Daniel W. Drezner

The fourth wave of democratization?

Events in Kyrgyzstan (click here for a useful BBC backgrounder), combined with previous events in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Georgia, are making me wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’re at the beginning of the fourth wave of democratization. In his book The Third Wave, Samuel Huntingtion observed that previous moments of democratic regime ...

Events in Kyrgyzstan (click here for a useful BBC backgrounder), combined with previous events in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Georgia, are making me wonder if maybe, just maybe, we’re at the beginning of the fourth wave of democratization. In his book The Third Wave, Samuel Huntingtion observed that previous moments of democratic regime change took place in clusters. The first (small) wave was in the early 1800’s, the second took place immediately after the Second World War, and the third wave started in Southern Europe in 1974 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. All waves of democratization are followed by counter-waves, which happened in the mid-to-late nineties, with authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes emerging in a lot of the post-Soviet states. However, the exogenous shock of 9/11, the Rose Revolution in Georgia, and the strong rhetoric of the Bush administration on this front has combined to trigger some serious political change across the Eurasian land mass. The Kyrgyz example is likely to send chills down the spine of two much larger countries — Russia and China. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin can’t be thrilled with the fact that he can’t have a tea break without some country in his near abroad overthrowing a ruler that was on decent terms with Putin. The fact that ousted Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev is reportedly fleeing to Russia will highlight this painful fact. As for China, Beijing’s first preference is not to have a democratic revolution take place in Central Asia so close to Xinjiang — China’s western-most province with plenty of restive Uighurs chafing at Beijing’s control. [UPDATE: In somewhat unrelated news, China is also feeling international pressure from it’s ham-handed efforts to presure Taiwan.] Let’s be clear — there’s a fair amount of fragility in this nascent fourth wave: Iraq could curdle, Kyrgyzstan could descend into chaos, Hamas could win Palestinian elections, and Lebanon could be split by sectarian strife. The Bush administration’s actions may not match their rhetoric. Writing in the International Herald-Tribune, Aaron David Miller points out the resiliency of Arab dictatorships:

By and large the Arab world has proved to be remarkably stable. Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian president’s father, governed with an iron hand longer than all of his predecessors combined; Egypt had only four presidents (all of them authoritarian) in its modern history; at his death King Hussein had governed Jordan for more than 45 years; and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait royal families control politics and power to this day. While the rest of the world has witnessed dramatic political change, the Arab world seems trapped in limbo. There are now more time-tested democracies in Africa, a continent raked by manmade and natural disasters, than in the Arab world…. It would be nice to hope that the Palestinian and Iraqi models will serve as launching pads for rising democracies; but for the foreseeable future, the odds are against it. Arabs may be excited and fascinated by political ferment in Iraq; but they are also alarmed by the absence of public order, the cacophony of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish voices, and the seemingly irrepressible and violent insurgency. Despite genuine desire among millions of Arabs for greater openness, there will be no rush toward democracy. Nor should we be surprised by the formidable capacity of these authoritarian regimes to quash meaningful reform. In this regard, getting Syria out of Lebanon may well take much longer than many anticipated. Paradoxically, the Arab-Israeli conflict, which most of these regimes generally want to see resolved, serves as a firebreak against the kind of political reform that many of these regimes don’t want. Clearly, when the Arab public is riled up by events in Palestine, it is less focused on events at home. If the Bush administration wants to pursue democratization in the Arab world effectively, it should work to defuse the Arab-Israeli conflict and deny the regimes the ability to use it to avoid political and economic reform.

Then again, as Michael Doran points out in Foreign Affairs online, this whole Palestine-as-pivot-root-causes theory of change in the Middle East just might be hokum:

So far the “lawless unilateralism” of the Bush administration, along with its failure to “deliver” Israeli concessions, has generated not the Arab nationalist backlash that the root-causes school predicted, but the end of the Libyan nuclear program, elections in Palestine and Iraq, a move toward elections in Egypt, and a nationalist uprising against Syrian occupation in Lebanon. These events would seem rather good evidence for the proposition that the Palestinian issue is only one of several important concerns in Middle East politics, not the pivot on which all regional events turn. The Arab world is in the throes of a prolonged historical crisis, as its societies, economies, and polities struggle to overcome their various internal problems and make a successful transition to modernity. The Palestine-is-central dogma offers little insight into that crisis. Recognizing this, the Bush administration has wisely decoupled the Palestine question from the other major issues that bedevil Arab-American relations. So far this strategy has worked well, bringing benefits to both the United States and many Arabs. By putting the Palestinian issue in its proper perspective, it could even end up helping Palestinians and Israelis as well.

Developing…. UPDATE: Also be sure to check out Stephen A. Cook’s essay in the March/April 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs on how to promote political reform in the Arab Middle East. The abstract:

If President Bush hopes to make good on his promise to bring democracy to the Arab world, he must rethink U.S. strategy, which overemphasizes civil society and economic development. Neither has caused much political liberalization in the Middle East, nor have more punitive measures. To promote Arab democracy, Washington needs a new approach: offering financial incentives for political reform.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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