by Michael Mandelbaum
2nd part of 2
While liberty is crucial for democracy, it is not easy to establish. Indeed, the difficulty of establishing it is the single most formidable obstacle to the creation of democracy. Establishing liberty is difficult, in the first place, because it takes time. It cannot be done quickly, as can the implementation of democracy's other component part, popular sovereignty, through elections.
Liberty involves institutions – a legal system to protect economic and political rights, most notably – which can only be built slowly. The relevant institutions, in turn, require people with the skills to operate them – lawyers for a legal system, for example – and accumulating a critical mass of skilled personnel is the work of at least a generation. Even when the necessary institutions and skills are present, liberty will not endure unless the values that underpin it – respect for the rule of law above all – are diffused throughout the society in which they are embedded. Plenty of dictatorships have had impeccably democratic constitutions, the provisions of which were, however, never carried out. Values do not spring up overnight like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
Liberty is difficult to establish, as well, because it cannot be imported, fully formed, from abroad. To be sure, American military occupation brought democracy to Germany and Japan after World War II, but both these countries had had previous experience with liberty and popular sovereignty, and in both countries the Cold War lent legitimacy to a continuing American military presence, which helped assure the perpetuation of democratic practices in each. The British similarly brought democracy to India, but governed it directly for almost a century, and even that did not assure democracy's survival when they withdrew in 1947. Independent India chose to conduct free elections and to protect liberty: Pakistan, the other country to emerge from Britain's empire on the Asian subcontinent, did not. Perhaps Iraq, with a prolonged American occupation, will follow the German, Japanese, and Indian pattern; but that is far from guaranteed, and neither the United States nor any other democracy will be willing or able to provide comparable tutelage to many, if any, other non-democracies.
Democracy, and especially liberty, therefore, are not like a pizza that can be ordered from elsewhere ready made. The process of creating a democracy is better compared to planting a tree. Outsiders can provide the seed and water and guard what has been planted; but the growth to maturity takes time and in any event, in order to flourish, a tree, like democracy, requires what outsiders simply cannot provide: fertile soil and a proper climate. The lesson for American policy here is that democracy-promotion programs, no matter how well-intentioned, well-designed and well-funded, can achieve at best limited results.
They have achieved no results at all in the Arab world, where the environment is plainly not propitious for democracy. But given the difficulty of establishing liberty anywhere, a general question arises: where does democracy, and especially liberty, come from? How has it been possible to create them in so many countries?
The answer is, in no small part, that they arise from the workings of a market economy. The free market has served as the template for democratic politics throughout the world. The institutions, practices, and habits that a market economy involves, when transferred to the political realm, provide the foundations of democracy.
A market economy includes, for example, private property, the original form that liberty took. A market economy generates the wealth that produces a middle class, the social backbone of a democratic political system. From a market economy emerges civil society – the organizations and groups that are independent of the government that serve as both a buffer and a link between individuals and the authorities. Participating in the free market, finally, fosters two habits that are indispensable for democratic politics. One is trust: buyers and sellers in a market economy must trust each other to carry out the terms of the bargains they make, and in a democracy citizens must trust the government not to violate their rights. The other habit is compromise: in any bargain both buyer and seller must agree on less than what each would like, and in democracy the differences that are inevitable in any political system are resolved by peaceful compromise rather than by violence.
The presence of a market economy alone, however, does not guarantee the flowering of a political democracy. Historically, and indeed today, many countries have had both free-market economies and dictatorial governments; but no twenty-first century democracy lacks a free-market economy of some kind, and in most of the places where democracy appeared in the last quarter of the twentieth century – in Southern Europe, Latin America, East Asia – a working market economy had preceded it by a least a generation.
Even autocratic governments that resist democracy permit and indeed actively support free-market economic institutions and practices within their borders because free markets are widely seen as indispensable for what virtually all twenty-first-century governments seek: prosperity. So the free-market economy acts as a kind of Trojan Horse for democracy, penetrating the defenses of authoritarian regimes and paving the way for liberty and popular sovereignty – except in the Arab world. Why have the Arab countries failed to follow this pattern?
The major reason is oil. The large reserves of oil in the Arab Middle East, and the vast revenues they confer on the undemocratic governments that preside over the countries in which they are located, obstruct the growth of democratic politics in three ways. First, oil-rich countries do not develop the democracy-fostering institutions, practices, and habits of a free-market economy because they do not need a full-fledged free market economy: they can become rich simply by extracting and selling their oil.
Second, the governments of oil-exporting countries use the revenues from its sale to offer those they govern a bargain: a high standard of living in exchange for political passivity. The rulers of the oil-rich countries of the Middle East in effect bribe the people they rule to forego political liberty and the right to decide who governs them. Third, the oil revenues that accrue to the holders of power in oil states act as a powerful incentive to maintain that power indefinitely rather than run the risk of losing it, and with it the wealth it brings, in free and fair elections. If Saudi Arabia were to become a constitutional monarchy like Great Britain, the Saudi ruling family might conceivably hope to receive an annual allowance, as does the House of Windsor, but even in that case the thousands of members of the al-Saud tribe could hardly expect a stipend that would permit them to continue to live in the lavish style to which they have become accustomed. This third feature, in particular, operates in countries outside the Middle East with similar resource endowments. Oil is a major reason that democracy has not flourished in Russia, Iran or Venezuela.
Not all Middle Eastern countries have substantial oil deposits, but those that do not have them have benefitted from the largesse of those that do, and the largest Arab country, Egypt, has found another source of support that is independent of a working market economy. For signing and observing a peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptian government has received, for three decades, a generous annual financial contribution from the United States.
The United States can do something to remove this obstacle to Arab democracy. Reducing the oil revenues that flow into the Middle East would weaken, if not topple, the major regional barriers to popular sovereignty and liberty. Reducing revenues would be the result of reducing the amount of oil consumed globally, and here the United States, as the world's largest consumer, has a vital role to play.
Reducing oil consumption has two components: conservation – using less of it, which requires vehicles with greater fuel efficiency; and substitution – using non-fossil fuels for transportation, which requires developing such fuels and producing them on a commercial scale. The most efficacious way to achieve both is to raise the price of gasoline. Western Europe and Japan have imposed high taxes on gasoline. The United States has not.
The rapid rise in the price of oil to more than $140 per barrel in 2008 did raise the price of gasoline, and consumption did begin to decline. But the price then dropped sharply, as occurred after the oil shocks of the 1970s. The lower it goes, and when the global recession ends, the more gasoline will be consumed and the less investment there will be in energy-saving technologies and alternative fuels. What is needed is a government-imposed floor below which the oil price will not be allowed to fall.
Reducing American consumption of oil by raising the price of gasoline is the most important contribution the United States can make to the cause of Arab democracy. Because oil revenues prop up regimes in Russia, Iran, and Venezuela that carry out anti-American policies, some of which – the Iranian nuclear program above all – are extremely dangerous, over the long term reducing the nation's consumption of oil is probably the most important initiative of any kind that the United States can undertake.
Enduring Obstacles to Democracy
Even if the United States and the rest of the world used less oil, however, other causes of democracy's absence from the Arab world would still remain. Three particular features of Arab society contribute to it.
One is the form of Islam that predominates in the region. That faith is not wholly incompatible with democracy. There is no simple, standard version of the religion and some predominantly Muslim countries, such as Turkey, Indonesia, and Mali, have had working, if imperfect, democratic governments. Moreover, virtually all religions have at some point in their histories made claims to authority that conflicted with democratic norms. Such claims are, however, unusually strong in the Arab version of Islam. From the beginning, faith and power, the divine law and worldly governance, were fused. The fusion of the two creates a bias against liberty. Placing the limits that protect freedom in democracies on a government that claims to be carrying out the divine will seems not only unnecessary but an act of impiety. The fusion of faith and power in Islam also calls into question popular sovereignty. The task of government for a devout believer is to apply God's law, on which human legislators, even those whom free elections empower for this purpose, cannot, and therefore should not, attempt to improve.
Another feature of Arab societies that makes them resistant to democracy is the ethnic, religious, and national heterogeneity that mark most of them. Where more than one such group inhabits a country in appreciable numbers democracy is often difficult to establish because in a stable democracy people must be willing to be part of the minority. They will accept minority status if they feel confident that the majority will respect their liberties. In multi-group countries such as those in the Arab Middle East such confidence is not always present. It was the absence of such confidence led to brutal warfare in the Balkans in the 1990s.
The third deeply rooted anti-democratic aspect of Arab societies is anti-Western sentiment. The historical memory of rivalry with and, over the course of four hundred years, defeat by the Christian West still resonates in the Arab Middle East in the twenty-first century, serving as a source of popular anger and resentment. Ruling dictatorships have tapped those sentiments to mobilize support for themselves as the stalwart defenders of the Arabs against what they describe as the cultural and political onslaught of the West and its local surrogate, Israel. This strengthens the dictators' hold on power. Moreover, resentment of the West helps to discredit everything of Western origin, including what has become its dominant political system, democracy.
These three anti-democratic features of the Arab Middle East cannot be quickly or easily eliminated, and American policy can have little effect in reducing their political salience. Their persistence has two final implications for American democracy-promotion efforts, and American policy more generally in the region.
One implication is that democracy-promotion will continue to encounter stiff resistance for the foreseeable future. Full-fledged systems of popular sovereignty and liberty are not coming soon to this particular theater of American political and military operations. It would therefore be foolish to base American policy in the region on the expectation that it is on the verge of following the political example of Latin America and Eastern Europe in the last quarter of the previous century.
The other implication is that, to the three obstacles to democracy that will endure even if and when the world consumes less oil and the states of the region are compelled to try to construct working market economies, American policy toward one particular country is especially germane: Iraq. That country is more stable now than it has been for several years, but its future, and the level of American commitment to it, which will surely affect that future, cannot be predicted.
If Iraq should evolve, over the course of years if not decades, into a genuine democracy, with regular, free and fair elections and the assurance of property rights, religious liberty, and political freedom, this would have a powerful, and positive, impact on democracy's prospects throughout the region. It would have such an effect because Arabs, like other people, are influenced by what happens in neighboring and culturally similar countries.
The establishment of an Iraqi democracy would set a powerful example as well because it would involve overcoming the enduring obstacles to Arab democracy. It would demonstrate that Arab Islam and democratic politics can coexist, and in a country not lacking in religious piety. Other Arabs would see uncoerced harmony between Sunni and Shia, and between Arabs and Kurds. And a democratic Iraq, with which Iraqis would presumably be content, would owe its existence in no small measure to the efforts of the United States, the leading twenty-first century member of the Arab world's traditional political rival – the West.
Whether, on what schedule, and at what price genuine democracy can be established in Iraq, and, if democracy is possible, whether the American public will be willing to pay the price in blood and treasure necessary to bring it about, cannot be known in advance. What is clear in 2009 is that, far more than any explicit attempts to promote democracy, and perhaps even more than the pattern of global oil consumption, the future of Iraq will determine the fate of democracy in the Arab world.
Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and author, most recently, of Democracy's Good Name: The Rise and Risks of the World's Most Popular Form of Government (PublicAffairs, 2007).
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