Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Case for Democracy

Well, I just finished reading our president's new favorite book (Natan Sharansky's "The Case for Democracy," for those who missed the many Times/Post articles describing Bush's endorsement of it).

A couple of things come to mind. Based purely on what I'd heard of it from the Times and the inside cover, I was expecting an almost absolutist defense of democracy - a book pretty much in direct opposition to Fareed Zakaria's view on the dangers of democratic illiberalism. Instead, I found Sharansky to have a surprisingly nuanced tone when it came to the merits of elections as a mechanism. The book states a couple of times (I don't have it on me, so no direct quotations; sorry) that rushing into elections before the framework of a civil society exists in a developing country is foolhardiness that won't lead to real democracy. If Sharansky doesn't sound as skeptical as Zakaria on other topics of democratization - per capita income barriers, for example - I suspect it's more from a lack of polisci experience than any major disagreement.

So why is Sharansky such a big name in Washington these days? A lot of it has to do with his genuinely controversial thesis equating the American national interest with democratization abroad. Needless to say, I'm pretty sympathetic to this view myself. Really my only quibble with Sharansky comes from his failure to address what I would think of as his argument's most obvious caveat: nuclear-armed autocratic states. Bush frequently, and in my mind rightly, comes under fire from the left for not doing more to encourage important Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to liberalize politically. I have yet to hear a compelling defense of Bush's failure to do as Sharansky suggests, and make a portion of our massive foreign aid to Egypt contingent upon modest respect for human rights.

When you get to countries like Pakistan, the situation gets a little thornier. A lot of people like to take cheap shots at Bush for his courtship of Pakistani president Musharraf, but I think that Pakistan's large nuclear arsenal really ties our hands here. And not just in the sense of invasion deterrence. I'd go so far as to question the desirability of an autonomously started, self-sustaining democratic revolution in Pakistan - not because I hate the Pakistani people or because I think their culture renders them unfit for democracy, but because any mismanagement of the ensuing transitional period would make the risk of a nuclear handover to terrorists too great to chance. That Sharansky never discusses this (even to reach a conclusion different from mine) is pretty much the only problem I have with an otherwise good book.

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