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Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights:

The recently published annual State Department report on human rights notes that "democracy does not guarantee what President Bush has called a commitment to 'the non-negotiable demands of human dignity.'" It cites Russia and Venezuela as nations with democratically elected governments that violate basic human rights. Obviously, the case of the Afghan who may be executed by that nation's elected government for converting to Christianity raises the same issue. So too does the victory of the terrorist group Hamas in the recent Palestinian election. In these and other cases, democracy might conflict with other liberal values, including human rights, equality for women and minority groups, and the rule of law.

The Bush administration has focused on promoting democracy in the Muslim world, but has not given anything approaching equal attention to the cause of promoting liberal values more generally - especially in instances where doing so means constraining the powers of nascent democratic governments such as that in Afghanistan. Yet, ultimately, liberalism is at least as important to both US interests and those of Muslims themselves as democracy is. An illiberal democratically elected government may be just as likely to oppress its people and support terrorism as a dictatorship or oligarchy. And, as numerous historical examples suggest, such governments are unlikely to allow free elections in the future, especially if there is a chance that they might lose. It would be a shame if the Bush Administration succeeded only in establishing a series of "one man, one vote, one time" experiments.

I will have more to say about these issues in later posts. For now, I will note only that successful US democracy-promotion efforts in the past have usually involved extensive attention to promoting liberalism BEFORE the establishment of democratic governments. For example, Germany was not allowed to have an elected government until 1949 (4 years after WWII), and Japan not until 1951. In both cases, US occupation authorities first made sure to institutionalize liberal values and human rights, and ensured that the powers of the new government were subject to major limitations. I would not suggest that the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan should follow these historical precedents in exact detail. But I do think that US policy in these countries and elsewhere should focus more on promoting liberal values more generally and less on democracy, narrowly defined.

UPDATE: As Eugene points out in his post below, the Afghan government has now dropped the charges against Abdul Rahman, the convert to Christianity who might have been executed for "apostasy." I don't think this affects my main point, as the government continues to claim the right to execute other converts from Islam in the future, and (as Eugene also notes), such executions apparently have broad support in Afghan society.

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[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), March 28, 2006 at 6:51pm] Trackbacks
Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights II:

A few points building on my earlier post on this subject:

1. Does my claim imply that we are worse off for having occupied Afghanistan and Iraq?

I think not. Despite very serious flaws (and major errors by the Bush Administration), the new Afghan and Iraqi governments are greatly superior to the predecessors - both from the standpoint of US interests and from that of their own people. Being better than the Taliban and Saddam Hussein is not a high standard to shoot for, but it is still an important achievement. However, failing to pay adequate attention to promoting liberal values as well as promoting democracy is likely to both reduce the extent of our success and imperil its longterm viability.

2. Is liberalism harder to promote than electoral democracy?

Many commenters, and some scholars, such as Fareed Zakaria, claim that it is. I am not so sure that this is universally true. Unlike electoral democracy (which usually takes years to provide any real benefits to the population), individual rights provide immediate and tangible benefits to a large number of people. The most dramatic recent examples are Afghani women who can now work outside the home, attend schools, and not wear burkhas. But there are many smaller, but still significant examples, such as the fact that 62% of Iraqis now have cell phones, which were forbidden under Saddam Hussein. Such benefits can be used to strengthen public support for individual freedom. Obviously, radical Islamists will resist efforts to promote individual rights, but they are not exactly big on democracy either. I am not suggesting that promoting individual rights will always be easier than promoting democracy. But there is no reason to believe that the reverse is true, or anything close to it.

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[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), March 28, 2006 at 9:46pm] Trackbacks
Promoting Democracy and Individual Rights III: The German Experience:

Many critics of efforts to promote democracy in the Muslim world claim that the successful occupation of Germany after WWII is not a relevant precedent because postwar Germans, unlike modern Arabs and Afghanis, supposedly had a strong cultural affinity for liberal democracy. As one of my commenters put it, Germany was "the land of Kant" and therefore (it is implied) highly receptive to liberalism and democracy. This claim is largely a myth.

The truth is that Hitler and Goebbels were much more reflective of German opinion in the immediate post-WWII years than Kant. According to a series of surveys conducted by the US occupation authorities in 1951-52, 41% of West Germans saw "more good than evil" in Nazi ideas, compared to only 36% who said the opposite. In a 1949 survey, 59% of West Germans said that National Socialism was a "good idea badly carried out," compared to only 30% who said that it was wrong. 63% in a 1952 poll said that German generals held on war crimes charges were innocent and only 9% said that they were guilty. Well into the 1950s, large numbers of Germans rejected liberal democracy and expressed sympathy for various forms of authoritarianism. By the time the 1951-52 surveys, were conducted, West Germany had been occupied by the Allies for 6 years, and had had its own democratic government since 1949. Thus, German support for authoritarianism and even for many aspects of Nazism was quite deeply rooted. For these and other survey data from postwar Germany, see Anna J. Merritt & Richard L. Merritt, Public Opinion in Semisovereign Germany (1980).

Indeed, Iraqi and Afghan opinion today is probably more pro-democracy than German opinion in the 1940s and early 50s. For example, a December survey shows 57% of Iraqis expressing support for a democratic form of goverment, compared to 14% who endorse an "Islamic state" and 26% who support "a single strong leader."

Nor was it the case that Allied occupation forces were highly popular in German eyes, another distinction that critics of today's democratization efforts try to make. To the contrary, many Germans hated the Western Allies for the understandable reason that Allied bombing had flattened virtually all of Germany's cities, killed some 300,000 civilians, and left 7.5 million homeless. Whether or not strategic bombing was morally justified, it certainly didn't endear the Allies to the average German. Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, the US has not done anything comparable in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Obviously, German opinion changed over time and today Germans are as supportive of liberalism and democracy as most other Westerners. But it was not German affinity for liberal democracy which led to its successful imposition. Rather, it was the success of liberal democratic institutions that gradually led Germans to support them - an important historical lesson that we would do well to learn.

This is not to say that there aren't any relevant differences between the democratization of Germany and today's efforts to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, in Iraq (and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan) we face a stronger insurgency than existed in Germany, and Iraq and Afghanistan have so far failed to produce democratic leaders as effective as Germany's Konrad Adenauer. However, it is a mistake to argue that German democratization succeeded because German political culture supported it, while today's democratization projects are doomed to failure for lack of such support.

UPDATE: Many (including some of my commenters) also argue that Germany was better prepared for democracy because of the experience of democracy under the Weimar Republic. Given that the Weimar Republic was a disastrous failure and was perceived as proof of the undesirability of democracy by the vast majority of Germans (including many moderates and leftists), it was probably at least as much of a liability as an asset to efforts to implant democracy and liberalism in Germany after WWII. For what it's worth, Iraq had similar brief and unsuccessful experiences with democracy in the 1920s and 1950s. No one contends that they "prove" that democratization will succeed there.

UPDATE #2: I am aware that this post fails to systematically distinguish democracy from the protection of individual rights. To do so would have made it even longer! But the plurality of Germans who in the 1950s continued to express sympathy for Nazism very likely were not too fond of either democracy OR individual rights. Thus, the evidence cited has implications for both democracy promotion and the promotion of liberal values.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Promoting Democracy and Individual Rights III: The German Experience:
  2. Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights II:
  3. Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights:
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