Elephants in the Room
Condoleezza Rice’s Book on Democracy Could Not Have Come at a Better Time
Spreading democracy is still the best chance for global peace, she argues.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s book, Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom, published in May, focuses on the merits of democratic systems of government and the need for the United States to remain active in promoting democracy around the world. It could not have come at a better time.
It is the most readable book on U.S. and Western democracy promotion since Natan Sharansky published The Case for Democracy more than ten years ago. Rice makes the case that the United States must continue to leverage its national example, diplomatic power, and international foreign assistance budget to strengthen and spread democracy. I do not know Rice, although I served in the George W. Bush administration, but I strongly support her focus on democracy promotion. I have “voted with my feet” on this issue by sitting on the bipartisan board of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems — a democracy promotion organization funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other bilateral aid donors.
Rice’s book comes after more than a decade of limited success for the democracy project. The folks in the business call this limited progress the “democracy recession.” One can count on one hand the big wins for democracy in recent years. Myanmar is the country that comes to mind. At the same time, she reminds the reader that although democracy has been in “recession” for the last 15 years, we should recognize the great progress that has taken place over the last 50, 100, or 200 years. She includes a number of maps of the world to make that point. She also rightly references that, according to Freedom House, there are around 150 “free” and “partly free” countries out of about 200 countries in the world. This is a sign of major progress.
The book is thoroughly researched and includes country case studies that provide snapshots of various stages of democratic development. Rice covers Poland, Kenya, Colombia, Ukraine, Russia, and various countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Iraq, Tunisia, and Egypt. In each of the case study, Rice brings personal anecdotes from her time as national security adviser or secretary of state. The studies of Russia and Ukraine benefit from her decades of exposure to that part of the world. The fact that she speaks fluent Russian and was a Sovietologist (my Microsoft Word does not recognize this as an actual word, which says something) provides even greater insight.
Perhaps what makes the book most interesting is its constant return to the American experience. She includes a chapter about American democratic development, and reminds readers that women did not get the vote in the United States until 1920 and that African Americans were not fully given the right to vote until the 1960s. Her experiences as an African American woman in various parts of the world — including in Alabama — provide some important insights and perspective. Strikingly, she mentions that she has never missed an opportunity to vote because it would be an insult to her ancestors who did not have the chance to vote. Why does she use the American experience? One of the key messages of the book, and an observation that she tries to drive home, is that democracy takes a long time to build and that progress is not linear.
The book offers an implicit defense of the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” outlined in Bush’s second inaugural address in 2005. She discusses the halting progress in Afghanistan and Iraq, but notes that both countries have held multiple elections and have a variety of functioning, albeit weak, institutions. She remains optimistic that, in the long term, these countries will become democracies. Rice also takes on one of the usual critiques of the democracy agenda, which points to the successes of places such as Singapore and China. She spends significant time looking at China and ultimately concludes that China will also become more democratic over time.
What about the upheavals in 2016, such as Brexit and the surprise election of President Donald Trump? She gently disagrees with those who say these outcomes put the system at risk. She says that these events represent voters seeking to make change peacefully. She defends the rule-based international order set up after World War II, but also signals that many people have either not benefited from globalization or see many of the changes ushered in by globalization as threats to traditional ways of life or traditional values. Those who seek to promote globalization need to account for those threatened by it. She also makes the case that we need to be brought together and not be sliced and diced into “ever smaller groups,” each with their own interests. In summary, she suggests that the voters have given policymakers and politicians a series of strong messages, and that they should listen to the voters.
Rice makes the case that democracy promotion is unambiguously in America’s interest. Democracies are much less likely to go to war, much less likely to participate in terrorist attacks, and much less likely to tolerate human trafficking than nondemocratic countries. Many global problems are caused by authoritarian regimes (often weak and failed states, I would add). So democracy promotion is not only a values proposition, but also in our enlightened self interest over the long term.
In some ways, Rice’s book is welcome not only because of the democracy recession, but also because of the perceived reluctance of the Obama and Trump administrations to prioritize democracy promotion. Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush each supported different dimensions of the democracy promotion agenda. Giving credit where credit is due, Myanmar’s opening happened under the Obama administration’s watch, and the United States played a critical role in helping birth its young democracy.
Rice likely wrote this book in part to prepare current and future policymakers for the long slog ahead. The bad guys have gotten a lot better at countering the use of social media (for example, the Great Firewall of China). Russia and its partners are very aggressive about closing civil society’s space. In addition, a number of the unfree countries look like pretty hard dictatorships to crack from the outside. Rice and Sharansky would argue that we cannot know for sure if change is coming to these societies. Sharansky argues that dictatorships are actually quite brittle because of the way those societies are organized. Who, for example, would have said the Soviet Union was going to collapse less than ten years after 1982?
Finally, one of the last chapters in the book is titled, “They will look to America.“ Will we be ready? Many observers worry that the Trump administration has already deemphasized the democracy agenda. They point to Trump’s so-called skinny budget, which decreases funding for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and zeroes out the Democracy Fund. At the same time, the skinny budget does not reflect what Congress will appropriate and Congress has a large number of democracy promotion champions on both sides of the aisle. Critics also point to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s unusual absence from the release of the annual Human Rights Report by the State Department, a report that is traditionally presented by the secretary of state. All of the above makes democracy advocates around the world nervous.
On the other hand, Mark Green is the new administrator of USAID, which is a major funder of democracy promotion activities by the U.S. government. Green is a former member of Congress and the former head of the International Republican Institute, one of the four National Endowment for Democracy institutes. Also, the Trump administration has rightly raised concerns about democracy and human rights in Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela, among other countries. I recently asked a prominent democracy promotion advocate if he was worried about whether the United States would engage in democracy promotion under Trump. He told me, “I am not worried because of Article One of the U.S. Constitution and the naming of Mark Green as USAID administrator.”
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