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Let us not lose faith in democracy
Let us not lose faith in democracy
President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” has run into the Middle Eastern sand. The president himself will be the last to recognise this. Speaking in the United Arab Emirates on January 13, he hailed a “great new era” of “the advance of freedom”.
Wednesday, January 23,2008 16:00
by Gideon Rachman Ft.com

President George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” has run into the Middle Eastern sand. The president himself will be the last to recognise this. Speaking in the United Arab Emirates on January 13, he hailed a “great new era” of “the advance of freedom”. “My friends,” he proclaimed to the assembled sheikhs, “a future of liberty stands before you.” Then Mr Bush flew on to Egypt and lavished praise on President Hosni Mubarak, who threw into jail the last man to run against him for the presidency.

As Mr Bush traipsed around the Arab world, Freedom House – which monitors political and civil liberties – issued its annual report. It lamented that “2007 was marked by a notable setback for global freedom”. The lobby group pointed to events in south Asia, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. The bad news keeps on coming. The violence and instability surrounding the Kenyan and Pakistani elections has underlined the difficulties of holding democratic votes in relatively poor countries with deep ethnic and tribal divisions.While Freedom House bemoans the setbacks to democracy in places such as Kenya, Pakistan and Egypt, there will be plenty of others who will shrug and say, in effect: “What did you expect?” The Bush administration has been naive. It is pointless – and often counter-productive – trying to push democracy in countries that are not ready for it. Stability and economic growth must come first.

The constituency for enlightened despotism is strong among businessmen, such as those now assembling in Davos for the World Economic Forum. They know that many of their best markets are countries that do not do well in the Freedom House rankings: China, Russia, the Gulf states, Singapore. Yet they can see these countries getting richer, often at spectacular rates.Businessmen in rapidly growing autocracies will often enthusiastically endorse the line that authoritarian rule has its virtues. Peace and prosperity are what is needed; a premature move to democracy would invite only anarchy. The fact that both Kenya and Pakistan have enjoyed strong growth in recent years – now threatened by election-related instability – will only embolden the advocates of enlightened despotism.

The argument that you need to achieve a certain level of prosperity before democracy has a decent chance of survival is neither new nor – as a matter of empirical observation – particularly controversial. As long ago as 1959 Seymour Martin Lipset, a celebrated sociologist, noted that “the more well-to-do a nation, the greater its chances to sustain democracy”. Modern political scientists have fleshed out this claim. Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi have calculated that democracies very rarely fail in countries with a per capita gross domestic product of more than $6,000. But democratic governments rarely survive long in countries with per capita GDP of less than $1,500. Both Kenya and Pakistan currently have per capita GDP that is less than $1,000 in nominal terms.Faced with facts like these – and the various setbacks for the “freedom agenda” – the very phrase “democracy promotion” is going out of fashion. One activist with ties to Freedom House muses that, perhaps, “good governance” is a better term to use.

The Chinese and Russians have been quick to do the tango on the grave of the “freedom agenda”. China’s People’s Daily argued after the Kenyan elections that “western-style democracy simply isn’t suited to African conditions, but rather carries with it the roots of disaster”. But anybody who finds themselves nodding in agreement should probably pause for reflection. While it seems to be true that there is a connection between the wealth of a country and its ability to sustain a democracy, that connection is not absolute. India’s nominal per capita GDP is still just below the $1,000 level – and yet the country has a long-established democracy, a lively press and a strong legal tradition. By contrast, the comforting assumption that, as a country gets richer it will inevitably become more democratic is not supported by the numbers. Russia’s per capita GDP is now more than $8,000 a head, but its democracy is sliding backwards.

History does suggest that most democracies emerge gradually, that liberal political systems are about a lot more than voting – and that democracy is most likely to survive in wealthy countries. But what are the practical implications of this? That it is acceptable to torture your opponents and shut down the media if your GDP per capita is below $1,500? One hopes not.As the democratic world examines the mess that has become of the “freedom agenda”, it is important that the backlash should not go too far. The Iraq debacle has discredited the export of democracy by force of arms. But even if it is accepted that durable democracies generally emerge as part of a historical process, internal to the countries themselves – that does not absolve outsiders from having to make decisions and, sometimes, to take sides.

Historical events usually throw up people who will push for political freedom at crucial moments. When such people emerge – whether they are Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, Burmese monks in Rangoon, Nelson Mandela in South Africa or Ayman Nour in Egypt – they deserve the strong support of the outside world.The problem with Mr Bush’s freedom agenda is not the idea of supporting democrats around the world. It is that the policy is now applied so selectively that it appears delusional and hypocritical.

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