NATO Time Out on Democracy

By Robert Pastor, Founding Director, Foreign Policy Program, American Foreign Policy Council and Peter Salovey, Former President of the Robertson School of Government, Regent University

Elections in Greece, Tunisia, and of course, the United States, threw up clear winners last November. Yet in each case there is significant ambiguity about who won the votes and who is in power. Does Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party really control the government? How is the country governed now in terms of economic policy and foreign policy? Greece and Ireland had divergent and sometimes antagonistic goals, but they shared a common vision of democracy. How will the West defend democracy? The leadership of the West offers similar messages. It is convinced that democracy has failed and that it’s under attack. Yet the question is how the West goes about defending this vital value of democracy against political forces that undermine it.

In these turbulent times it is difficult to determine which authoritarian or populist governments represent democracy’s greatest peril. But the changes of regime taking place in countries around the world also could result in fundamental shifts in how the West looks at democracy. The sooner the West clarifies what values underpin democracy, the better.

The Economic Crisis and Western Democracy

The 2008 financial crisis taught a lesson. The elites in Washington and London and the business classes with their crony capitalism expected their tax dollars to bail out the banks. They now realize that they got it all wrong. They relied on the presumed strength of an economy growing at 7 percent to sustain social costs and social organizations. Today, those social costs are becoming clear and more and more political forces are rising up to challenge capitalism.

This realization has already begun to undermine the stability of governments in eastern Europe that will have to follow Russia’s model of limited democracy. Belarus is still dominated by the Soviet Union’s absolutist form of communism, the Belarusian government now appears too dictatorial, reminiscent of Cuba or North Korea. Russia is another example of a state that works to stifle dissent. The point is that the crisis provides important examples of what works and what doesn’t. An examination of authoritarian regimes under stress does not provide a definitive answer.

Democracy under Attack in the Muslim World

In addition to the problems of sanctions and foreign aid that have weakened the government of Iran, a government that does not offer true change in the Middle East stands to lose. A country not concerned with free elections and openness and openness with the West is likely to lose friends. European democracy won’t accept a repressive regime that has harsh policies against women. Freedom House now rates Iran as Free, but this is limited because the government censors what is published. Sunni Islam poses another concern for Western democracy. The Western-backed Islamic Iraqi political movement in Iraq, Sood, is strongly opposed to the ruling Shiite alliance and could possibly change to join it. In the Arab world, it is far less clear if the existence of democracy encourages democracy. There are plenty of countries in the Islamic world where democratic competition does not exist and where authoritarian leaders will remain in power.

Let us assume that democracy is on its way. And let us assume that if the West can explain what democracy is and why, it might be more likely to convince a young woman in Iran of the need for abortion rights. Or a woman in Egypt that wants to challenge a repressive law against freedom of association that was created by autocratic ruler.

Looking back, our current age of unprecedented global globalization and the emergence of a new global balance of power, political risk and climate change are precursors to a new era. We are on the edge of a new era of uncertainty and change. Democracy’s future is uncertain.

Robert Pastor and Peter Salovey are distinguished fellows of the American Foreign Policy Council.

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