The Failure of Anti-Despotism
Justin Weitz

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 prompted a dramatic change in the rhetoric of Anglo-American foreign policy. During the Cold War era, Communism was the avowed enemy: Western governments told us that our primary goal was to limit the scope of the Soviet Union's pernicious influence. As a result, decision-makers from Marshall to McNamara to Shultz prioritized anti-Communism over democracy, whether the United States was supporting the military regime of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA in Angola or the Contras in Nicaragua. Human rights, we were told, had to take a back seat as the US attempted to stymie the growth of the "evil empire."

Since the advent of the "New World Order," however, the US has changed its tune. Even as it continues to act in its own sometimes-enlightened self-interest, America now tells us that global democracy and freedom means not just freedom from Communism but an American model of political order as well. Indeed, sometimes, the United States has labored to remove the very dictators it once supported. The Clinton administration inaugurated this policy, announcing in 1993 that U.S. foreign policy would be guided by the doctrine of "enlargement," aimed at expanding the community of free and democratic nations, by which it meant, nations whose governments resemble America's.

This policy, which has continued through the current administration, is exceedingly superficial, whether through ignorance or design. Western policymakers act as though removing dictatorship means nothing more than removing dictators. In another context, but with eerie prescience, nineteenth-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote that "like bad physicians, they thought to cure the disease by removing the symptoms, and fancied that if the tyrant were put to death, freedom would follow of itself." Just as the U.S. seems ignorant of the structural and economic realities that undergird its own political system, it acts as if other nations are all Americans-in-waiting, ready to blossom into Apple Pie democracies if only the cancers of evil-doing dictators are removed by a benevolent interlocutor.

This superficial approach to "regime change" has failed, because it supposes that a patina of democratic institutions, coupled with the infrastructure of neo-liberalism, can somehow cure developing nations of the real reasons they are enmeshed in struggle: woeful inequity and elitism.

The U.S. employs a limited definition of democracy, modeled on the American form of government: free and fair elections, the protections guaranteed by the American Bill of Rights, and competition among institutions in civil society. As if the trappings of democracy - election posters, political parties - could bring real democracy, even in the absence of economic equity or inter-ethnic stability. This is delusion. In the 1990s, the Western governments demanded elections throughout the developing world, often in places with low literacy rates, weak institutions, and raging ethnic disputes. The U.S. regarded elections as talismanic in nature, even if these elections occur in highly volatile and controlled conditions, as in El Salvador in the 1980s or Cambodia in the 1990s. Often, the election-centric policy resulted in temporary "success." Dictators were replaced by elected prime ministers. But because the dictators themselves were but manifestations of dysfunctional social and economic development, their removal frequently permitted the same uncivil practices to continue in democratic clothing. Consider the examples of Pakistan and the Ivory Coast, where elected leaders stole vast amounts of money and played one ethnic group against the other, until by the end of the 1990s the militaries in both countries staged coups, which the local population greeted with demonstrable relief.

Often, as in Tanzania, Kenya, and several other African nations, the push for multiparty elections has fanned domestic tensions through the rapid proliferation of ethnically-, regionally-, or religiously- based political parties. Other times, democratically elected governments may rule in an exceedingly undemocratic manner, leading some observers to caution that there may be a proliferation of "illiberal democracies," such as in Peru, Romania, Bangladesh, and Ghana.

And sometimes, the New World Order fixates on institutions of democracy in contrast to mechanisms that promote economic justice. Mexico holds successful elections, for example, but has difficulty purging elite corruption in institutions such as police and a court. The result is barely manageable turmoil. India remains officially a "democratic success story," but only if one avoids the ground-level reality of urban gangs, fixed local elections, the growing scarcity of water, religious tensions, and vigilante justice. Both India and Mexico are undermined by a volcano of unemployed youth in urban slums that results in the formation of a volatile populist movements. And these are the lucky ones. Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, and other countries are not so fortunate, although until a headline-grabbing, Somalia-style breakdown occurs, years of gradual breakdown can occur without anyone paying much attention.

So much for imagining that dictators, rather than structural economic and social inequality, were the problem, and that elections alone could be the solution.

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July 2002

jay's head
josh ring