In his book The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria argues that democracy cannot be imposed on countries that have no foundation of constitutional liberalism. Without such a foundation, he says, there are not sufficient self-imposed checks and balances to prevent the government from falling victim to a predisposition to nationalistic excess and corruption that political power inevitably brings with it. I’ve been watching the situation unfolding in Haiti and Venezuela, where once well-intentioned and widely-supported populist governments have fallen out of public favour and are in the process of being overthrown by Western-backed opposition groups.
It occurred to me I’ve seen this all before, and it’s like a bad replay of a vicious cycle that seems to play itself out again and again in most of the so-called third world ‘democracies’. I’ve illustrated it, in over-simplified terms, in the chart above. The boxes in red show the phases of the cycle where nationalists and populists are in power, and those in blue show where pro-Western elites are in power. It’s an endless cycle of hope, disillusionment, corruption, cynical foreign interference and despair.
In countries with sizeable resources, like Iraq, the West tends to intervene to short-circult the cycle and replace one pro-Western government, when it gets too corrupt or independent, with another. In countries that are resource poor, like Bolivia, the West tends to ignore the woes of the prevailing governments regardless of their political stripe, using economic restrictions to keep them in line, and allowing prolonged crises to remain unsolved, stalling the cycle where Argentina and North Korea are shown on the above chart. This space is the hardest and most important to move forward from, and it is the space that many African nations have occupied for most of the time since they became independent of their colonizers.
Occasionally, countries break out of the cycle. This usually happens of the country’s own accord, on its own schedule, and only once constitutional liberalism has taken root. Chile and South Africa, for example, after each going through a particularly bloody cycle, may have finally had enough. They look, at least for now, to have imposed enough checks and balances on government, and enough institutions of constitutional liberalism, to have escaped the cycle.
In his new book, Forging Democracy, Geoff Eley argues compellingly that democracy is a relatively recent, fragile, and hard-won accomplishment, one that still exists legitimately in very few countries. All it takes is a coup, an invasion by a non-democratic neighbour or a stolen election to take a country out of the virtuous cycle of democracy in the upper left of the chart, and hurl it back into the lower right where the cycle begins all over again. For most of the world, for most of human history, that much power has been just too much to handle.
The message, which Zakaria and many others have made, is that countries without a heritage of democracy and constitutional liberalism need our (non-military) investment, our support and our patience. They do not need oppressive and unrepayable debts or ‘free’ trade rules rigged in favour of heavily-subsidized Western multinationals. They do not need military intervention or political interference every time they slip, as we all did, on the hard road to democracy, and every time they elect or find themselves ruled by a government whose political and economic ideas are at odds with ours. Let them build their own nations, supported by Western humanitarian and educational aid with no strings attached, and democracy may eventually take hold. Fail to do so, and the cycle will continue forever.