Democracy Ascendant

At a time when the U.S. is occupying two countries thick with militarized fanatics abhorring democracy, Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy professor at Johns Hopkins, brings us a loving tribute to the concept. But his theories about the conditions needed for it to take root in a nondemocratic country are little comfort for Americans hoping to see successful resolution of the nation”s wars.

Put simply, democracy can”t be imposed by invasion and occupation, he says. It just won”t take. It has to evolve naturally, and it can only survive in a nurturing environment. The first requirement, which Mandelbaum gives the most attention to, is a capitalist economy. Property ownership helps provide the individual liberties that lead to democratic governments. Another requirement is a strong civil society, including all manner of nongovernmental associations like political parties, trade groups and sewing circles. That civil society is evidence of trust between people and of their willingness to compromise with one another.

Iraq has none of those things. Though there was something of a local market economy under Saddam Hussein, his dictatorship had infiltrated it quite thoroughly. Also, as a pariah state, it had an economy that was closed off. “To trust anyone except relatives and close friends in a society thick with secret police and their informers was to court imprisonment or death,” Mandelbaum writes. Without mutual trust between people, there”s no ability to compromise, and without compromise there”s no way to engage in the transactions that a market economy needs.

Mandelbaum is not hopeful about the future of democracy in the rest of the Middle East either. Of Egypt”s 2005 elections, where opposition candidates were allowed on the ballot for the first time, he observes, “They were not, however, permitted to win.”

Mandelbaum is also skeptical about the future of Russian democracy, believing that the effects from years of totalitarian socialism still linger in Russia”s culture, driving it more toward cronyism and authoritarianism than democracy.

He sees hope in China, where he makes the familiar argument that China”s booming economy and embrace of capitalism is helping to lay the groundwork for a more open and representative government. When a market economy can get per-capita income levels up to between $7,000 and $8,000 a year, pressures emerge that cause democratic reforms, he argues. People are comfortable enough to engage in politics, and for per-capita incomes to get that high, the proper social structures, trust between people and willingness to compromise must also be present. Check out China again in 2015.

What”s disappointing in Mandelbaum”s book is that he ignores America”s sins. Many American policies, especially during the Cold War but also in its current support of Pakistan”s dictatorship, have hindered the development of democracies around the world.

There”s a very funny footnote in the book. Mandelbaum quotes George F. Kennan lamenting the lack of democracies in the world in 1975. One of the countries that Kennan said had been “taken over by authoritarian forces” was Chile. Of course, the dictator Augusto Pinochet rose to power only with ample help from the U.S. because Richard Nixon wouldn”t stand by while the Chilean people elected the socialist Salvador Allende as their president.

The example of Chile and also the examples of Nicaragua and El Salvador undermine Mandelbaum”s claim that market capitalism is a requirement for any democratic country. In Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador, the elected governments were pursuing planned economies and democracy at the same time. But the U.S. refused to allow socialism in the Western Hemisphere, and so the U.S. intervened forcibly, preferring dictators and human rights abusers to elected socialists. Of course, no democracy has flourished without a market economy. For decades, the U.S. would tolerate nothing but market economies.

Mandelbaum”s theory about democracy”s natural evolution is both hopeful and a useful plea for patience to those who would try to impose democracy by force. What”s hard to figure is whether Mandelbaum”s book describes human nature or the world as wrought by the U.S.

Michael Maiello is a Staff Writer for Forbes.