CSAD Afternoon Panel #1: The Failures of Democratization

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Today’s first afternoon panel of the Center for the Study of American Democracy’s bi-annual conference hinged on whether or not democracy promotion is in America’s interest. Panelists included Michael E. O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, J. Scott Carpenter, Principal of Google Ideas, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Charles Kesler, Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and Tony Smith, Professor of Political Science at Tufts University.

O’Hanlon began his speech with a clear affirmation of the fundamental necessity of the promotion of democracy, but warned that it must be done correctly. His assessment of the current international political structures was largely positive, noting that democracy has spread on all continents in recent decades. Turning to negatives, O’Hanlon criticized the United States’ hasty plan for democratization in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai was elected to a position of incredible centralized power for a democratic institution. The speaker then explained that the focus of democratization should not be just “liberal,” but “constitutional” democracy. Carpenter also raised similar concerns with the democratization of Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, arguing that institutions build democracies more effectively than individuals like Karzai or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

I agree with O’Hanlon and Carpenter’s assessments of the need for constitutionally based democracy, particularly in the case of post-conflict states. Although certainly well intentioned (and far better than Taliban rule), the autocratic nature of the current Afghan constitution is a recipe for disaster. By not placing enough checks on the President, the supposedly ‘democratic’ constitution is essentially a dictatorship.  As O’Hanlon said, “On balance, we have been naive. Tyranny of the majority hit Afghanistan…We really botched it.”  The U.S. should promote democracy by shifting its focus on structures of governance.

I disagreed with Smith, who reasoned that the greatest success in American promotion of democracy (post World War II Germany and Japan, post Cold War Eastern Europe) gave rise to its greatest failures. He correctly recognized the global economic benefit of democratization, saying that it was “a rising tide that lifted all ships,” but argued that this growth led to future troubles. According to Smith, the spread of democratization combined with subsequent global economic success led to an American dense of “self-righteousness,” which was awakened after the 9/11 attacks, culminating in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Although I will admit that much of the reasoning for the invasion was flawed, I do not believe that American arrogance or its democratic “euphoria,” as described by Smith, were responsible for subsequent foreign policy mistakes.

While the American system of government is not perfect, it is certainly one of the highest manifestations of the liberal democratic dream. We should not blame mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq on democratic institutions, but instead on those who filled its offices.  After all, isn’t that why we hold elections?

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