I’m currently reading The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria and he makes some extremely useful observations with regards to democracy and liberty. He says there is a clear division between ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutional liberalism’ – something we tend to lump together in the Western world, having lived in liberal democracies our whole lives. But really, we can have political democracy – free and fair elections, universal suffrage, competing parties, and regularly replaced elected leaders – without constitutional liberalism.
To have “democracy” mean, subjectively, “a good government” makes it analytically usesless. Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting a government, but rather, government’s goals….It is ‘liberal’ because it … emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it places the rule of law at the center of politics. — Fareed Zakaria
Too often we confuse the two, assuming a democracy must be liberal. We assume that governments produced by election are accountable to the people and provide for human rights and civil liberties. But we can’t assume this. Elected officials can be corrupt, irresponsible, dominated by special interests. Democracy doesn’t have to be liberal. And liberty doesn’t necessarily depend on democracy; a liberal dictator can allow dissent, protest, freedom of speech and religion.
This distinction is important to make. Reading this, it got me thinking about the way to combat problems like torture and human rights violations in developing countries. In the past, it has often been assumed by Western countries that the right way to ensure human rights is to promote democracy in the third world. But we’ve seen the immense failures of democracy promotion — it’s led to wars, occupation, death, and most recently in our memories – the failed promises of the war on terror. Democracy promotion cannot be a foreign policy goal, and democracy cannot be ‘exported’ to the rest of the world from Western models. This results simply in the failure to acknowledge local histories, legacies, customs. Just because a specific type of democracy has worked in the West does not mean it can succeed elsewhere. For instance, many countries with a history of ethnic divisions and violence might find strife exacerbated by the advent of democracy.
A focus on ‘promoting’ democracy becomes an assault on another country’s government, and rather than freeing the people it often results in more disruption and civil war. The West’s focus on exporting democracy ultimately becomes a method of pushing Western ideologies onto other peoples and countries, while failing to understand the true basis of the problems in the developing world. We’ve seen what happened when the Western ideology of Neoliberalism was exported throughout the world, and especially to Latin America – torture, repression, and poverty resulted. Democracy is similarly founded on Western ideologies and in the end – it’s an ‘idea.’ If you don’t adapt this idea to local needs, the idea will fail.
Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with democracy. I love America’s democracy and am proud of our legacy. In many parts of the world, democracy can be a powerful force for positive change, and can bring to power accountable leaders who in return improve the country and help it’s people. There are also great programs like The Carter Center, which include democracy promotion — but by working with local stakeholders in a peaceful and understanding manner, and simply monitoring democratic processes as they are already proceeding. This type of democracy promotion can certainly be beneficial. But at the same time, we have to make the distinction between truly making citizens of so-called ‘third-world’ countries freer — and ruthlessly promoting, pursuing Western ideologies at the cost of local people’s lives. Each context is different, and we cannot generalize ‘democracy’ as the ultimate solution.
And then there is the fact that simply, a focus on ‘democracy’ over all else assumes that democracy comes with constitutional liberalism. But as we’ve seen from Zakaria, this is clearly not the case.
Rather than focusing on changing and challenging regimes throughout the world through democratization, we must increase the focus on constitutional liberalism, which includes a focus on human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. By working with governments – whether they are dictatorships, hybrid regimes, or fledgling democracies – we have to work with their leaders to ensure that human rights are guaranteed, that people know their legal rights, have the right to speak out, and can practice their own religion. We have to focus on the people, first and foremost. It’s an important distinction to make, especially for Western governments and foreign policy. A focus on the rule of law, human rights, and liberalism will ensure that we aren’t enforcing or pushing Western ideologies without understanding local histories.