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The Delicate Birth of a Democracy

September 29, 1996|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — 'It is especially in the conduct of their foreign relations " Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1836, "that democracies appear to me decidedly inferior to other governments . . . . Foreign politics demand scarcely any of those qualities which are peculiar to a democracy; they require, on the contrary, the perfect use of almost all those in which it is deficient."

That's not how we think today. Americans are convinced that democracies make the best foreign-policy partners and U.S. foreign policy today is primarily concerned with increasing the number of democracies around the world.

Look for the common thread that connects our South Africa policy with our Russia policy with our China policy with our Bosnia policy. The commitment to "enlarging democracy" is the consistent centerpiece of what Washington is trying to do.

This consensus has been taking shape under presidents of both parties, going back to Jimmy Carter's decision to make human rights the key theme of his presidency. Ronald Reagan and GOP foreign-policy intellectuals started out scoffing at Carter's naive, goody-goody approach, but by the end of the Reagan administration, the United States had helped drive Ferdinand E. Marcos out of the Philippines. When European communism collapsed in 1989-1990, the Bush administration made the consolidation of democracy in the former communist states the keystone of its European policy, and the Clinton administration has followed suit.

At the most basic level, this makes sense. Americans believe in democracy and believe that a world of democracies will be more peaceful than a world of dictatorships. Few of America's real quarrels, now or ever, have been with democratic states.

The world, however, is a messy place. What happens, for example, when the quest for democracy conflicts with other U.S. interests? A desire to support democratic change in China runs up against our economic interests. Strategic interests in the Middle East have led Washington to keep quiet about the lack of democracy in, say, Saudi Arabia.

And how far should America go to support democracy? Should we send troops--as in Haiti and Bosnia? And what should we do when, as in Bosnia, a fairly democratic vote puts anti-democratic parties in power?

Since the Cold War, the debates in U.S. foreign policy have revolved around these questions, but the commitment to democracy as the basis of foreign policy has rarely been questioned.

That could be a mistake. Democracy is much harder to build than most Americans like to think. Beyond a handful of countries in Eastern Europe, not many new democracies have taken shape in the last four--or even 14--years.

Instead we find ourselves talking about "emerging" democracies. That is, we see beautiful democratic butterflies clawing their way out of authoritarian cocoons. It is a lovely and comforting metaphor, but countries take longer than butterflies to escape their cocoons.

Sometimes much longer.

Turkey, for example, has been an emerging democracy since Kemal Ataturk overthrew the last Ottoman sultan in 1923, but the Kurds don't think it has emerged very far. Mexico's democracy is still emerging 80 years after the Mexican Revolution began. In much of Latin America, in fact, democracy is in the eye of the beholder--with military and other dark forces running the country behind a facade of democratic institutions.

When butterflies escape their cocoons, it's a one-way trip. Butterflies don't turn back to caterpillars. With countries, it's different. Some are more like groundhogs than butterflies: They emerge for a few minutes, see their shadows and head back to the cave.

Take Africa. At independence, most of Africa started out with democratic regimes. Today, democracy is an endangered species; most African countries are ruled by corrupt, one-party regimes and/or military cliques.

Some people look at this dismal record and claim it proves that third-world countries are too primitive for democracy. Some even draw racist conclusions. That is more than a little unfair. Democracy isn't a mushroom that springs up overnight; it's a tree that must be watered and tended during decades, even centuries, before it can reach its full height.

Look at France. The democratic Revolution of 1789 was followed by the dictatorial Reign of Terror and the democracy that followed the Terror was suppressed by Napoleon. In the 200 years since its Revolution, France has had five republics, four kings and two emperors. Most people now think that France has a stable democracy--but when students and workers riot in Paris, rich Frenchmen, still nervous, ship billions of francs over the Swiss border.

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