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Promoting Democracy Is Not Imposing Democracy

Until Egypt, the promotion of democracy suffered under the fiasco of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, which gave a bad name to the promotion of democracy, the invasion's last and most desperate justification. But imposing democracy is not promoting democracy. And Egypt is not Iraq, in many more ways than the obvious.

Remember the Bush administration began with a policy against nation-building that resonated with old-fashioned nationalism and isolationism. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 turned George W.'s prior rhetoric on its head, trumpeting a global campaign against authoritarianism. His practice, however, fell far short of his rhetoric. He applauded democracy but made very few hard choices in its favor, backing down from early efforts to push democracy in Egypt after Hamas won the elections in Palestine. He also made little actual investment in democracy in the very poor countries that were attempting a transition to democracy.

Baghdad's political reality exposed the downside of imposing democracy as a way to expand the peace that democracies experience among themselves. But that failure was not the only reason for rejecting forced democratization. A century old tradition of ethical and practical lessons argued against it. For anyone committed to equal human dignity, democratic government means collective "self" government, not laws and regulations imposed by foreigners, however well-meaning. And forcing democracy from the outside tends not to work. Democracy is not only government "for" the people, it is also government "of" and "by" the people. Unless the people see themselves as a people and are prepared to pay taxes, defend their borders, and abide by majority rule, democracy is unsustainable.

When even well-meaning foreigners seek to liberate a country whose people haven't been able to liberate themselves, they fall into one of three traps.

Trap No. 1: the newly designated forces of freedom find that they cannot rule, and, as in Iraq, a civil war follows the liberating invasion.

Trap No. 2: the new freedom faction finds that it can stay in power only with ongoing foreign support. So, rather than a free nation, it has become a cog in an imperial machine.

Trap No. 3: the freedom faction learns that to stay in power it must govern as the previous dictators did, by force. The liberating invaders are thus responsible not only for the costs in lives and money of the invasion but for an invasion that has literally done no good, produced a civil war, a colony, or one more tyranny with a new ideological label attached.

Iraq fell into the first trap, and no one can yet be sure it will avoid the second and third. No state should risk entering one of these intervention traps other than for overriding concerns, like vital national security after a war of self-defense or humanitarian rescue of a population facing genocide. Alarming as it was, the confusion last week in Washington as to whether the US should celebrate or guide the Egyptian revolution left Egyptians in charge.

Democracy is best promoted peacefully. It spreads by good example, by incentives and assistance. Promoting democracy is done best when it is done indirectly through trade, investment, and foreign aid. All these can help develop and diversify societies, and diversified, growing societies tend, over the long run, to demand responsive governance. Among the most powerful "weapons" in the arsenal of promoting democracy internationally -- think of them as the genuine shock troops of democratization -- are students, tourists, and business investors. They build bridges to friends and associates overseas. They send a message of solidarity and opportunity to subjects who are prepared to take the risks of becoming active citizens. Building the institutions of the rule of law, a free press, and education also contributes, indirectly, to promoting sustainable democracy.

Bilateral foreign aid can play a valuable role if it is carefully planned with local actors in the lead. Multilateral assistance, such as the UN Democracy Fund, is particularly useful because it frees the recipients from the taint of foreign control. And the informal "Community of Democracies" usefully serves as a kind of "trade" association, encouraging coordination and democracy promotion, without undermining local initiative or multilateral institutions.

Democratic countries need not be passive, and they do need to be patient. Peaceful strategies offer the best chance for expanding the zone of peace among fellow democracies and reaping the internal benefits of democratization.

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