January 5, 2004


Democratic Providentialism (MICHAEL IGNATIEFF, 12/12/04, NY Times Magazine)

During this year's election campaign, President Bush liked to wind up his stump speech with a peroration about freedom -- and therefore democracy -- being not just America's gift to the world but God's gift to mankind. This line went down well, maybe because it carried the happy implication that when America and its soldiers promote democracy overseas, they are doing God's work, even in Iraq.

The name for this idea is democratic providentialism. It has become the organizing vision of an administration that took power in 2001 actively disdainful of highfalutin foreign-policy uplift. All that John Kerry and the Democrats could put up against it was prudent realism, and to the extent that the election was a referendum on vision, prudent realism lost hands down. The 2004 election closed out the final chapter in a fascinating realignment in American politics. Democrats, who once were heirs of big dreamers like Franklin Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, risk becoming the party of small dreams, while the Republicans, who under Nixon and Kissinger seemed determined to divest foreign policy of high moral purpose, have become the party that wants to change the world.

Of course, there is nothing necessarily good about dreaming big. Big dreams can be crazy. And dangerous. A lot of people -- including people of Christian faith -- found it alarming that a president could actually claim to know what God's plan might be, and scarier still that there were evangelical Christians divinely certain that George W. Bush was himself part of that plan.

But while you may not like the providential aspect of democratic providentialism, it remains true that the promotion of democracy by the United States has proved to be a dependably good idea. America may be more unpopular than ever before, but its hegemony really has coincided with a democratic revolution around the world. For the first time in history, a majority of the world's peoples live in democracies. In a dangerous time, this is about the best news around, since democracies, by and large, do not fight one another, and they do not break up into civil war. As a result -- and contrary to the general view that the world is getting more violent -- ethnic and civil strife have actually been declining since the early 1990's, according to a study of violent conflicts by Ted Robert Gurr at the University of Maryland. Democratic transitions can be violent -- when democracy came to Yugoslavia, majority rule at first led to ethnic cleansing and massacre -- but once democracies settle in, once they develop independent courts and real checks and balances, they can begin to advance majority interests without sacrificing minority rights.

Democracy has other advantages, some of them chronicled in a persuasive new book called ''The Democracy Advantage,'' by a trio of authors led by Morton Halperin, who had a hand in setting up the ''community of democracies'' during Madeleine Albright's time at the State Department. The real test of democracy is not how it does in countries that are already rich. The richest countries are all democracies, but they're the lucky ones that have cashed in the long-accumulating benefits of good geography, stable institutions and the profits of empire. The test is whether democracy works in poor countries without these advantages. Some analysts, like Fareed Zakaria, question whether you can stabilize democracy in countries where per capita income is below $6,000 a year. If you can't have democracy until development reaches this level, and if you need autocracy to get growth, then, according to some theorists, it might be smart for the U.S. to support growth-oriented autocracies like Vietnam or Singapore.

Halperin and his colleagues disagree with this ''development first, democracy later'' thesis. Democracy's advantage, they show, becomes apparent when you compare countries below $2,000 in per capita G.D.P. that have turned to democracy -- like the Baltic states, Mozambique, Senegal and the Dominican Republic -- with authoritarian states like Syria, Angola, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. The poor democracies deliver more growth, lower infant mortality and higher life expectancy. And the recent sight of tens of thousands of people out in the freezing streets of Kiev, night after night, reminded jaded democrats everywhere that democracy is the one political system that says to every individual: you matter and your vote matters. So bad leaders can't treat democrats like fools and expect to get away with it.

The most curious thing about democratic providentialism is that those folks in the streets of Kiev and braving terrorists to vote in Afghanistan and register in Iraq believe in it more than do our own Democrats.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 5, 2004 8:30 PM
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