Wednesday, February 5, 2003

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The next (spectacularly wrong) big idea

Public intellectuals like big ideas, because they help us organize the way we see the world. You can't go far as a public intellectual by being consistently wrong. You can, however, go very far if you are spectacularly, grandiosely wrong in a big-idea kind of way . Spectacularly wrong big ideas demand attention. Countless authors devoted countless numbers of pages to proving why Francis Fukuyama was wrong in "The End of History?" and Samuel Huntington was wrong in "The Clash of Civilizations?", few people remember them; they remember Fukuyama and Huntington.

Which brings me to Fareed Zakaria's forthcoming book, The Future of Freedom, which is the end result of a question he initially asked in a Foreign Affairs essay entitled "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy." Zakaria was at the University of Chicago's John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy yesterday to road-test some of his book's arguments, which boil down to:

1) It took a long time for constitutional liberal democracy to develop properly in the West;
2) When democracy has been installed in places without a prior decentralization of religious, commercial, and political authority, bad things happen to democracy, i.e., Nazi Germany;
3) Encouraging the acceleration of democracy in the developing world will lead to democracies that are fundamentally illiberal, which would be bad. So, rather than cajole China into democratizing faster than it is currently doing, let nature take it's course, otherwise you wind up with backsliding democracies, such as Russia.

Now, this is a great big idea. It's topical, relies on history, has few moving parts, and leads to counter-intuitive policy recommendations. But it's still spectacularly wrong.

1) Stable democracies have emerged without the preconditions Zakaria spells out. Some (big and small) examples: Botswana, Costa Rica, India, Japan, and the Baltic states.

2) The slow processes stressed by Zakaria have equally adverse consequences. States that are in the middle of Zakaria's process are more dangerous than even illiberal democracies. As Jack Snyder has pointed out, these sort of states often have a sufficient mix of particularistic coalitions that lead to overexpansion, which leads to war. Snyder and Ed Mansfield have statistically demonstrated that states undergoing regime transition are far more likely to initiate wars than either democracies OR autocracies (click here for a precis of this argument).

As for illiberal democracies, it is undoubtedly true that their first few years are volatile ones, with lots of potentially aggressive leaders getting elected and then causing problems. However, as Stephen Walt has shown, these revolutionary states tend to mellow, and act as responsible members of the international system.

This doesn't mean that illiberal democracies are necessarily better for world politics than slowly reforming authoritarian states are. But they are not necessarily worse, either. It's more a question of timing -- illiberal states that become democratic are more likely to have problems sooner rather than later, while authoritarian states that are slowly democratizing are likely to have problems later rather than sooner.

So, to conclude: a) states do not necessarily have to go through the same long-term evolution that England or America endured to become a liberal democracy, and b) over the long term, illiberal democracies are not necessarily more violent actors than other non-democratic states.

All that said, I have no doubt that three months from now, this will be the next big idea. So bookmark this post and remember it for cocktail party chatter come late April! [So whaddaya think of Zakaria's other stuff?--ed. His first book is a staple of my U.S. Foreign Policy class.]

UPDATE: Several people have e-mailed to point out that Japan did have a long history of decentralization in political/economic power. This may be true, but that certainly does not hold on the religious dimension. Since Zakaria seems to imply that all of these myriad sources of power must be decentralized, I don't think his argument holds here.

posted by Dan on 02.05.03 at 03:58 PM


Great page - very thought provoking - I was wondering what your view is on "Democratic Peace theory"- are democratic nations less likely to go to war with eachother?

posted by: Tim Dempsey on 02.05.03 at 03:58 PM [permalink]

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