Doubts about Democracy

A vibrant democracy depends upon important foundations: adequate socioeconomic conditions, elite commitment, some consensus within the society itself about national identity, and adequate institutional conditions. Iraq possesses some of these prerequisites, but is woefully lacking in others.

One of the most robust findings of 20 years of democratization studies is that there is a very strong correlation between gross national product (GNP) per capita and the vitality of electoral democracy. The magic number seems to lie somewhere in the range of $4,500 to $5,500. Statistical analysis suggests that above $5,500 we would expect a country to be democratic, below $4,500 we would expect it not to be. In between is a gray zone where individual countries go either way. Of course, there are some democratic "overachievers"—countries that are poorer, but still democratic, such as India or Botswana—and some democratic "underachievers"—countries that are richer, but still autocratic, such as Tunisia. Overall, however, the relationship holds because higher income levels are generally associated with higher literacy levels, a larger middle class, and more economic "give" to grease the wheels of toleration and compromise—all factors that are conducive to the health of a democracy.

Second, elite commitment to democracy is critical. This doesn't mean that the elite themselves must be personally imbued with an existential commitment to democratic values. You can have "democracy without democrats" so long as the elite are persuaded that their interests will be best served by adopting democratic institutions to manage conflict.

Third, national unity—or at least some sense of common solidarity—is an essential underpinning of democracy. As the political scientist Dankwart Rustow has said (paraphrasing constitutionalist scholar Ivor Jennings), "The people cannot decide until somebody decides who are the people." It is very difficult to sustain a democracy in a country deeply riven by ethnic conflict.

Fourth, solid institutions are key to democracy. This means not merely that a country must establish free and fair elections, guaranteed civil liberties, and the separation of powers among the branches of government: in other words, the institutions that make a democracy a democracy. Instead, prior to the creation of these hallmarks of democracy, you must have a state, and especially a state of law with effective, impartial state institutions like a civil bureaucracy, police force, and judiciary that can deliver fair, predictable order to citizens. Democracy cannot flourish in a context of chaos.

The first two conditions do not warrant pessimism about democratization in Iraq. Granted, Iraq is not yet socioeconomically in the "gray zone" (its GNP per capita is about $2,500), but with an end to the United Nations-sanctioned embargo and the resumption of oil production, that figure can be expected to rise dramatically. Iraq also boasts relatively high literacy levels and a sizable middle class—all conditions that favor democracy. Second, in terms of elite commitment, there is evidence that at least Kurdish and Shi'a elites see some sort of democratic federation as the best means to manage their differences.

The last two conditions, however, pose harsh challenges for democratic progress in Iraq. The country lacks a sense of national unity—some have likened it to the Yugoslavia of the Middle East—and ethnic cleavage has only been exacerbated by the policies of Saddam Hussein's regime. Furthermore, the country is grossly disadvantaged by more than two decades of personalistic rule that by definition negated the principle of predictable, rule-driven government as the modus vivendi of power. This is one of the crucial conditions that distinguish the situation in Iraq from that of Japan in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Even in defeat, the Japanese state had an effective, rule-governed bureaucracy and police force that could be marshaled to the cause of building a functioning, effective democracy in that country. Iraq is not comparably equipped.

Nor should our successful imposition of democracy in Germany after World War II prompt early optimism. Rule-governed state institutions had persisted intact there, alongside the Nazi apparatus, and could be used for democratic government after limited denazification. In Iraq, by contrast, Ba'athist penetration of state institutions went far deeper, and so their reorientation to a democratic mission will require more thorough lustration.

Many people point to culture, and specifically Islam, as an obstacle to the flourishing of democracy in Iraq. I am not persuaded. Many cultural traditions, from Catholicism to Confucianism, have been accused of being inhospitable to democracy at different times: think of the claim by President Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore that Asian values were incompatible with democracy. But these traditions have not prevented countries in Latin America or Asia from becoming democratic. In fact, as Columbia political scientist Alfred Stepan points out, all great religious traditions are "multi-vocal" and can be reinterpreted to accommodate democratic institutions. Today Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia—majority Muslim countries—are electoral democracies and millions of Muslims, both pious and not, live in democracies in India, Europe, and the United States, without any injury to their religious identity.

As for the role of outsiders in all this, Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Foundation is right in arguing that they can at best play only a marginal role in fostering democracy in any given country. The primary thing outside forces can do is remove the supports, financial and political, that prop up authoritarian regimes, or perhaps remove the coercive apparatus that smashes democratic initiatives. That will help foster the breakdown of authoritarianism—but whether democracy will take root is another story. Ultimately, democracy must be homegrown. And in the Iraqi case, as noted, one of the major obstacles to homegrown democracy is the lack of effective and impartial bureaucracies and police forces that can deliver fair and predictable order.

I don't think the United States can help build such institutions alone. Our credibility is shot in the Arab world; we are perceived primarily as imperialists, out to build a postwar Iraq that serves our own national interests. To my mind, only if there is a UN-sponsored consortium of countries overseeing this process is there any hope of building such state institutions in Iraq. And frankly, this oversight must not be short-lived, if we are to draw any lessons from the U.S. experience in postwar Japan and Germany, where military rule lasted for years.

Finally, even if effective state institutions are created, the major challenge of ethnic cleavage in Iraq remains. Building associations in civil society that reach across ethnic lines and unite people around common economic and cultural interests might help—but this is not something that can happen overnight. Overall, this does not make me optimistic about the prospects for democracy in Iraq in the near term.


Eva Bellin '80 is associate professor of government and a faculty associate of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The author of Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development (Cornell, 2002), she will be moving to the political-science department at Hunter College in the fall.        

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