Monday, March 28, 2005

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (1)

The Bush administration and the fourth wave

Dexter Filkins in the New York Times and Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber make useful points about the precise relationship between U.S. foreign policy, international organizations, and the nascent fourth wave of democratization. This leads to an intriguing policy proposal, but let's put that aside until the end of the post.

Filkins asks whether the elections in Iraq triggered the demonstration of people power in Lebanon and concludes in the negative. He observes that Lebanon's political culture was far more democratic for a far longer time than Iraq's. However, this does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is irrelevant:

In an echo of the ambivalence many Iraqis feel about the American presence in their country, many Lebanese are skeptical of American intentions. Not least among their reasons is what they regard as the acquiescence of the United States to the continuation of Syria's military presence here in 1990, in exchange for Syria's joining the coalition that was then being built to oust Mr. Hussein from Kuwait.

"The Syrians had a mandate from the United States" to keep their troops in Lebanon, said a former Lebanese minister who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

For many Lebanese, what made significant change possible in Lebanon was not the elections in Iraq, but the events of Sept. 11, 2001, which prompted the Bush administration to re-examine its reluctance to challenge the Syrian regime, as well as other Arab dictatorships that had backed terrorist groups. When the Lebanese began calling for a Syrian withdrawal, the Syrian government had to defy not just the Lebanese people, but the United States as well.

For that reason, more than a few Lebanese believe, President Bush's demands are proving decisive in driving the Syrians out. "This enthusiasm for democracy may not happen again," said Khalil Karam, professor of international relations at University of St. Joseph here, speaking of American foreign policy. "Without it, we could not stop Syria."

Back at Mr. Hariri's tomb, Mr. Salha, the factory worker, offered his own grudging invitation, if only to ensure that his homeland finally frees itself of Syrian domination.

"We are not against Bush," Mr. Salha said. "If he wants to make us safe and free, that's great. Let him do it."

Farrell links to a Financial Times story by Stefan Wagstyl that points out the regional (i.e., post-Soviet) nature of these revolutions. Farrell acknowledges that, "US policy has had some indirect effects – the US support for regime change in Georgia has probably had unanticipated consequences as Georgia became an example of change for other countries in the post-Soviet space."

Farrell, however, then goes on to observe the useful role that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has played in the post-Soviet space:

After the Iron Curtain crumbled, participating states in the OSCE agreed on a set of new, beefier normative commitments that were supposed to support democracy, and that allowed certain kinds of limited internal intervention within countries (a High Commissioner on National Minorities; election monitoring) in order to shore up democracy where it was weak. Some countries – especially in Central Asia – then slid back into various forms of presidential authoritarianism, in which periodic elections rubberstamped continued autocratic rule. Now, however, we’re seeing again how these countries’ previous commitments are having unexpected consequences – OSCE election monitors’ reports are providing a means through which opposition figures can undermine the regime. Since the governments under threat purport to be democracies, they may find themselves in a rather difficult position....

Furthermore, to the extent that the OSCE (rather than simple geographic diffusion) is responsible for this wave of democratization, it probably won’t spread to other parts of the world. It’s a product of the intersection between two sets of institutions and rather specific domestic conditions. The institutions are (a) the strong international commitments that these countries gave to the OSCE in the 1990’s, permitting election monitoring, and (b) the minimal trappings of democracy that these countries maintained. The domestic conditions are a government that is uncertain enough of its control of armed forces and internal security that it can’t be sure that they will obey orders to fire on protesters etc, and a domestic opposition that is capable of acting with some minimal degree of coherence to capitalize on reports of election fraud through protests and other actions. We aren’t likely to see these circumstances repeated elsewhere.

Farrell is correct that the OSCE's geographical remit is bounded. However, I'm not sure his general point stands. The fact is that most countries in the world -- including many in the Arab Middle East -- try to maintain the minimal trappings of democracy, precisely because of its normative power. So that condition is met.

The problem is finding an international organization that has legitimacy and respect within the Middle East that has both the willingness and the opportunity to engage in election monitoring and concomitant activities.

Hey, wait a minute -- how about the United Nations??!! As some of you may recall, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan does want to reform the U.N., and claimed in a report that, "The United Nations does more than any other single organization to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and practices around the world, but this fact is little known." OK, as I said before, that line is pure horses**t, but that doesn't mean it must always be so. The U.N. has some genuine street cred in the Arab parts of the world. Having the U.N. play the role of the OSCE in the Middle East is not as crazy as it first sounds.

Arch-conservatives might be skeptical of the U.N.'s ability to do any good whatsoever, a concern that has some merit. But pushing for the U.N. to take a greater role in election monitoring is precisely the kind of proposal that would resonate with big-government conservatism and perhaps even neoconservatism.

Just a thought.

posted by Dan on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM


The UN's credibility problem with American conservatives are the least of its problems. It still has to demonstrate that monitoring elections and otherwise fostering democracy in Arab countries is something it can do.

The thing about the OSCE's role in the former Soviet republics is that it represents countries that already are democracies. The UN doesn't, or at least those UN members that are democracies do not determine how it will conduct its operations. Moreover, the discussion about how to encourage democracy in the former Soviet republics did not begin in the 1990s, but was an outgrowth of negotiations over human rights that dated back a generation before that.

This idea about the UN in the Middle East looks more like having an international organization cook up a new role from scratch, trusting in its "street cred" in Arab countries to make it work. This looks like a dubious idea, frankly; elections in Iraq required the strenuous efforts of the Anglo-American military, and the UN's role in Lebanon's turn away from Syria has not been conspicuous.

I don't think Dan's idea is crazy, but the UN first has to demonstrate that it isn't. It has to be willing to come down in favor of the proposition that the way some of its member states are governed is no longer acceptable, and to provide the means to change it. "Street cred" or no, that would be a tall order for this organization.

posted by: Zathras on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

The UN has had a moderately good record of conducting elections. East Timor is a good example, and even in Iraq, the UN played a cosntructive and useful role.

But the question is what happens if anyone (either the government or opposition groups) try to intimidate voters or rig elections. The most the UN can do in such an instance is to issue a report saying the election wasn't fair.

posted by: erg on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

[The UN] has to be willing to come down in favor of the proposition that the way some of its member states are governed is no longer acceptable, and to provide the means to change it.

But Zathras, it's the Security Council that would have to get behind that kind of policy.

posted by: praktike on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

A distinction without a difference, it seems to me. It is true that non-democratic China could block any Security Council resolutions on using the UN to promote democracy in Arab countries where the governments objected, but those governments' objections by themselves would be enough to keep the issue from getting to the Council.

posted by: Zathras on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

Farrell's specific points about Kyrgiztan and other former Sovient republics are massively off base. The US has provided substantial help to all of the successful oppositions there. In other words, its helped to drive the "regional contagion effect" he thinks is doing the work, along with international institutions.

posted by: rd on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

For some value-neutral tasks, the U.N. could be quite helpful. "You want us to monitor elections? Sure." As a causal force for democracy. Hell, no. The efforts would either be stimied by non-democratic countries or the U.N. would have to stop being the open forum for ALL countries.

A useful analogy would be U.N. treaties on standards for weights and measures. These agreements are tehnical and value-netural, but they are also the building block of free trade. Helping free trade without actually promoting free trade.


posted by: PD Shaw on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

Great post. I have been commenting somewhat on the 4th wave, "the blueprint" for democratic movements, and so on, at my blog:

posted by: Will Franklin on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

We need the UN, we need NGOs, and we need Europe, but we need them working. Thats why Bush put his key people in those positions. We are going to have to tear down before we can rebuild to some degree.
Look at it this way, just as important as spreading democracy is reforming the international institutions meant to bolster and protect fledgling nations. If Bush can pull another miracle out of his pockets and reform those relationships and institutions, the future will be far brighter than burning them to the ground. The only thing worse than that would be to play along with the fantasy that is the status quo. We're going to have to swallow our pride more than the right would like and apply foot to ass more than the left would like.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

what, you've never seen the rescuers? or the rescuers down under?

posted by: :DP on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

The UN Development Program's report on the state
of Arab society, in the light of the current "wave" of interest in democratization of the Middle East, was an extremely useful, perhaps galvanizing document. The fact that it came under UN auspices was probably extremely helpful. I'm as surprised as anyone; but after looking at some other reports from UNDP I find them very good and very pro-democratic (in the area of health care reform, in which I specialize).

posted by: Stan T. on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

Dexter Filkins gets it right about Lebanon.
I've posted routinely on a number of sites on this very issue. The Bush Administration has little to nothing to do with the mass protests in Beirut.
What it has invaluably contributed to is the lack of government crackdown against us [Lebanese protesters]. Syria definitely would not be pulling out without US pressure. However, the US and French negotiations with the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians helped tremendously. Without their support (which it was not too hard to get given Syria's reputation on the block), Syria could have touted Arab League support. As much as that is meaningless, it still would have given them legitimacy to sit around in Lebanon torturing us for a few more months or years.
When commenting in the past, Americans have accused me of being French for not giving credit to the Bush Administration. Sadly, that expresses more of the tone in the United States than in the rest of the world.
I stood with Bush when he took down Saddam, but Bush did not spark my revolution.

posted by: lebanon.profile on 03.28.05 at 09:50 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?