Troubled Transformations: Fostering Democracy and Development in a Quickly Changing World

“Should the United States promote democracy around the world?” Stanford alumna Kathleen Brown, a former FSI advisory board member, former Treasurer of the State of California, and current head of public finance (Western region) Goldman Sachs

How are democracy, development, and the rule of law in transitioning societies related? How can they be promoted in the world’s most troubled regions? These were among the provocative issues addressed by faculty from the Freeman Spogli Institute’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, as part of Stanford Day in Los Angeles on January 21, 2006. Panelists included Michael A. McFaul, CDDRL director, associate professor of political science, and senior fellow, the Hoover Institution; Kathryn Stoner, associate director for research and senior research associate at CDDRL; and Larry Diamond, coordinator of CDDRL’s Democracy Program, a Hoover Institution senior fellow, and founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

The capstone of a day devoted to “Addressing Global Issues and Sharing Ideas,” the CDDRL panel was attended by more than 850 alumni, Stanford trustees, and supporters as part of the nationwide “Stanford Matters” series. Moderated by Stanford alumna Kathleen Brown, a former FSI Advisory Board member, former treasurer of the State of California, and current head of public finance (western region) Goldman Sachs, the panel looked at some of the toughest trouble spots in the world, including Iraq, Russia, and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

“Should the United States promote democracy around the world?” Brown began by asking Center Director Michael McFaul. “The President of the United States has said that the United States should put the promotion of liberty and freedom around the world as a fundamental policy proposition,” McFaul responded, noting “it is the central policy question in Washington, D.C., today.” It is not a debate between Democrats and Republicans, he continued, but rather between traditional realists, who look at the balance of power, and Wilsonian liberals, who argue that a country’s conduct of global affairs is profoundly affected by whether or not it is a democracy. The American people, McFaul noted, are divided on the issue. In opinion polls, 55 percent of Republicans say we should promote democracy, while 33 percent say no. Among Democrats, only 13 percent answer unequivocally that the United States should promote democracy.

“The President of the United States has said that the United States should put the promotion of liberty and freedom around the world as a fundamental policy proposition, and it is the central policy question in Washington, D.C., today.” CDDRL Director Michael McFaulAsserting that the United States should promote democracy, McFaul offered three major arguments. First is the moral issue—democracies are demonstrably better at constraining the power of the state and providing better lives for their people. Democracies do not commit genocide, nor do they starve their people. Moreover, most people want democracy, opinion polls show. Second are the economic considerations—we benefit from open societies and an open, liberal world trade system, which allows the free flow of goods and capital. Third is the security dimension. Every country that has attacked the United States has been an autocracy; conversely, no democracy has ever attacked us. The transformation of autocracies, including Japan, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, has made us safer.

It is plausible to believe that the benefits of transformation in the Middle East will make us more secure, McFaul argued. “It would decrease the threats these states pose for each other, their need for weapons, and the need for U.S. intervention in the region,” he stated. Democratic transformation would also address a root cause of terrorism, as the vast majority of terrorists come from autocratic societies. There are, however, short-term problems, McFaul pointed out. Free elections could lead to radical regimes less friendly to the United States, as they have in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and now in Palestine. U.S. efforts to promote democracy, he noted, can actually produce resistance.

Having advanced a positive case, McFaul asked FSI colleague Stoner-Weiss, “So, how do we promote democracy?” Stoner-Weiss, also an expert on Russia, said it is instructive to see how Russia has fallen off the path to democracy. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it seemed to be an exciting time, rife with opportunity. “Here was an enemy, a major nuclear superpower, turning to democracy,” she stated. Despite initial U.S. enthusiasm, the outcome has not been a consolidated democracy. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, is becoming a more authoritarian state, a cause for concern because it is a nuclear state and a broken state—with rising rates of HIV and unable to secure its borders or control the flow of illegal drugs.

“So can we promote democracy?” Stoner-Weiss asked. The answer is a qualified yes, from Serbia to Georgia, and the Ukraine to Kyrgyzstan. But Russia has 89 divisions, 130 ethnicities, 11 time zones, and is the largest landmass in the world, she noted. Moving from a totalitarian state to a democracy and an open economy is enormously complicated. As Boris Yeltsin said in retiring as president on December 31, 1999, “What we thought would be easy turned out to be very difficult.”

Where is Russia today? It ranks below Cuba on the human development index; it is moving backward on corruption; and its economic development is poor, with 30 percent of the public living on subsistence income. Under Putin’s regime, private media have come under pressure, television is totally stated controlled, elections for regional leaders have been canceled, troops have remained in Chechnya, and Putin has supported controversial new legislation to curb civil liberties and NGO’s operating in Russia.

“How did Russia come to this?” she asked. In retrospect, the power of the president has been too strong. Initial “irrational exuberance” in the United States and Europe about what we could do has given way to apathy. Under Yeltsin, rule was oligarchical and democracy disorganized. Putin came to office promising a “dictatorship of law” to rid the country of corruption. Yet Russia under Putin, who rose through the KGB and never held elective office, has become far less democratic. He has severely curtailed civil liberties. The economy, dependent on oil and natural gas, is not on a path of sustainable growth.

“What can the United States do?” Stoner-Weiss asked. We have emphasized security over democracy, she pointed out, and invested in personal relations with Russia’s leaders, as opposed to investing in political process and institutions. We do have important opportunities, she noted. Russia chairs the G-8 group of major industrial nations this year, providing major opportunities for consultation, and wants to join the World Trade Organization. The United States should advance an institutional framework to help put Russia back on a path to democracy, a rule of law, and more sustainable growth, she argued.

Diamond, an expert on democratic development and regime change, examined U.S. involvement in the Middle East, noting that it is difficult to be optimistic at present. “Democracy is absolutely vital in the battle against terrorism,” he stated. The United States has to drain the swamp of rotten governments, lack of opportunity for participation and the pervasive indignity of human life. “The dilemma we face,” he pointed out, “is getting from here to there in the intractable Middle East.” There is not a single democracy in the Arab Middle East. This is not because of Islam, but rather the authoritarian nature of regimes in the region and the problem of oil.

“Can we promote democracy under these conditions?” Diamond asked. We need to get smart about it, he urged, noting that success depends on the particular context of each country. “If we want to promote democracy, the first rule is to know the country, its language, culture, history, and divisions,” he stated. We need to know, he continued, “who stands to benefit from a democratic transformation and, conversely, who stands to lose?” Rulers of these countries need to allow the space for freedom, for civic and intellectual pluralism, for open societies and meaningful participation. The danger is that there could be one person, one vote, one time. A second rule is that “academic knowledge and political practice must not be compartmentalized.” “To succeed,” Diamond stated, “we need to marry academic theories with concrete knowledge of these countries’ traditions, cultures, practices, and proclivities.”

In the lively question-and-answer session, panelists were asked, “Under what conditions is it appropriate to use force to promote democracy?” McFaul answered that we cannot invade in the name of democracy—we rebuilt Japan in that name but we did not invade that nation. We invaded Iraq in the name of national security. We know how to invade militarily, but still must learn how to build democracy. Effectiveness in the promotion of democracy, Diamond pointed out, requires the exercise of “soft” power—engagement with other societies, linkages with their schools and associations, and offering aid to democratic organizations around the world. Stoner-Weiss concurred, noting that we have used soft power effectively in some parts of the former Soviet Union, notably the Ukraine. People-to-people exchanges definitely help, she added.

To combat Osama bin Laden and the threat of future attacks in the United States, Diamond stated, we must halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran are two of the most important issues on the global agenda. And we have got to improve governance in the Middle East in order to reduce the chances that the states of the region will breed and harbor stateless terrorists. A democratic Iran is in our interest, McFaul emphasized. Saudi Arabia must change as well—the only issue is whether change occurs with evolution or revolution. Democracy, economic development, and the rule of law, McFaul concluded, are inextricably intertwined.

Asked by alumnus and former Stanford trustee Brad Freeman what needs to happen to re-democratize Russia, McFaul pointed out that inequality has been a major issue in Russia—a small portion of the population controls its wealth and resources and, therefore, the political agenda and the use of law. Russia has been ruled by men and needs the rule of institutions, said Stoner-Weiss. We should insist that Putin allow free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and freedom of political expression, and re-focus efforts on developing the institutions of civil society, she stated.

Reform is a generational issue, McFaul emphasized. We need to educate and motivate the young so they can change their country from within. The Stanford Summer Fellows Program, which brought emerging leaders from 28 transitioning countries to Stanford in the program’s inaugural year of 2005, provides an important venue for upcoming generations to meet experienced U.S. leaders and others fighting to build democracies in their own countries. Such exchanges help secure recognition that building support for democracy, sustainable development, and the rule of law is a transnational issue.