Sunday, February 13, 2011

Talk the Talk, but Will You Walk the Walk?

The US likes to talk a good game about "supporting democracies" around the world. But the actual policies of both Republican and Democratic administrations has been something quite different. Here's a bit from comments about the Carnegie Council's book The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace where Morton Halperin acknowledges the real facts about US policy:
... successive American presidents have said, particularly since the end of the Cold War, that a major goal of American foreign policy was to spread or enlarge or enhance democracy, and that our foreign policy was geared to supporting those who were struggling to establish and maintain democratic regimes.

Yet if you look at development assistance from the United States, from the international financial institutions, and even from the Europeans and the European Community, you find that there is no democracy advantage. That is, democratic countries, in fact, receive less development assistance than do non-democratic countries. You also find in the rhetoric, and even the charters, of development agencies a belief that democracy is not their business. They increasingly talk about good governance as one aspect of development, but not about democracy. The people who run USAID believe that their job is to promote development, and not democracy. That permits them to consider good-governance issues, but not to ask the fundamental question: Is this a democratic society that we want to support?


The book demonstrates that you are much less likely to get the desired amount of prosperity if you turn away from democracy. Yes, many democracies have not delivered as much as people had hoped for, but the way to get what you want is to strengthen the democracy to deal with the issues of corruption and inequality, and not to think that if you turn away from democracy, you will do better. The evidence is overwhelming that you will do worse.


What I found most surprising is how infrequently poor economic performance leads to the end of a democratic regime. That occurs much less frequently than I had feared and assumed.

We have an obligation to help countries that have taken that path to succeed in democracy. Part of that is more assistance. Part of that is backing off the Washington consensus of the advice we give these countries about how to develop, which turns out to be a model that no country has ever succeeded in following.
Note: the "Washington Consensus" was horribly bad neo-liberal advice that advocated rapid and radical "free trade" which undermined the economies of a lot of third world countries. It served the interests of big corporations, but it didn't help the people in the third world countries. The classic advice was to let their currencies float. During the 1997 Asian financial crisis this brought near Great Depression financial ruin to many countries. Paul Krugman argued against this radical policy and one country, Malaysia, kept control of its currency and weathered the financial storm far better than any of the countries following the radical "free trade" policies pushed by the Washington Consensus and enforced by the World Bank.

The joke is that most Americans see their country as the "shining example", the infamous "beacon on a hill". But the reality is that the US has undermined many countries as part of its industrial/military policies for the world. The tragedy is that most ordinary Americans would prefer their country to support democracies and economies around the world. But the ruling elite are co-opted into a policy of commercial and military exploitation which never gets an honest airing in the media or the public schools in America. So there is a great chasm between what Americans think they are doing "for" the world and what the world see as America doing "to them".

The recent revolution in Egypt is something refreshingly new. The first impulse of the Obama admininstration was to argue for "security and stability" which mean "back the dictator". But to Obama's credit, he slowly came around to the fact that the reality on the ground would not allow the US to get away with this policy without tremendous bloodshed. So Obama moved to an agenda of easing Mubarak out. The initial plan was to substitute Omar Suleiman, but the Egyptians handled this so badly that finally the US backed the military council. Now the struggle is behind a curtain. The military council has a tendency to authoritarianism because the elite generals are all crony capitalists since the army owns a big chunk of Egypt's economy. Whether a true democratic revolution can be pushed through while the military council "guides" the process is an open question. This will be the real test of Obama and the generals.

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