The New Republic Online


Illiberal Imagination

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 08.06.03

During the run-up to the war with Iraq, advocates of removing Saddam Hussein were fond of justifying their cause by quoting Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Turnabout is fair play, of course. And in the messy aftermath that is the post-war occupation, antiwar advocates on both the far left and the far right are appropriating Burke's words to suggest the folly of using force for democracy promotion. For those on the multicultural left, Burke's genuine respect for diverse cultures and traditions translates into a rejection of Western attempts to impose universal values like liberty and democracy. For those on the isolationist right, Burke's recognition that forced social engineering is likely to fail--especially when conducted abroad--leads to the inescapable conclusion that the United States should stop sticking its nose in other people's domestic affairs.

Neither camp is wrong to choose Burke as its standard-bearer. The man would be spinning in his grave if he knew of the neoconservative grand strategy to transform the Middle East via the forcible occupation and democratization of Iraq. Burke loathed the sort of abstract theorizing about liberal democracy that neocons embrace. He believed the emergence of a proper liberal democracy could only take place through gradual reform, not shock and awe.

In the shadow of an unstable Iraq, this is a powerful critique. To believe that Western democratic institutions can be exported willy-nilly to Iraq, a country with a long tradition of authoritarianism, seems increasingly like the height of hubris. Fortunately, the Burkean critique also happens to be wrong.

The modern-day successor to Burke's skepticism on this matter is Fareed Zakaria, whose latest book, The Future of Freedom, proffers a similar warning about attempts to push democratization too aggressively. Without a sufficiently high GDP per capita, respect for the rule of law, and "construction of a rich, complex social order," democracy either takes illiberal forms or curdles into rump authoritarianism.

But the notion that democracy can only thrive in developed countries is a canard. Even controlling for economic development, the fact remains that democratic regimes are strongly and positively correlated with improved human rights conditions. As Hoover Institution senior fellow Larry Diamond has recently pointed out, there are only two countries in the world that are not democracies and yet demonstrate appreciable respect for civil liberties--Tonga, and Antigua and Barbuda.

There is also no evidence to support the claim that poor or non-Western democracies will revert to authoritarianism over time. To quote Diamond at greater length:

[T]he overwhelming bulk of the states that have become democratic during the third wave [of democratization, from 1974-1991] have remained so, even in countries lacking virtually all of the supposed "conditions" for democracy. ... [O]nly 14 of the 125 democracies that have existed during the third wave have become authoritarian, and in nine of these, democracy has since been restored.

One of Diamond's favorite examples is Mali--a poor, landlocked, predominantly Muslim country that suffers from an adult literacy rate of less than 50 percent and an average life expectancy of less than 45 years. By Zakaria's logic, Mali is the last place in the world you'd expect democracy to take root. Yet the country has enjoyed a relatively stable, democratic government for over a decade. At a minimum, this suggests that Burke's devotees may overstate the difficulty with which liberal values can be exported to the developing world.

But what of governments imposed via military occupation? Surely they're the exception to this optimistic rule. Actually, the empirical evidence of the last 50 years is rather evenly split on the question. Postwar Germany, Japan, Bosnia, and Kosovo are all, to varying degrees, democratic success stories; Somalia and Haiti are probably safely considered failures. (Let's be generous and say the jury is still out on Afghanistan.) Still, the more relevant point is that the key difference between the democratic haves and have-nots is not the conditions that prevailed prior to war; it's the occupiers' commitment to the democratization process once the fighting ends. In the words of a compelling new RAND Corporation study, America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq (endorsed by Paul Bremer, no less):

What principally distinguishes [successes from failures] are not their levels of Western culture, economic development, or cultural homogeneity. Rather, it is the level of effort the United States and the international community have put into their democratic transformations. In Germany and Japan, for example, substantial American aid reduced social, political, and other obstacles to the reconstitution of parliamentary politics and facilitated a transition to democracy. Nation-building, as this study illustrates, is a time- and resource-consuming effort.

The book also stresses a point more consistent with Burke's philosophy--that building stable democratic states via military occupation takes patience. In none of the successful cases did the full-blown occupation phase take less than five years; American forces remained indefinitely in all of the countries considered successes.

In the last week, a handful of pundits have argued in favor of admitting failure and withdrawing from Iraq as soon as possible. In the wake of daily reports of attacks on U.S. forces it's easy to hear one's inner Burke making a similar argument. Listening to that voice, however, would be committing the worst of all sins according to Burke--imprudence.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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