Democracy doesn’t flow from the barrel of a gun

Chris Patten
Foreign Policy magazine
September 2003
(abridged version: International Herald Tribune, 16 September 2003)

Democracy is a universal aspiration that defies economic conditions or phony cultural distinctions. But while the West can encourage political reform in the Middle East, it cannot impose change. If Western governments truly want the Arab world transformed, they must stop supporting Arab dictators and start respecting the will of the people.

How does democracy happen?

Since the 1980s, a number of democracies have flowered in East Asia, Eastern Europe, and South Americaand enough have floundered to spark a vigorous debate about what it takes to create a lasting liberal order. With the United States now attempting to foster democracy in Iraq through military conquest and occupation, and Washington hinting that Baghdad is merely the first step on the road to democratizing the entire Middle East, the question of how best to build a free society has become one of urgent practical importance.

For five years in the 1990s, I served as the last British governor of Hong Kong, overseeing its transfer to China while implementing a Sino-British agreement on how the territory should be run before and after the change of sovereignty. This responsibility placed me near the heart of the debate about democracy in Asia, and I developed strong views on the subjectviews that I believe are relevant to the issue of political reform in the Middle East. Democracy indeed has universal validity and should not be withheld either on grounds of cultural specificity or economic weakness. However, it must grow organically from within a society. Outside pressure can and should be applied, but democracy cannot be imposed by force.

By any measure, Hong Kong a decade ago was a community ready for representative government. In fact, citizens of the colony should have been granted their full rights years earlier. But only belatedly, and partly in response to the Tiananmen suppression of 1989, were they offered an attenuated version of democracy and guarantees about the protection of their civil liberties. I thought it neither honorable nor politically expedient to reinterpret what those promises meant. A fair election was a fair election; freedom of speech was freedom of speech. When I arrived in Hong Kong, I took steps to hasten its democratization and more deeply entrench the rule of law and civil liberties. These changes were too much for the Chinese government, which swept most of them away in 1997 after the handover.

The rumpus over Hong Kongs future came at a time when the notion of Asian values was much in vogue. Were there cultural reasons for several Asian countries turning their backs on democracy? Had the denial of free speech and the harassment of opposition politicians made possible the vaunted Asian economic miracle?

Several autocratic Asian governments claimed as much. This viewpoint was most forcefully expressed by officials in Singapore, notably former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who took every opportunity to deride my belief in the relationship between economic and political freedom. On one occasion, I found myself chairing a public lecture he gave in Hong Kong that turned into a root-and-branch denunciation of my position. Courtesy obliged me to listen in grim silence to a patronizing critique of the democratic aspirations of Hong Kongs citizens.

Like many othersprominent among them Paul Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and now deputy defense secretary in the Bush administration I argued that a Confucian society was not inherently hostile to democracy. Remember Sun Yat-Sen, the father of modern China; look today at Taiwan. Nor did I believe that a correlation existed between economic growth and the number of newspaper editors or trade unionists who were imprisoned. What is true of the Far East is equally true of the Near East. Freedom is a human aspiration, democracy is not inimical to development, and the case for the open society applies just as much to the Islamic world as to the Christian and the Confucian.

Seeding Democracy

One can only claim that there is a cultural misfit between the Islamic world and democracy if one ignores Turkey and assumes that Islam is coterminous with the countries of the Arab League. But three quarters of the worlds Muslim population lives beyond North Africa, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulfmany of them in democracies of various shapes and forms, including Indonesia, India, and Malaysia. Moreover, within the Arab League there are hints, and more than hints, of democracy in several countries: Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and Jordan, for example. Going beyond the Arab world, what is happening in Iran surely represents the stirring of a genuine democratic debate.

Of course, democracy cannot be established overnight. A rush to elections before the establishment of what Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria has called constitutional liberty may serve as a cloak for autocracy rather than a defense against it. But I do not accept the thesis of Zakarias new book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, which states that democracy should on that account be withheld until prosperity has been achieved. Votes may not be a sufficient condition for building vibrant, pluralist societies. But they are a necessary one.

Indeed, free-market economies require transparency and the rule of law if they are to survive and thrive, and these conditions are more likely to exist where there is a lively public debate and representative government. The case was made the hard way by the Asian financial crisis of 199798. Crony capitalism was not, after all, the wave of the future.

When it comes to managing economies, dictatorships generally prove disastrous, and nowhere is their failure more evident than in the Middle East. Last year, the United Nations Development Programme issued a much-discussed report on human development in the Arab world. Written by Arab scholars, journalists, and policymakers, the study catalogued a dismal record of failure: from poor health systems to scant or non-existent social safety nets, from pitifully low levels of Internet penetration (0.6 percent) to correspondingly high levels of illiteracy. Some 65 million Arabs are illiterate, two thirds of them women. Significantly, the report put the lack of effective participatory government at the root of these problems.

Apart from being a dubious proposition, the claim that autocracies are better at creating prosperity and that democracy will somehow take care of itself is an argument for doing nothingfor ignoring human rights abuses and denying the universality of liberal values. The West should not be shy about championing what it believes works and is likely to promote a safer and more prosperous world. Unless we encourage a process of political and economic change, change will come instead in undesirable forms and at an unsustainable pace.

Democracy seldom arrives without external pressure, but Western countries should heed Robespierres warning about armed missionariesbringing democracy to Islamic countries on the tips of precision- guided missiles. If we in the West think that democracy as a political form holds global appeal, we should not force-feed it to subservient states as a Western geostrategic option.

Many in Europe opposed the war in Iraq not because they acquiesced in the crimes of a nasty dictatorship, but because they were concerned that precipitate action might weaken the international rule of law and because they feared the long-term implications of a Western-Christian military intervention.

Wolfowitz argued that the democratic shock administered to East Asia by the fall of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 could be replicated in the Middle East by the overthrow of the incomparably more wicked despot, Saddam Hussein. Many in the United States and in my own country shared this optimism, believing democracy would flourish throughout the region once a beachhead was established in Iraq. I was less sanguine. As the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt observed, we cannot cure the disease by removing the symptoms, deluding ourselves that if the tyrant is put to death, freedom follows of itself.

Speak Wilsonian, Act Wilsonian

How, then, should the West promote democracy in the Middle East? How much pressure should it apply, and what form should that pressure take? In my view, free trade, generous aid, a willingness to link that aid to good behavior, and a little consistency will go a long way toward encouraging a more liberal order in the Arab world.

The United States is talking today about free trade with and within the Middle East. Europe has pushed that agenda for several years through the Barcelona Process or Euro-Med partnership. The objective is to create a free trade area around the Mediterranean by 2010. Giving the nations of the Middle East more access to European markets will allow them to create jobs at home and encourage better governance, too.

The West must also do a better job of bankrolling its ambitions for the region. Much more economic assistance is required if the Middle East is to be transformed. The money should especially help those who are prepared to pursue a constructive human rights and political reform agenda. But theres the rub. When it comes to donors taking a consistent line on human rights, the short-term dictates of realpolitik almost invariably trump strategic goals. Talking tough on human rights is easier than acting tough.
That is why I have suggested that Europe put aside a proportion of its aid for the Mediterranean region each year to reward those who are making a genuine effort to improve governance and human rights. I hope this idea will gain support. It is at the cutting edge between aspiration and operation.

If the Arab world is to see this democratic agenda as credible, Western nations must also be more consistent, or they will lay themselves open to the charge of double standards. That is why working evenhandedly to resolve the Middle East conflict matters so much. The West shares Israels horror and outrage at suicide bombings. But when Israel responds disproportionately, through extra-judicial assassinations, for example, sympathy for the victim should not persuade us to condone acts that are wrong. The rule of law is the rule of law.

Given the support the West has extended to oppressive Arab regimes, it is understandable that all this talk of democratization arouses suspicion on the so-called Arab Street. For too long, Western countries have followed the path of expediency in the Middle East, propping up pro-Western strongmen for fear that what might replace them would be substantially worse. The example of Algeriawhere Muslim fundamentalists would have won control of parliament in 1992 but for the armys decision to cancel the electionis routinely cited as a cautionary tale.

But is it fair to assume that Algerias experience presages electoral success for extremists throughout the region wherever the ballot box is used? Is the suppression of dissent and civil society justified on grounds of stability? Is it wise to back unelected and unfairly elected authoritarian leaders who are prepared to go along with the West, in order to shut out fanatical tyrants who hate us? If we truly believe that democracy is a universal aspiration, we need to treat it like one.

No doubt, many people were surprised when Wolfowitz scolded Turkeys leaders for not being more supportive of the war in Iraq and admonished the Turkish army in particular for failing to intervene more vigorously in the political process. Would a U.S. official visiting Paris dare urge the French military establishment to ignore or override the expressed will of the National Assembly? I can imagine the reaction if a senior European official encouraged the U.S. armed forces to lean harder on Congress!
Turkey is a bold demonstration of how democratic development can be combined with moderate Islam.

As such, the country ought to serve as a beacon to the rest of the Muslim world. Ankaras refusal to let the United States use Turkey as a staging ground for the assault on Iraq may have inconvenienced the Pentagon, but something larger was at stake than the Bush administrations war plans. The Turkish parliament had asserted its sovereignty; given all the Wilsonian rhetoric emanating from Washington, it was rather jarring to hear Wolfowitz chastise the Turkish military for respecting that sovereignty.

When the people of Turkey or India or Germany speak, what they say may not always please the United States. Thats what happens when citizens are allowed to think for themselves and vote accordingly. Democracy is seldom predictable, but it is almost always desirable.

Chris Patten is the European Unions commissioner for external relations. From 1992 to 1997, he served as the last British governor of Hong Kong.