Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Making sense of the US' drive to export democracy

Don't doubt the sincerity of the US' mission to democratize the world, which has a basis in enlightened

By Will Hutton  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON


It is a gulf of understanding wider than the Atlantic. Worldly, cynical Europeans just don't get US idealism over democracy, especially if it comes from the warmongers of the Bush administration. But Democrats have the same virus. Whatever the hypocrisies and inadequacies, the American political class talk democracy and freedom with an enthusiasm that cannot be denied.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at it again recently, announcing the biggest-ever shake-up of the US diplomatic corps.

Hundreds of US diplomats are to be shifted from their "comfortable" postings in Europe and relocated to "hardship" jobs in the Middle East and Asia, notably India and China, where they are going to undertake "transformational diplomacy" to promulgate the values of democracy. Every city of more than a million people should have a formal US diplomatic presence, she volunteered, missionaries for the democratic gospel.

Your first reaction is probably like mine. After Iraq, you would have thought that the US would have learned that exporting ideas like democracy is likely to backfire.

Democracy has to grow from within a national community rather than be imposed from outside and unless buttressed by supporting institutions, culture and social factors, not least a middle class, is likely to fail.

The idea that proselytizing US diplomats are somehow going to change these basic rules is the arrogance of the neoconservatives taken to self-parody.

And yet. Suppose you took the unsurprising view that China and India are going to become economic superpowers during the next 50 years and that the growing dependence of the industrialized West on Middle Eastern oil is set to grow.

Suppose you also believed that there is strong evidence that democratic regimes perform better economically, socially and as international partners than authoritarian ones.

Invasion or quasi-imperial direction of the Middle East or Asia is impossible; any lingering ambitions have been dispelled by Iraq. How, then, to ensure that the international framework remains peaceful and the oil continues to flow? The only viable option is to do all you can to promote democracy.

Nor is it such a stupid idea, for all its idealism and apparent disconnect from reality. There is a burgeoning interest not just from the right in the US, but from the left, in how democracy sustains economic and social development that goes well beyond the homilies of US President George W. Bush.

Take, for example, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, written by the Open Society Institute's Morton Halperin together with Joseph Siegle and Michael Weinstein. Its commitment to democracy puts Bush in the shade, yet the Open Society Institute's backer is George Soros, who is probably George W. Bush's richest and best-known enemy.

Democratic states, and states moving towards democracy, tend to have more interests involved in government decision-making, to be more open and to have more accountability. Their institutions may be rudimentary but over a period of decades, they tend to manage their resources more effectively and better accommodate themselves to necessary economic and social changes.

Halperin and his co-writers test the thesis every which way. They find, for example, that among poor countries, since 1960, poor democracies have grown 50 per cent more rapidly on average. Thus the Baltic countries, Botswana, Costa Rica, Ghana and Senegal have done very much better than, say, Angola, Syria, Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe.

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