sell us oil, and we're just going to turn a blind eye to whether or not you allow your people to have a voice in government, then we look like complete hypocrites in the eyes of the world.

So standing for democracy -- and I think we all agree that you do both at the same time, you don't just say, "We're not going to deal with you if you're not a democracy" -- but on the other hand, standing for democracy in the sense of pointing out when a government is repressive or supporting opposition groups through various means, that's a question of simply being true to who we are as a nation. And when we fall short of that, we are seen as hypocrites, and that creates its own problems in the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Anne-Marie Slaughter, Nick Gvosdev, Lorne Craner, Amr Hamzawy, guests, thank you all.