The Bush administration and the fourth wave

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times and Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber make useful points about the precise relationship between U.S. foreign policy, international organizations, and the nascent fourth wave of democratization. This leads to an intriguing policy proposal, but let’s put that aside until the end of the post. Filkins asks whether the ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast.

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times and Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber make useful points about the precise relationship between U.S. foreign policy, international organizations, and the nascent fourth wave of democratization. This leads to an intriguing policy proposal, but let's put that aside until the end of the post. Filkins asks whether the elections in Iraq triggered the demonstration of people power in Lebanon and concludes in the negative. He observes that Lebanon's political culture was far more democratic for a far longer time than Iraq's. However, this does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is irrelevant:

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times and Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber make useful points about the precise relationship between U.S. foreign policy, international organizations, and the nascent fourth wave of democratization. This leads to an intriguing policy proposal, but let’s put that aside until the end of the post. Filkins asks whether the elections in Iraq triggered the demonstration of people power in Lebanon and concludes in the negative. He observes that Lebanon’s political culture was far more democratic for a far longer time than Iraq’s. However, this does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is irrelevant:

In an echo of the ambivalence many Iraqis feel about the American presence in their country, many Lebanese are skeptical of American intentions. Not least among their reasons is what they regard as the acquiescence of the United States to the continuation of Syria’s military presence here in 1990, in exchange for Syria’s joining the coalition that was then being built to oust Mr. Hussein from Kuwait. “The Syrians had a mandate from the United States” to keep their troops in Lebanon, said a former Lebanese minister who spoke on the condition of anonymity. For many Lebanese, what made significant change possible in Lebanon was not the elections in Iraq, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which prompted the Bush administration to re-examine its reluctance to challenge the Syrian regime, as well as other Arab dictatorships that had backed terrorist groups. When the Lebanese began calling for a Syrian withdrawal, the Syrian government had to defy not just the Lebanese people, but the United States as well. For that reason, more than a few Lebanese believe, President Bush’s demands are proving decisive in driving the Syrians out. “This enthusiasm for democracy may not happen again,” said Khalil Karam, professor of international relations at University of St. Joseph here, speaking of American foreign policy. “Without it, we could not stop Syria.” Back at Mr. Hariri’s tomb, Mr. Salha, the factory worker, offered his own grudging invitation, if only to ensure that his homeland finally frees itself of Syrian domination. “We are not against Bush,” Mr. Salha said. “If he wants to make us safe and free, that’s great. Let him do it.”

Farrell links to a Financial Times story by Stefan Wagstyl that points out the regional (i.e., post-Soviet) nature of these revolutions. Farrell acknowledges that, “US policy has had some indirect effects – the US support for regime change in Georgia has probably had unanticipated consequences as Georgia became an example of change for other countries in the post-Soviet space.” Farrell, however, then goes on to observe the useful role that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has played in the post-Soviet space:

After the Iron Curtain crumbled, participating states in the OSCE agreed on a set of new, beefier normative commitments that were supposed to support democracy, and that allowed certain kinds of limited internal intervention within countries (a High Commissioner on National Minorities; election monitoring) in order to shore up democracy where it was weak. Some countries – especially in Central Asia – then slid back into various forms of presidential authoritarianism, in which periodic elections rubberstamped continued autocratic rule. Now, however, we’re seeing again how these countries’ previous commitments are having unexpected consequences – OSCE election monitors’ reports are providing a means through which opposition figures can undermine the regime. Since the governments under threat purport to be democracies, they may find themselves in a rather difficult position…. Furthermore, to the extent that the OSCE (rather than simple geographic diffusion) is responsible for this wave of democratization, it probably won’t spread to other parts of the world. It’s a product of the intersection between two sets of institutions and rather specific domestic conditions. The institutions are (a) the strong international commitments that these countries gave to the OSCE in the 1990’s, permitting election monitoring, and (b) the minimal trappings of democracy that these countries maintained. The domestic conditions are a government that is uncertain enough of its control of armed forces and internal security that it can’t be sure that they will obey orders to fire on protesters etc, and a domestic opposition that is capable of acting with some minimal degree of coherence to capitalize on reports of election fraud through protests and other actions. We aren’t likely to see these circumstances repeated elsewhere.

Farrell is correct that the OSCE’s geographical remit is bounded. However, I’m not sure his general point stands. The fact is that most countries in the world — including many in the Arab Middle East — try to maintain the minimal trappings of democracy, precisely because of its normative power. So that condition is met. The problem is finding an international organization that has legitimacy and respect within the Middle East that has both the willingness and the opportunity to engage in election monitoring and concomitant activities. Hey, wait a minute — how about the United Nations??!! As some of you may recall, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan does want to reform the U.N., and claimed in a report that, “The United Nations does more than any other single organization to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and practices around the world, but this fact is little known.” OK, as I said before, that line is pure horses**t, but that doesn’t mean it must always be so. The U.N. has some genuine street cred in the Arab parts of the world. Having the U.N. play the role of the OSCE in the Middle East is not as crazy as it first sounds. Arch-conservatives might be skeptical of the U.N.’s ability to do any good whatsoever, a concern that has some merit. But pushing for the U.N. to take a greater role in election monitoring is precisely the kind of proposal that would resonate with big-government conservatism and perhaps even neoconservatism. Just a thought.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner

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