Courtesy Reuters

Illiberal Illusions: Restoring Democracy's Good Name


Charles A. Kupchan

Fareed Zakaria warns that the rise of "illiberal democracies" -- states that hold free elections but do not honor the rule of law and the rights of their citizens -- calls into question one of the core goals of American foreign policy: exporting democracy ("The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," November/December 1997). It is not democracy alone that makes states peaceful and benign, Zakaria contends, but liberal democracy. Without the protection of individual rights and the constraints on centralized power that accompany constitutional liberalism, democracy is prone to abuses of power and, especially in diverse societies, ethnic rivalry and conflict. Only when democratic governance evolves amid preexisting liberal protections does it lead to the oft-heralded "democratic peace." With half of the world's democracies illiberal, the spread of elections, far from producing a more harmonious world, is leading to increased instability. Zakaria counsels U.S. policymakers to end their fixation on ballot boxes and emphasize reviving constitutionalism and the rule of law.

Although on target in his observation that illiberal democracy is on the rise, Zakaria misses the mark in explaining why and in prescribing what to do about it. He misconstrues how liberal democracy evolves by relying too heavily on the Anglo-Saxon experience. Classical liberalism -- the notion that the individual's autonomy is sacrosanct -- was born and bred in Britain and the United States. When democracy -- narrowly defined as the selection of governments through free and fair elections -- took root in these countries, their political cultures, practices, and institutions were already imbued with the spirit of constitutional liberalism. Zakaria is right that liberalism preceded democracy -- but only in the Anglo-Saxon West.

The current wave of democratization is taking place in regions that have little or no experience in constitutional liberalism. Many countries in East Asia and the former Soviet bloc, for example, have a long history of paternalism and social norms that privilege the group over the individual. Without a tradition of liberal

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