Exporting democracy is a challenge

April 21, 2003|By Matthew Spence

STANFORD, Calif. -- A message to the aspiring leaders of the new Iraqi republic: Learn English.

If you seek the money and trust of the American government, your best credential is neither policy expertise, nor political savvy, nor even the backing of your own people. America's driving logic of democracy promotion for much of the last decade has been this: If you look and talk like us, we will work with you and democracy will come your way.

Of course, reality has never been that simple. As George W. Bush has remade himself from Texas rancher into global cowboy, he has chosen either to reject the world or remake it in America's own image. But a mirror is a poor tool for promoting democracy.

Look to America's troubled crusade to transplant the American system into the former Soviet Union after the Cold War. It teaches that the task in Iraq will take far more time, money and creative energy than America expects.

Yet, in Iraq today, the ships are departing, the massive foreign aid is not yet forthcoming and the White House has already moved on to threatening the next rogue state. Instead, take three lessons from the Soviet Union.

Lesson one: First impressions matter most.

The cruel irony of state-building is that initial decisions -- made under the greatest uncertainty and with the least resources -- have the greatest impact. A former government minister from a Central Asian republic told me: "After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, we kept asking the Americans what to do, but they had nothing to tell us. When the Americans were ready to talk, we were no longer ready to listen."

As in the former Soviet Union, Iraq's moment of euphoria and America's window of influence close faster than we think.

Soon after the Soviet collapse, American policymakers stood idly by while Boris Yeltsin left his Soviet-elected parliament and bureaucracy largely intact. Yet America was shocked when these relics of the ancien regime thwarted Russian economic and political reform for the next decade.

Likewise in Iraq, who polices the streets, distributes food to the regions and staffs the bureaucracy today will determine the future of the Iraqi state for years to come. The ad hoc, cost-cutting decisions of today will become the pathologies of Iraq's political system of tomorrow. Facts, once established, rarely change.

Lesson two: State-building is chiefly a political, not a humanitarian or administrative, task.

In post-communist Russia, American democracy promoters claimed to offer "technical assistance."

In reality, their help was far from technical and anything but value-neutral. Americans advised former Soviet governments about the most basic features of how to organize their society: how to divide powers between the president and parliament, whether to adopt a flat tax or progressive income tax and how much of a social safety net the government would provide.

American policymakers are lying to themselves and the Iraqi people by professing to stay out of Iraqi domestic politics.

Instead, America disingenuously practiced what some call the Field of Dreams school of democracy promotion: Build it, and they will come. But building courthouses, writing laws and paying legislative staffs do not, in themselves, make democracy. Democracy is an outcome of an intense political struggle and profound cultural change. If America wants to bring democracy to Iraq, it must join the political fight.

Lesson three: American domestic politics matter as much as Iraqi politics.

How America organizes its democracy promotion will help determine how the Iraqi state organizes itself. America speaks not with one but with many conflicting voices. In the former Soviet Union, the State Department, Treasury Department, Pentagon and U.S. Agency for International Development each preached from a different gospel.

Russian policymakers were either confused or cleverly listened only to which message they liked best.

America should give Iraq a tested statesman, not an administrator-general.

State-building is not just about organizing the distribution of food and medicines, but about understanding the distribution of property rights, conduct of local elections and development of civil society.

Symbols speak louder than words. Russians knew what foreign aid without a Marshall Plan said about America's commitment.

Iraqis will quickly learn what reconstruction run by the Pentagon signals about America's intentions.

The rest of the world has been awed by how fast America won the Iraq war with our weapons but will hardly be shocked by how easily we may lose the peace with our politics. The story of "Who lost Iraq?" is waiting to be written.

Matthew Spence is a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and is completing a project on American democracy promotion in the former Soviet Union.

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