Unrealistic Expectations

When powerful democracies intervene in a troubled society, what is it that they want: democracy or liberalism?


Promoting democracy has been an enduring aim of U.S. foreign policy for decades, and establishing democratic institutions is the default solution whenever the United States finds itself in a position to shape a country’s political system. President Barack Obama may be less enthusiastic about this mission than some of his predecessors, but even he has repeatedly endorsed the need for open, transparent, and accountable governments and has actively backed efforts to create democratic governments in Burma, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, and several other countries. As he told the U.N. General Assembly in 2010, "There is no right more fundamental than the ability to choose your leaders and determine your destiny."

But U.S. efforts to foster more open political systems have been repeatedly undermined by a failure to appreciate the difference between a democratic government and a liberal society.

As we now see in Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and most recently Ukraine, the formal institutions of democracy do not guarantee a free and open society, or even one that works especially well. Why? Because democratic procedures do not guarantee that human rights will be protected, that individual differences will be tolerated and respected, or that public institutions — to include the press and intelligentsia — will not be corrupted or compromised.

At its essence, democracy is the principle that the people should govern themselves, that all members of a society should have an equal voice in determining who shall rule and what policies they will follow. In its modern form, this means that all levels of government will be chosen in free and fair elections, based on "one person, one vote."

By contrast, a liberal society is one that privileges individual freedom, irrespective of who happens to be in power, and places strict limits on the government’s ability to infringe upon that freedom. Liberals believe that all people enjoy basic human rights — to life and freedom of speech and assembly, among many other types of free expression and movement — and that these rights are sacrosanct in almost all circumstances.

Most importantly, a liberal society emphasizes toleration: Individuals are free to be — provided that when they exercise their rights, they do not infringe on the rights of others. For liberals, most matters of personal choice are supposed to lie outside politics, and, for the most part, it is not the government’s job to tell people how to live.

All truly liberal societies are also democratic, but the reverse is not the case. In the absence of constitutional protections and deeply rooted liberal values, democratic institutions can allow the majority to impose its will on a minority or permit a demagogue to undermine basic freedoms with the voters’ approval. There is nothing about democracy per se that guarantees liberal rights, and "illiberal democracies" are quite common, in fact.

Take contemporary Iraq, for example. In certain respects, it is a successful democracy: There are regular (and mostly fair) elections, and political rivals have (mostly) respected the results thus far. But toleration and the defense of individual rights are sorely lacking, as the predominantly Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to marginalize Iraq’s Sunni minority (a decision that has helped rekindle the anti-government insurgency there).

This is also the case in Russia. Although the country holds regular elections that are at least partly responsive to public sentiment, it is hard to argue that Russia is a liberal society, given the various restrictions on personal freedom that Vladimir Putin’s regime has promoted. And the same is true for Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is undermining press freedom and judicial independence and becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent. In both cases, the threat is to liberal values, not democracy per se.

The February 2014 decision by Penguin India to cancel publication of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History and to destroy all existing copies of the book illustrates this distinction in another guise. The Indian edition of her book was dropped because critics found it offensive to Hindus, and India’s penal code threatens punishment for anyone who "with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of citizens in India, by words, either spoken or written insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class." There is no question that India is a democracy, but, needless to say, this reaction is inconsistent with basic liberal notions of freedom of speech and expression.

The distinction between democracy and liberalism should be kept firmly in mind whenever powerful liberal democracies think about intervening in troubled societies such as Syria or Ukraine. Once the fighting is over, it is much simpler and quicker for outsiders to set up democratic institutions than to instill liberal values. That is to say, it is comparatively easy to dispatch election monitors and other forms of democracy assistance to help a new political system get off the ground. But it is much harder to convince a population to prize individual rights over collective identities and local traditions — and to impart in these same citizens a sense of toleration for those who are different and for ideas that might seem dangerous or distasteful. But in the absence of these values, democracy alone will not prevent further abuses and may even facilitate them.

It took centuries for liberal ideas to develop and take root in Western Europe and North America — remember the American Civil War, anyone? — and it is the height of hubris to think that these values will quickly blossom into societies where other values predominate. That is one of the many reasons that ambitious schemes to transform whole regions into a carbon copy of America are doomed to fail; outsiders simply cannot engineer a rapid-fire transformation of social values on a short timetable.

Perhaps the United States should lead by example instead and let the success of its own liberal experiment serve as an inspiration to others. There’s much to be said for this view, but the strength of the U.S. example may be fading somewhat at present.

Liberalism privileges individual human freedom and regards excessive government power as the greatest threat to liberty. Yet since the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government has tortured suspected terrorists, intensified its surveillance of ordinary citizens, increased government secrecy, applied unprecedented pressure on journalists and whistleblowers, and even killed several U.S. citizens without due process because it believed these people were colluding in terrorist plots.

Similarly, though Americans are justifiably proud of the country’s tradition of free speech, those convictions sometimes wobble when dealing with views some find objectionable.

In February 2014, the Museum of Jewish Heritage withdrew an invitation to author John B. Judis to speak about his new book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, because it feared the event would be too "controversial" (after the cancellation got publicized, the invitation was reissued). At about the same time, a Jewish day school in New York City barred a scheduled appearance by Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi because, according to the school’s president, "Professor Khalidi, who is an international personality of great political stature, was not the right partner for ‘dialogue’ with high school students." Last year at Brown University, a scheduled lecture by Raymond Kelly, then New York’s police commissioner, had to be canceled when hecklers refused to let him speak.

These — and many other — incidents show that even here in the Land of the Free, people are often uncomfortable hearing views with which they might disagree. And that squeamishness sometimes extends to U.S. public institutions, including Congress. Check out a congressional hearing on the Middle East sometime, and you’ll often find a list of witnesses with more-or-less identical views, invited to reinforce what U.S. representatives already believe and to justify what they already intend to do. Open debate, it seems, is not always welcome on Capitol Hill.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful to live in a (mostly) liberal society that prizes individual freedom and guarantees my right to say what I think. I also think it makes for a healthier and more interesting society, and being exposed to competing views has led me to alter my own views on a number of big issues in the past.

But when grappling with the turbulent politics in places like Syria, Venezuela, Thailand, or Ukraine, the United States needs to be more humble about its own virtues and more realistic about its ability to transplant them elsewhere. The country’s own progress as a liberal society has taken two centuries, and Americans’ own commitment to liberal values is sometimes shaky. If the United States keeps those facts firmly in mind, it will be less likely to succumb to unrealistic expectations when it does choose to intervene — and it will be less likely to see democracy as the cure-all for the deep divisions that afflict many of today’s troubled societies.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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