A Strategy to Counter Democracy’s Global Retreat
Produce inexpensive, good translations of Burke, Locke and other thinkers, and spread the texts widely.
In Thailand, the streets are filled with demonstrators demanding the replacement of an elected government with an appointed council. In Egypt, the largest and most important Arab country, the 2011 revolution and much-ballyhooed “transition to democracy” ended in a military coup. President Obama’s lead-from-behind approach to Libya has ushered in anarchy, and Pakistan’s transition from one democratically elected set of powerless and corrupt politicians to another, widely cheered in Washington, has had no discernible positive impact on anything whatsoever.
A democratically elected government in Hungary is flirting with fascists. Meantime, political reforms in Burma led to waves of religious violence against that country’s Muslim minority. And in Ukraine, protesters face off against a corrupt, elected government aligned withVladimir Putin.
According to Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom in the World Report, 2013 was the eighth year in a row in which freedom lost ground. Yet the decade of freedom’s retreat was also a decade of unprecedented effort on the part of governments and nonprofit organizations to help freedom thrive. Between 2006 and 2012, the U.S. government alone spent $18.6 billion on democracy promotion, partly because of stepped up efforts in Afghanistan and the Middle East. This is a substantially higher rate of spending than during the post-Cold War years, when the former Warsaw Pact states were moving toward democracy.
The gloomy prospects for democratic self-government in many parts of the world should not come as a surprise. Building democracy took generations in much of the Atlantic world, and most revolutions didn’t succeed in establishing stable democratic regimes.
Some, like the Hungarians’ in 1848 and again in 1956, failed to hold power and were overthrown. Others, like the French and Russian Revolutions, gained power only to install dictatorships worse than the ones they overthrew. The South American revolutions against Spain, like many anti-colonial movements in the 20th century, succeeded against the imperial power—but then failed to build stable, democratic governments in its place. Egypt’s transition didn’t fail because Egypt’s democrats didn’t attend enough conferences on democracy building. It failed because the weight of their nation’s history, economics, religion and culture was too heavy for the relative handful of true democrats to lift.
This should be a sobering lesson. While breakthroughs can sometimes occur, the construction of open, democratic systems in many countries around the world is likely to be slower and harder than many of us thought.
This doesn’t mean that democracy advocates should wring their hands and stand aside, but it does mean we need to think about promoting deeper social change over longer periods. To become and remain democratic, countries need to develop cultural values hospitable to the rule of law, protection of private property, transparency and peaceful transitions of power that are grounded in their own religious and cultural identities. That is not, ultimately, a process that foreigners can orchestrate or control.
A more sustainable and effective democracy agenda would start with education. Helping talented young people get access to good education will, over time, do more to promote democratic ideals than anything else. This doesn’t just mean offering more students more opportunities to study abroad. Many countries, like Egypt, have terrible postsecondary systems. Founding new schools, helping existing ones, and promoting partnerships between Western and foreign institutions can go a long way.
In many countries, the lack of access to good English-language instruction at an early age is one of the great barriers that struggling families face. Teaching English to large numbers of people from poor backgrounds is ultimately a political act: As their language skills help them get better educations and better jobs, internal pressure for a fairer society will increase.
At the same time, democracy advocates can address one of the biggest fault lines in our allegedly flat world: People who don’t read English or a handful of other languages live in a different information universe. John Locke, Edmund Burke, Thomas Macaulay, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin —the works of these thinkers need to be well-translated and widely available. People who read only Urdu, Burmese, Arabic or Punjabi need readily accessible editions (cheap print or Web-based) of important books in their own languages so that people beyond elite circles have access to the ideas and the histories that matter.
Smart people from different cultural backgrounds should be commissioned to write introductions and other materials that can give readers in nondemocratic countries the context they need to make sense of these crucial texts. Others should write books about how South Korea, Taiwan, Poland and other countries became democratic. And leading magazines, opinion journals and policy reports should be translated into languages where they can be more widely read. English may be the world’s lingua franca, but democracy building will be grueling in many countries until more people have the ability to follow global news and policy debates in their native tongues.
We cannot change the reality that the creation of stable democratic societies in much of the world is going to take time. It took Christian theologians hundreds of years to reconcile democratic and liberal ideas with traditional Christian thought; for Muslims, too, this could be the work of decades or generations.
The U.S. cannot control the pace of this change. What it can do is to ensure that as many people as possible have unfettered access to the rich historical and intellectual literature that advocates freedom. “Give us the tools and we will finish the job” is what Winston Churchill said to American democrats during the dark days of World War II. Let’s make it easier for people around the world to inform themselves about the nature of freedom and the history of its emergence. They will figure out the rest.
Mr. Mead is a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College and editor at large of the American Interest.