Courtesy Reuters

Defending Democracy: Why Democrats Trump Autocrats

Fareed Zakaria observes that an increasing number of democratically elected governments are abusing their powers and repressing civil rights ("The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," November/December 1997). He contends that instead of promoting elections, U.S. policy should concentrate on consolidating existing democracies that respect civil liberties, the rule of law, and a separation of powers between government institutions. Proclaiming constitutional liberalism to be a necessary precondition for "liberal democracy," Zakaria asserts that without it, elections will inevitably lead to what he calls "illiberal democracy," bringing extreme nationalism, ethnic conflict, and war. He proposes that instead of coddling illiberal democrats, the United States should endorse "liberal autocracies" in less developed nations-governments that, though not democratically elected, respect individual rights.

There are three flaws in Zakaria's argument. First, he mischaracterizes current U.S. democracy assistance, suggesting that it is aimed only at promoting elections. Second, he downplays the political repression of seemingly benevolent autocratic regimes. Third, he relies on questionable evidence to demonstrate that democratization exacerbates rather than reduces social tensions.


Over the last decade, indigenous forces in Central Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia have succeeded in pressuring their governments to democratize by demanding more political rights, less arbitrary rule, and free elections. U.S. diplomacy and assistance programs have supported this process, promoting not only elections, but also the creation of legislatures, judiciaries, executive agencies, independent media, trade unions, and a plethora of nongovernmental organizations (NGOS). In fact, the United States Agency for International Development, the primary U.S. vehicle for funding democracy promotion, spends less than 25 percent of its democracy funds on elections.

U.S. democracy assistance helps governments and NGOS in Africa, Central America, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Haiti, and elsewhere to institutionalize the rule of law and foster greater respect for human rights, which means building independent judiciaries and public support for their role. These and other institutions are essential to safeguarding basic freedoms, protecting ethnic and religious minorities, promoting decision-making according

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