September 3, 2006

Focus on Human Rights, Not Democracy

In an earlier piece I pointed out that democracies have often not respected human rights (I highlighted the enslavement of Africans during almost the first century of our nation’s existence, as well as the almost 100 years after the Civil War when majorities in the South actively terrorized blacks.) It is an unfortunate historical fact that there are many instances where one segment of a population, in a politically democratic country, has chosen to oppress another segment and gotten away with it, even in the presence of democratic institutions.

Although the Bush Administration’s foreign policy mistakes are almost incalculable, the greatest mistake has been framing American foreign policy solely in terms of promoting democracy, instead of the larger umbrella of human rights. (Not only does Bush rarely, if ever, mention the phrase “human rights” in his speeches or talks, but from Abu Ghrain to Guantanamo to the CIA’s secret prisons U.S. policy has actually been going backwards in key areas of human rights.)

By linking our goals in effect to little more than democratic elections, the Administration has put us in a bind; voters in the Palestinian territories elected the terrorist organization Hamas, Lebanese elections led to a substantial number of parliamentary seats for Hezbollah, and many in the majority Shiite population of Iraq hold extremist religious views and actively support Hezbollah. By promoting democracy above all else, the Administration has ironically rendered us impotent when it comes to criticizing the results of these elections.

Aside from the continuing disaster that is the Iraq democratic experiment, Pakistan is a perfect case study of the incompleteness of the democracy-above-all-else position. Pakistan is likely the home base for Osama Bin Laden and Sheik Omar, many Pakistanis are helping the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, the nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan ran a WMD smuggling ring from the highest levels of government (which supplied North Korean, Iran, and Libya with weapons material; remember, he is considered an “Islamic hero” in Pakistan), and there is evidence that the recent terrorist plot in Britain was supported by Pakistanis. If the neocon strategy made any sense this would be a perfect country to democratize, but it isn’t. It is likely that if democratic elections were held today in Pakistan Islamic radicals would win, putting them in command of nuclear weapons. While there is much that we should be doing to pressure President Musharraf to increase freedom and opportunity within Pakistan, democracy under current conditions would likely decrease both U.S. national security and human rights. Almost the same situation would play out in Saudi Arabia, which is why we must push for reform, but not insist right away on open democratic elections.

It is important to recognize the depth of historical myopia that motivates this fixation with elections that is so prominent among the neocons. The right has forgotten the essential characteristic of democracy, that it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The “end” is a free society where minority rights are protected, all citizens have economic opportunities, and where civil liberties are respected regardless of gender, race, or class. History is replete with democracies that have been the opposite: oppressive and imperialistic (e.g., almost all of Western Europe for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries). And while all free societies by definition must be democratic, the converse is not true; not all democratic societies are free societies. This is the fatal flaw in the neocon reasoning.

Unfortunately, some prominent thinkers on the left (e.g., Peter Beinart of the New Republic and Shadi Hamid at the American Prospect) are recommending that liberals stick to the democracy agenda, but offer a new progressive form of promoting democratic ideals. This is a terrible strategy, not only because the neocons and the Bush Administration have soured the American people on such an agenda, but because it’s bad policy.

A new foreign policy, whether spearheaded by a Democratic or Republican Administration in 2008, should instead switch the focus towards the promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, women’s rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, and the rule of law, none of which come automatically with a “democracy”. These are the human rights that Americans should promote without reservation, while at the same time shoring up our own fledgling democratic system.

In addition, there is a significant body of scholarly work that examines the question of whether economic or political freedom comes first in the development of modern societies. The consensus seems to indicate that economic freedom precedes political freedom. This makes sense because without economic stability and a solid middle class, it is hard for a truly liberal democratic system to take root.

Apart from the promotion of human rights abroad (and at home), a serious commitment to increased global economic interdependence and the free flow of information are America’s best bets to set the stage for sustained democratic reform. They will certainly do more to advance our interests than ill-conceived military operations, or lofty rhetoric about the virtues of democracy directed towards nations with virtually no civil society or basic respect for human rights.


P.S. After I wrote this Spencer Ackerman published a piece with almost the identical theme in the American Prospect. Check it out; I hope this becomes the centerpiece of a new foreign policy for the left. You can also view Shadi Hamid’s tepid and unpersuasive response to Ackerman at Democracy Arsenal.

Jason Scorse