Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun
On foreign policy, I’m something of a realist/intervention-skeptic, which is why I’m inclined to agree with Daniel Larison when he argues that democratization isn’t terribly compatible with stability:
Egypt and Jordan can remain at peace with Israel despite the profound unpopularity of this arrangement because the governments are unaccountable and authoritarian. Surely the elections in Gaza should tell us that democratization allows people with deep grievances to vent them by empowering the most extreme and radical elements. This has proved to be ruinous for people in Gaza and far from what Israel wants. Democratization and regional stability are incompatible. If you desire one, you cannot have the other.
Andrew Sullivan, democracy booster that he is, disagrees:
I don’t buy the argument that in the long run, autocracies are more stable than democracies, even in the Middle East.
Look at Iran. There are enormous risks to over-speedy democratization, especially in the Arab Middle East, but in the long run, democracies, by giving people the ability to vent and protest through nonviolent means are far stabler than the alternative. It’s how to get from there to here in a minefield full of ancient grievance and weapons of mass destruction that’s the hard part.
I think it’s important here to make a distinction between “democratization” – the process of developing democratic institutions – and “democracy” as a set of institutions and norms. Larison is absolutely correct to say that democratization is a tremendously destabilizing process; democratic transition is often accompanied by a wholesale abandonment of traditions and norms which maintained some semblance of stability. And obviously, when we sweep those away in the name of equality, and absent any tradition of respect for minority rights, we – as Larison explains – empower people “with deep grievances to vent them by empowering the most extreme and radical elements.” It’s not much of a surprise that the collapse of colonialism and subsequent rapid democratization coincided with a terrible epidemic of ethnic violence in the developing world.
I think Sullivan is right to say that in the long-run, democracies (and more importantly, democratic cultures) are far more stable than the alternative, because they do give people the space to protest and resist. That said, I think he’s being a bit overly optimistic: there’s no guarantee that the instability of democratization will calmly segue into something enduring. In every case of democratization, there is the very real chance that those initial “birth pangs” (to borrow a phrase from Secretary Rice) will lead to a long-term period of instability and near-chaos for everyone involved. Trying to build a democracy is, in a lot of ways, like looking down the barrel of a gun.