China on the Offensive
How the Ukraine War Has Changed Beijing’s Strategy
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 protection, the introduction of democracy is critical to instilling respect for individual rights and values of accountability and responsibility. Participatory democracy helps bring about the incremental changes in political culture necessary for liberal governance. Constitutional liberalism, after all, rests not just on formal institutions, but on the political attitudes and habits that bring them to life. Furthermore, the abuses of power that accompany illiberal democracy often create demand for the institutions and practices that check centralized power. In many of today's democratizing states, illiberal democracy may be a way station along the road to the more benign forms of governance that Zakaria justifiably prefers.
PUTTING THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE
Zakaria attempts to rebut the claim that democracy can foster liberalism by arguing that "democracy does not seem to bring constitutional liberalism," and that "to date few illiberal democracies have matured into liberal democracies." Not so. In fact, many of today's liberal democracies passed through lengthy illiberal periods. Germany had to make several passes at democracy before getting it right -- the Wilhelmine and inter-war variants were far from liberal. Even after the United States exported constitutional liberalism to Germany after World War II, it took time for it to take hold. Japan has long held democratic elections but has only recently strengthened multiparty governance, the quality and scope of public debate, and other attributes of liberal systems. A number of Latin American states have moved -- admittedly in fits and starts -- from illiberal to liberal democracy. Mexico, for example, has been democratic for decades, during which time its commitment to constitutional liberalism has gradually deepened. Democracy may produce adverse side effects during its early, transitional years, but over time it helps instill habits of transparency, tolerance, and accountability conducive to stable and liberal governance.
Zakaria's misconception that liberal democracy takes root only when constitutional liberalism precedes democratic rule leads him to misinterpret the political transformations now taking place in many parts of the world. East Asian states are relatively wealthy and stable, according to Zakaria, because they have followed the Western itinerary and moved from "autocracy to liberalizing autocracy, and, in some cases, toward liberalizing semi-democracy." Most East Asian states, however, are far more democratic than they are liberal. In Zakaria's own terms, constitutional liberalism "seeks to protect an individual's autonomy against coercion, whatever the source." But in making the case for East Asian liberalism, Zakaria points primarily to the existence of free markets, contract law, and property rights. East Asians might enjoy the wealth that has accompanied these economic freedoms as well as the moderating influence of a growing middle class, but they certainly do not enjoy the civil liberties commonly associated with liberal governance. Even in the economic realm, states assert control over the market -- one of the main causes of the recent financial crises in East Asia. Civic freedoms have of late been expanding, especially in South Korea and Taiwan. But democracy has served as a beachhead for liberal values and practices, not vice versa.
BUILDING GOOD HABITS
Zakaria rightly notes that in Africa, Central Asia, and the Balkans, rapid democratization has contributed to the rise of illiberal regimes and "in divided societies has actually fomented nationalism, ethnic conflict, and even war." But how, if not through the introduction of democracy, is civil society to gain a foothold in states that suffered for decades under authoritarianism and have no tradition of constitutional liberalism? How are individuals to win the respect of the state if they are not even accorded the right to vote? And how is the state to win the respect of its citizens if they have no say in its governance? The institutions that limit power in liberal systems will ring hollow without the reconciliation between state and society that democracy fosters.
For example, postwar Bosnia's first round of elections in September 1996 strengthened hard-liners and made a mockery of the institutions designed in the Dayton Accord to repair communal ties and distribute power equitably among Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. But if a multiethnic Bosnia is to survive, democratic processes must be given a chance to lend legitimacy to government institutions, nurture individual responsibility and accountability, and promote a shared sense of civic identity. Elections that lead to abuses of power or reinforce ethnic tensions may well be necessary evils along the path toward liberal democracy. Indeed, the most recent round of elections late last year weakened the main nationalist party in the Bosnian Serb parliament, suggesting that a more moderate center is emerging.
Zakaria's failure to distinguish between the formal institutions of constitutional liberalism and the political habits that are the lifeblood of liberal governance also leads him to misread Central Europe. Because they were liberal autocracies during the nineteenth century, he contends, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are now liberal democracies. But although these countries have regular elections and liberal constitutions, they have a long way to go in building liberal societies. After decades of repressive rule, many Central Europeans still see the state as an adversary, not a legitimate and impartial authority. That is one reason many Hungarians do not pay their taxes. The Hungarian press is nominally free, but most newspapers are mouthpieces for political parties, and the government still exercises considerable control over broadcast media. Central Europe's economies, although largely privatized, suffer from corruption and opaque business and accounting procedures. The practice of constitutional liberalism will catch up with the form only as democratic habits deepen and society and the state gain mutual respect.
Zakaria concludes by appearing to pull back from his insistence that liberalism must precede democracy, instead acknowledging that the two may go hand in hand. He sensibly urges American policymakers to promote both liberalization and democratization. Nevertheless, the central thrust of Zakaria's analysis is clear: the United States should stop pushing the ballot box until states are liberal enough to make good use of it.
To recast U.S. policy accordingly would be misguided and dangerous. Constitutional liberalism cannot be imposed upon a society that lacks the requisite political values and habits. Instead, participatory democracy is essential to nurturing the dignity and autonomy of the individual, which is in turn the foundation of constitutional liberalism. Were the United States to stop promoting democracy, it would find the world not just less democratic but also less liberal -- and in the long run less peaceful. Bringing about the "democratic peace" may require the spread of liberalism, as Zakaria argues, but it is the initial spread of democracy itself, even in its illiberal forms, that will eventually get us there.
Charles A. Kupchan is a Professor of International Relations at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Juliana Geran Pilon
Fareed Zakaria refreshingly and rightly warns against the equation of elections with liberal democracy and revives the Madisonian truism that unfettered democracy can be dangerous to the cause of individual freedom. Unfortunately,
he goes too far, proceeding from the statement that elections are insufficient for the creation of a liberal system to warn that votes may be dangerous. His conclusion runs counter to the realities of post-authoritarian, and specifically post-communist, nation-building.
Zakaria claims that "without a background in constitutional liberalism, the introduction of democracy in divided societies has actually fomented nationalism, ethnic conflict, and even war." In fact, elections in the former Soviet bloc made possible a bloodless revolution. Contrary to Zakaria's expectations, the leaders brought to power in the first post-communist elections were by no means extreme nationalists. Trouble spots were rare. The June 1997 elections in Albania ousted an unpopular president, letting reform proceed and largely stopping the killing. The 1996 Bosnian elections have encouraged what may yet be a peaceful, if admittedly volatile, evolution. Indeed, the newly elected president of the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, is an avowed moderate.
Democracies can certainly trample on liberties, and constitutional guarantees are necessary to protect the rights of minorities. Who can doubt that it would be a blessing if all nations had been as lucky as America, which adopted a Lockean system of checks and balances almost from the outset? But reality does not always comply with theory.
Zakaria argues that liberalism must precede democracy for liberal democracy to result. But what does this mean for countries that already have some measure of democracy but little in the way of constitutional liberties? For six years, Ukrainians nervously led their fledgling democracy without a constitution, the operative Soviet-era parchment being worse than nothing. The constitution that was finally passed in June 1996 was the result of compromise rather than philosophical purity, but it is acceptable. Would Zakaria have had them wait until it was completed before they could proceed with elections? Sometimes the ship of democratic liberalism must be built while sailing on the tempestuous waters of history. This has been true for every post-totalitarian nation; Poland, the cradle of Solidarity, which pioneered organized dissent in the Soviet bloc, just passed its constitution this year. The interim constitution was flawed at best; nor is its successor a perfect document. But the process goes on, and it will get better. Zakaria seems uncomfortable with such imperfection; building ships while sailing is not his idea of neat political development.
Zakaria cites Central Asia as one important region where "elections, even when reasonably free, as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, have resulted in strong executives, weak legislatures and judiciaries, and few civil and economic liberties." But consider the facts in context. The national elections of 1995 may have been "reasonably free" but they were definitely problematic. Some reforms have already been introduced, but there is a need for more. Both countries' presidents are surely powerful, but there is no indication that they preside over unstable populations or ethnic minorities ready to explode. As for civil and economic liberties, there has been some progress in both countries. In July 1997, Kazakstan privatized the majority of shares in three-quarters of its 2,500 medium-sized companies, adopted the most radical pension reform program in the former Soviet Union, and initiated major economic reforms to encourage foreign investment. Setbacks notwithstanding -- notably in the freedom of the press -- Central Asian nations appear closer to implementing "constitutional liberalism" today than they were three years ago. Blaming elections for current problems, rather than seven decades of communism, is mystifying.
Elections are not a panacea, and individual freedom must be protected by a strong constitution. Hopefully, each election held after the fall of an authoritarian system will be better than the one preceding it: the press freer, the electorate better educated, and the elected representatives more willing to pay heed to their constituents. In the real world of democracy-building, this is usually what happens. Unfortunately, it seldom grabs newspaper headlines.
Juliana Geran Pilon is Director of Programs for Europe and Asia at the International Foundation for Election Systems.
Zakaria dwells on the usurpation of power by democratically elected leaders as an example of illiberal practice. This, though, is illiberalism as the violation of the separation of powers rather than of citizens' rights. It may be a bad thing that President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan has created a very strong executive, but this is a debate about the merits of different democratic designs rather than the altogether more serious matter of the infringement of individual freedoms. Democratic power can be organized in many different ways, but it makes little sense to say -- without examining particular cases -- that some arrangements are inherently less liberal than others.
Furthermore, taken far enough, the usurpation of power itself undermines democracy. Even Zakaria concedes that Alberto Fujimori's disbanding of Peru's parliament "makes it difficult to call his regime democratic." This is a democratic leader behaving undemocratically, not illiberally. The same could be said of Alexandr Lukashenko in Belarus. It is undoubtedly interesting and significant that democracies can abolish themselves in this fashion. But when such regimes subsequently violate individual rights, they are doing so not as democracies but as ex-democracies. Incidentally, it should be noted that "constitutionalism" is not a concept that can be appropriated by liberalism alone. Constitutions enshrine not only individual rights but democratic mechanisms, and the abrogation of the latter is as unconstitutional as the violation of the former.
Zakaria argues that the introduction of democracy in divided societies can foment "nationalism, ethnic conflict, and even war." But the fact that populist nationalism and ethnocentrism can be inflamed and put to violent uses by leaders of limited accountability does not mean that democracy itself invokes these malign forces. In most instances, nationalism exerts its influence through public expression, not democratic voice. To say otherwise is to confuse the passions of the masses with the power of majorities. Indeed, nationalism has often been manipulated from above as a strategy for averting, not responding to, democratization.
Moreover, since the propagation of nationalist sentiments requires a degree of freedom of speech and assembly, it may in fact be liberalization rather than democratization that makes states more dangerous. Such a conclusion is supported by the argument that an imperfect "marketplace of ideas" fosters the spread of nationalist myths. The expansion of liberal freedoms, not democratic accountability, makes possible the articulation of identity and difference for invidious ends.
Even where democratization does provoke nationalist conflict, research suggests that this is a consequence of a specific path rather than the general process of democratic transition.The scholars Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan have shown that the sequence of elections crucially influences the mobilization of nationalist forces. Where regional elections precede federal ones, political identities and agendas crystallize around ethnic, nationalist themes and can threaten state integrity, whereas "if all-union elections are held first, there are strong incentives for political activists to create all-union parties, and an all-union agenda."
Liberal autocracies have a long record of conflict with each other; liberal democracies do not. In the last century, European states of the former kind intermittently took up arms against one another and ultimately -- and disastrously -- threw themselves into a general conflagration. Since the middle of this century Europe's states have been of the latter kind. They overcame the security dilemma and rendered war among themselves unthinkable. To be sure, other factors have been at work: the growth of interdependence, the bonding effect of the Cold War. But the distinctive, pacific effect of democracy on even hitherto liberal states appears striking.
Nigel Gould-Davies is a Lecturer in Politics at Hertford College, Oxford University.
WHERE'S THE CURE?
Zakaria's diagnosis of the illiberal democracy virus is acute, but he offers precious little by way of cure. Anyone who has participated in chimerical U.S.- or U.N.-sponsored good governance initiatives would understand why: most of these programs simply don't work. As Zakaria points out, exporting democracy is much easier than exporting the rule of law. Constitutional liberalism requires the good faith of such a wide range of actors that addressing only one component is fruitless. For example, in the realm of criminal justice alone, reform requires an independent and highly educated judiciary, competent prosecutors, an active defense bar (who is going to pay for the defense lawyers?), well-trained and ethnically representative police, humane corrections staff and an appropriate prison infrastructure -- all of which require substantial investment in universities and professional academies. The cost of creating and maintaining this system would overwhelm many poor democracies, not to mention take several decades to develop fully.
Moreover, the last thing many illiberal though democratically elected regimes want is an independent judicial system -- an anathema to unfettered power. Reform programs in Cambodia and Haiti have failed badly due to these hard realities. Meanwhile, Congress has savagely cut funding for aid programs. Unfortunately, the investment in dollars and the level of good faith required to overcome obstacles to constitutional liberalism in many of the poorest democracies imply that the illiberal virus will continue to attack and infect weak cells of democracy.
Kenneth Cain is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.