Fareed Zakaria's book, which argues that liberalism is more important than democracy, is the missing voice of a sane internationalist US Republicanismby Anthony Dworkin / May 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: The Future of Freedom
Author: Fareed Zakaria
Price: WW Norton, $24.95
What is the US fighting for in Iraq-apart from its own security? Rationales for the conflict have come and gone, but the one constant refrain in President Bush’s comments on the subject has been that the war is for freedom. The campaign is even called Operation Iraqi Freedom. In his speech to the American Enterprise Institute in February on the future of Iraq, Bush used the words “free” or “freedom” 18 times.
Freedom here means the liberation of Iraq from an oppressive dictatorship-but what then? Will the US install some form of democracy in Iraq-and how successful will it be? Would that constitute freedom? The questions are significant not only for Iraq, but much more widely, because the notion of freedom is for Bush the organising principle that should guide the US in its engagement with the world. During one of his debates with Al Gore during the 2000 election, Bush summarised his foreign policy philosophy in one sentence: “We’ve got to be humble yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom.” (How ironic the word “humble” now sounds.) Since 11th September, Bush has framed the campaign against terrorism as a battle between the forces of evil and “people who love freedom.”
The problem is, Bush has never taken the trouble to spell out what “freedom” means to him in today’s world. In his mouth, the word evokes the comfortable certainties of the cold war-when the US led the free world against the Soviet evil empire. If freedom means freedom from oppression, why did Bush (and much of his current administration) oppose the humanitarian interventions of the Clinton era? If freedom means democracy, why has Bush turned a blind eye to the authoritarian manoeuvring of Pakistan’s General Musharraf? If freedom means the spread of world trade and global markets, why has Bush slapped tariffs on foreign steel? There is no positive and consistent vision to match the military muscle that is being brandished so aggressively in the world’s face.
However, a lucid and intelligent account of what freedom might mean as a guiding principle for US foreign policy has just appeared-not from an administration official, but from the journalist Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International. His book The Future of Freedom reads like the missing voice of a sane, internationalist Republicanism. Or perhaps, since Zakaria appears to be genuinely non-partisan, it would be more accurate to say that his book develops a moderate conservative vision of world affairs. Between the cynicism of foreign policy realists and the idealistic fervour of the neo-Wilsonians (on both the left and right), Zakaria advances a thoughtful, well-informed scepticism.
More specifically, Zakaria is sceptical about democracy. Promoting democracy was something of a sacred cause for the Clintonites, and the neoconservatives in the current administration see Iraq as the launch pad for a democratic revolution in the middle east. But Zakaria is not persuaded. He argues that freedom and democracy are not the same thing, and that in many cases, democratic elections lead to societies that are not, in fact, free. This is the phenomenon that he calls “illiberal democracy.” “Across the globe,” he writes, “democratically elected regimes… are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights.” From Venezuela to India, and from Russia to Ghana, Zakaria sees the same process at work: elections install governments that oppress the people (or at least some of them) and neglect the best interests of their countries.
Zakaria’s central point is that what we should care about is liberalism rather than electoral democracy. Societies are more likely to flourish if they establish liberal institutions like the rule of law, independent judiciaries, property ownership, political parties and so on, before they institute elections. Otherwise, as in central Asia, elections may simply lead to dictatorships-or they may produce the “thuggish rule” of a majoritarian populist like Hugo Ch?z. Or again, as in the former Yugoslavia, elections may entrench and exacerbate ethnic divisions.
Appropriately, in the light of current events, Zakaria focuses heavily on the middle east, which he describes as “the political basket case of the world.” Here there is neither liberalism nor democracy-instead the Arab world is trapped between autocratic states and illiberal societies. But elections would only make matters worse, because dictatorial regimes in Saudi Arabia or Egypt would be replaced by Islamic fundamentalists. Corrupt and heavy-handed as they are, rulers across the middle east are more tolerant and pluralistic than the societies they lead.
Zakaria sidesteps the “clash of civilisations” outlook, which he argues is based on an overly deterministic view of the influence of culture on social development. Instead, he points to a history of political failure, coupled with the false boon of oil wealth. Regimes that get rich through natural resources, Zakaria argues, tend never to develop, modernise or gain legitimacy; they don’t need to tax people, so there is no incentive for them to be responsive or representative. The best hope for the region, therefore, would be for it to develop in a more capitalist direction. “A genuinely entrepreneurial business class would be the single most important force for change in the middle east,” Zakaria writes; economic reform, then political reform, then elections is his recipe.
Like the Bush administration, Zakaria thinks that Iraq has the potential to be a beacon for liberalism in the middle east, since it was (until Saddam Hussein took over) one of the more educated and secular countries in the region. Naturally, he argues that immediate elections are not the way forward; he calls for a period of nation-building and political development that could last up to five years. He doesn’t consider, though, how this would come about. It is hard to imagine that a five-year US occupation would be acceptable to many Iraqis. But how could you ensure that an unelected Iraqi regime installed by the US would be genuinely liberal-minded? The dilemma points up a key implication of Zakaria’s argument: that democracy promotion by force is unlikely to provide a quick solution and produces its own complications.
In some ways, Zakaria’s outlook is reminiscent of George Kennan, the grand old man of American diplomacy who is famous for inventing the doctrine of containment. Kennan was naturally sceptical of the degree to which foreign policy could transform the world, and saw the promotion of liberal capitalism in a rather defensive light, as the best bulwark for the defence of the west. Kennan was also-more than is generally acknowledged-notably ambivalent about democracy at home. He fretted that the swings of public opinion didn’t provide a sound basis for long-term policy-making, and called for a council of wise men to provide direction to elected politicians. In his book, Zakaria voices similar concerns about democracy in America-he worries that populism is debasing the standards of public life.
Zakaria’s scepticism is a healthy antidote to the complacency about the spread of democracy that has been widespread since the end of the cold war. His point that it is liberal democracy that is important is well taken. However, the idea that the spread of capitalism and the spread of liberalism go hand in hand risks its own brand of complacency. In his discussion of the US, Zakaria admits that economic deregulation has eroded some of the structures of social order. But when looking around the world, he seems to underestimate the danger that deregulated capitalism may itself create the inequality and instability that pose a threat to the health of democratic societies.
Zakaria is also less persuasive when he argues that autocratic regimes tend to be better foundations for the growth of liberty than premature democracies. His model of an enlightened autocrat is Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, but it is difficult to generalise from such a historically unique case. More often, as with President Suharto of Indonesia, autocratic leaders can foster lopsided development that holds back their country’s progress and contains the seeds of future crisis. So-called “liberalising autocracies” generally seem to stall on the road to liberalism.
In any case, the crucial question is legitimacy-Zakaria calls it “the elixir of political power.” No country will flourish under a government that does not enjoy broad consent. And, as Zakaria also concedes, democracy is the only plausible way for that consent to be expressed. The argument is over what form of democracy will be successful in different societies-and how the societies can be encouraged to reach for it. In Iraq, the US is putting one technique to the test.