Empowering the people
Books | Promoting democracy around the world isn’t wrong—but it is difficult
by Condoleezza Rice
Posted 10/27/18, 12:21 pm
Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom by Condoleezza Rice begins with the former secretary of state’s own story, in which she writes that as a child she was part of “the second founding of America, as the civil rights movement unfolded” in her Birmingham, Ala., hometown, and finally expanded “to encompass people like me.” For these racially divided times, Rice provides a good way to begin a chronicle of democracy around the world—and to consider U.S. foreign policy from President George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order” to President Donald Trump’s “America First” era.
Rice is an honest broker, accurate in her data, and candid about mistakes—like pushing (under President George W. Bush) for elections in Gaza. She was confident Hamas would lose when in fact it won and has ruled with an iron fist ever since. But democracy promotion isn’t wrong, Rice argues, only hard, as she describes in the following excerpt, courtesy of Twelve/Hachette Book Group. This book—which made WORLD’s short list for the 2017 Book of the Year in the Understanding the World category—may revive an increasingly isolated America and help it grow again. —Mindy Belz
Chapter 10: “Democracy Is the Worst … Except for All the Others”
The famous Churchill quote holds true today. And people, no matter how poor or how isolated, seem to know it. Afrobarometer is a research organization that measures attitudes on the African continent, including in some of the world’s poorest nations. For more than a decade, it has repeatedly shown a deep public understanding of the tenets of democracy and an unmistakable preference to live in freedom.
Still, it is clear that democracy is challenged—everywhere. Young democracies struggle to meet even the most basic needs of their people. Mature democracies strain to govern effectively in today’s world of instant information and immediate judgment. And in both, people, whether having lived in freedom for centuries or for just a few years, express dissatisfaction with their leaders and a lack of faith in their institutions. Therein lies the genius in Churchill’s words, though. Democracy is imperfect at the beginning and will remain so. But men and women still crave it: It alone affords human beings the dignity that comes when those who would govern them have to ask for their consent. There is simply no alternative.
Even with all of its flaws, democracy is thus a necessary and worthwhile enterprise. It is a hard slog full of contradictions and compromises on the way—hopefully to something better. Its successes and failures must be addressed over history’s long arc, not with reference to today’s headlines.
I saw this firsthand in meeting with the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2005. The country emerged out of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the violent conflict that ensued. When the war ended, the country was split into three ethnoreligious groups that did not trust each other and didn’t really want to live together. The answer: three presidents, one for each group.
“Never address one of them without addressing the other two—and never ever speak to them collectively. They must each be called out individually,” I was told. I remember thinking the whole thing a bit ridiculous, but it works—sort of. The country limps along and still does not have a unified parliament. Constitutional reform is badly needed, but for now the people just live with this unnatural and complex governing formula. The lesson is that in extreme circumstances you work with what you have, cobbling together imperfect compromises so that the country and its people can live to fight another day.
Indeed, learning to embrace the imperfect is a common theme in the stories that we have examined. Constructing democracy is messy. Of course, decent societies must make steady progress on issues of corruption and violence and inequality. Democratic governments and their people must struggle to overcome them with energy and determination. But it is useful to think of the process of building democracy as climbing steep stairs—move forward, stop on a landing if you must, consolidate, and move forward again. To stress an earlier point, democratic transitions are neither immediate successes nor immediate failures. They are constant works in progress.
Lesson One: Work with What Is There
Democratic institutions are not created in a vacuum. At the outset we identified four institutional landscapes: totalitarian collapse that leaves an institutional void; totalitarian decay that leaves institutional antecedents; authoritarian regimes and the struggle for meaningful political space; and quasi-democratic regimes with fragile and vulnerable institutions. All bring particular challenges, but our cases show that the legacy of existing arrangements must be taken into account.
The most difficult situations come from the collapse of totalitarian regimes. Since these cults of personality infuse every aspect of life—totalitario, in Mussolini’s immortal word—the landscape is barren.
But even in these cases, it is worthwhile to take stock of what is there, rather than start anew. We have seen that America’s failure to understand the institutional landscape in Iraq cost time in stabilizing the country. The Sunnis, in particular, did have institutions—the tribes, the army—but they were undervalued after Saddam’s fall. A different strategy might have at least put a floor under the collapsing country and diminished the violence. But it would not have been a panacea. The immediate postwar history of Afghanistan is illustrative in this regard.
Leading up to the war and in its immediate aftermath, the United States and its allies made a deliberate effort to build on the basis of existing institutions. The war itself was fought by the militias of warlords from the north and the south of the country. America’s footprint was light—principally airpower and special forces. There are iconic photographs of twenty-first-century American fighters supporting men on donkeys—yes, on donkeys.
The NSC meeting had become quite raucous that day. It was about two weeks after the 9/11 attacks and our military and intelligence forces were still not ready to launch the invasion against the Taliban. The president was getting anxious, worried that al‐Qaeda might launch another attack from their sanctuary in Afghanistan. “Why aren’t we ready?” he said with a distinct edge of frustration. George Tenet took the floor. “The Northern Alliance [the mainly Tajik and Uzbek militia opposed to the Taliban] says that the Russians haven’t provided the equipment they promised,” he said. The president turned to me: “Go right now and call Sergei Ivanov [the Russian defense minister] and see why they haven’t done what they said they would do.”
I left the meeting immediately and managed to get Sergei on the phone. “I know, Condi,” he said. “But it isn’t easy to find donkeys.”
“Donkeys,” I repeated.
“Yes. That’s how they move in the high mountains,” he replied.
In time, the men on donkeys won the war—with our help—against the Taliban, and al‐Qaeda was driven out of the country. The leaders of those militias became the first leaders of their country. Hamid Karzai and his men had taken the south. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, and other members of the Northern Alliance had taken the north and the west. Within three years Karzai would be president. Khan would become the powerful governor of Herat province. And Dostum would visit me as deputy defense minister in the White House.
The stout man walked into my office, clearly uncomfortable in his coat and tie. I’ll bet he’s never worn a suit, I thought to myself. Dostum tried his best to play his role, outlining the needs of the National Army of Afghanistan and describing the training of his forces. But like the other warlords, he was a peculiar pillar on which to build a democratic future for Afghanistan. The country would suffer, and does to this day, from conflict among these men and others like them—as well as their profiteering from the drug trade. They are part of the central government but guard their territorial independence jealously. And though large numbers of the militia fighters were demobilized, some remain violent.
Nonetheless, Afghanistan has held five nationwide elections since 2003.1 The National Army can hold the large cities, but the Taliban, using sanctuary in Pakistan, is more than capable of terrorism and violence. Fifteen years after the war, the country is not stable—but it is freer.
The Afghan Constitution of 2004 guarantees the rights of women to education and employment. They still face hardship and discrimination, but it is a far cry from the dark days of Taliban rule. There were about a million students in Afghan schools in 2001, and all were male. Today there are more than 8.4 million students—and almost 40 percent are female. By law, women make up 26 percent of the lower house of parliament, a higher level of female representation than in the U.S. Congress. The Afghan Constitution promises to uphold both sharia law and individual liberties—a compromise to get the country through its immediate challenges. It remains poised between modern democratic practices and ancient social customs like honor killings. In 2009, the government finally outlawed violence against women, including rape. Now women can take offenders to court—and sometimes they win.
A mullah who raped a ten-year-old girl in a mosque was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2014. A young woman won a suit against her family in 2013 after it tried to force her into prostitution. On the other hand, some rulings have been rightly perceived as setbacks to women’s rights, notably the light punishments for those involved in the mob killing of a young woman in 2015.
In other words, weak democratic structures being built on top of traditional ones has made progress difficult—particularly given the security situation exacerbated by the porous and remote Pakistani border. Still, Afghanistan is no longer a country in which women are, as a matter of government policy, beaten and executed for immodesty. The lunacy of the Taliban’s reign is over. When asked why they executed people in a football stadium built with UN money, a Taliban spokesman replied forthrightly, “We need another stadium so we can hold games there. This one we need for executions.” Afghanistan is better off, but its path since 2001 is a warning that there are downsides to building on existing institutions, even if it is necessary to do so.
In places, though, where the institutional infrastructure is richer, nurturing them makes very good sense. Poland shows that working with existing institutions—even if they are temporarily underground—improves the possibility of a successful transition when the moment comes. Solidarity was nurtured and became stronger during martial law. This was a concerted effort of the United States, the AFL-CIO, and the Catholic Church. As a result, Lech Wałęsa and his colleagues were ready to take the country forward in 1989. This gives hope that these “green shoots” can be identified and sustained even before the opening arrives. Tunisia’s educated women, active labor unions, and civil society groups gave the country a good starting point.
Colombia had a rich landscape—a relatively free press, a functioning parliament, and a pattern of competitive, if dangerous, elections. Uribe was able to reinvigorate these institutions. Kenya had a brief experiment with multiparty elections that was aborted by Kenyatta and then Moi. It did have a parliament that would produce important opposition figures as the country democratized. The Kenyan people slowly rebuilt these nascent, dormant institutions. Kenya is a relatively rare case where a strong and vibrant civil society developed even under authoritarian rule. This provided a good foundation for democratic progress later on.
Russia’s transition would ultimately fail, even though it had a decent institutional infrastructure, largely due to the reforms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In this case, though, they were not nurtured—they were largely overrun. In fact, there was a kind of disregard by the international community for what was there—swept away by rapid privatization and “shock therapy.” And Russians ignored their own institutions too. Therein lies the second lesson.
Lesson Two: First Presidents Matter
Finding a balance of power between institutions of government is the single most important key to a successful transition. And the crucial element of that balance is to limit the power of the executive. The presidency must be embedded in a network of constraints—an independent judiciary, a capable legislature, and, in some cases, an empowered prime minister. All young democracies struggle with this aspect of institutional design. It is hard to do, because strong personalities will emerge and the people will desire immediate results. A single figure—the president—can emerge as a symbol of stability in troubled times. Parliaments or prime ministers can be seen as just obstacles to get around.
Russia and Ukraine had—on paper—balance between the parliament, the prime minister, and the president. But it didn’t hold under pressure. In fact, Boris Yeltsin destroyed the equilibrium with his attack on the parliament in 1993 and an impatient temperament that led him to rule by decree. First presidents set the tone.
I remember meeting Nelson Mandela for the first time. He came to visit President Bush in the Oval Office. Mandela had been critical of the war in Iraq, and the president was searching for a way to get the meeting off on a good foot. “Mr. President, talk to him about AIDS relief,” I suggested. “That is something you have in common.”
When the two men sat down, the president decided to take a different approach. “Why didn’t you run for another term?” he asked Mandela. The South African’s face was lined but beneficent—there was a dignified aura about him. But the president’s question caused him to break up laughing. “I wanted my African brothers to know that it is all right to leave office,” he said. At that moment I thought of George Washington and his refusal to even think about becoming America’s king. First presidents matter, I thought. The South Africans, like the Americans, are really lucky.
Lech Wałęsa, Poland’s first president, stepped down after one term—replaced by an ex‐communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, whose democratic instincts proved to be strong. The Poles were lucky too. And though it took awhile, successive Kenyan presidents have since stepped down when rejected by the voters, and constitutional reforms have given the prime minister real power. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has proved to be an indefatigable champion of democracy for the Liberian people.
The Russians have not been so fortunate. Boris Yeltsin had enormous credibility and authority after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But he did not use it to create a strong presidency within a balanced government. The other institutions—the parliament, the judiciary—were no match for this bull in a china shop. He ruled by decree and even took the army into the streets against them. The presidency was just too strong and unchecked: That was a problem under Yeltsin that became the death knell for freedom when Vladimir Putin inherited the mantle. The executive has to be constrained to limit human beings—those with good intentions and those with bad ones.
Lesson Three: Wei-ji
The Chinese characters for “crisis” describe well one of the key lessons in building democracy. It is said that wei means “danger” and ji means “opportunity.” There is both danger and opportunity in a crisis. And young democracies are bound to have plenty of crises; each is a chance to strengthen the institutional infrastructure of the country. But the catch is this—leaders have to be willing to actually use the institutions to solve problems. Colombia’s “democratic security” under Álvaro Uribe is a very good example of exactly this. The decades of civil war had effectively turned Colombia into a failed state. Its institutions were compromised—the judiciary, the army; and the police were ineffective and viewed as corrupt and complicit in the violence. The government did not own a monopoly on force—paramilitaries and the FARC could outgun them in large parts of the country. Defeating the insurgency and ending the civil war were accomplished simultaneously by rebuilding those institutions.
In this regard, the rebuilding of the judiciary’s credibility was especially important. Citizens have to know that justice is blind and that all will be subject to the rule of law. The Constitutional Court also showed its mettle when it stood up to Uribe, telling him that he could not run for a third term.
Poland’s institutions are being tested today in the struggle for control of the courts. The experience of Uribe shows why it is so important to protect an independent judiciary.
A Subset: Electoral Crises
Kenya provides a similar lesson from a different perspective. The contested election of 2007 led to widespread violence and a rejection of the results by large parts of the population. The Kenyans ended up with a power-sharing arrangement largely negotiated by outsiders. But they learned from that experience and improved the institutional infrastructure through constitutional reforms. The next election was also essentially 50‐50, but this time the candidates put their faith in the Electoral Commission, the loser accepted the outcome, and the country moved on. There is no guarantee that every contested election will be resolved in this way, but having done it once, Kenyans have a good chance of doing it again.
The fact is that institutions can exist on paper, but they have no power until people come to put faith in them. No one really knows how strong an institution is until it is tested. Passing a crucible test and surviving can lead to a virtuous cycle—as institutions prove themselves, people are likely to use them again and again. That is how they become worth more than the paper they are written on.
Lesson Four: Politics Must Connect to the People
Institutions are intended to minimize the impact of individual whims on a country’s course. But as we have seen, there can be a tendency for leaders to engage mostly in personal tugs-of-war. In Ukraine, the politics of personality made it difficult to get anything done, particularly after the Orange Revolution. The state of affairs was dispiriting for the population. People began to see their leaders as all about personal power all of the time.
If citizens lose interest in the politics of the country, the democratic system is compromised. That leads to another lesson: Politics in a democracy must connect to the interests and concerns of the people.
This is especially true for political parties. I met recently with a member of the Georgian parliament and an American who is helping with the elections there. The conversation turned to the problem of political parties that seem to have no real platform for governing—at least not one that addresses the questions on the minds of voters. It immediately reminded me of the problem with liberal political parties in Ukraine and Russia. The platforms rarely speak to the widows in the rust belt cities of the Russian periphery who have lost pensions or the worker whose factory has closed.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many liberal parties do not reach outside of the large cities. On the other hand, United Russia (Putin’s party) has tentacles in every region. One of the strengths of Islamist parties like Hezbollah in Lebanon has been its outreach to the poor and the rural. Tunisia’s success thus far makes the point clearly. The broad base of the labor unions and their appeal to ordinary voters—not unlike Solidarity in Poland—have helped to temper the actions of the Islamists.
If democracy is to work, people need a way to aggregate their interests and present them to those who would govern. And those who would govern have to represent those interests.
Civil society groups do this in part, but they are usually issue-limited—human rights, judicial reform, environmental stewardship, or women’s empowerment. A more direct relationship between ideas to address people’s daily lives and their politicians’ policies needs to emerge. One would think that in the age of smartphones and the Internet this would not be such a difficult task. It has been.
Technology has been a mixed blessing for the spread of democracy. On the one hand, it has helped people to mobilize to bring down the old—in Egypt, Russia, and Ukraine. In Kenya and Colombia, it allowed people to share information about what was going on and to protest when they disagreed. But there are few examples of technology actually strengthening the institutions themselves. Ukraine has experimented with “e‐government” in an effort to root out corruption and improve efficiency. India’s biometric identification system has similar goals. A number of governments, such as Estonia, use the Internet as a forum for democracy, posting budgets for citizen comment.
These examples notwithstanding, the track record thus far is not very promising. Technology has been far more successful at tearing down the old than building up the new.
Political parties do need to represent people’s interests. But we have seen the dangers of the seemingly irresistible pull of sectarian parties. Many of Kenya’s troubles stem from the tribal basis of its parties. And it is a reminder too that even in an ethnically divided country, the balance between devolution and central authority can be a challenge. In Kenya, federalism appears to have reinforced tribalism. In Russia, the regions became too independent under Yeltsin and served to weaken the state. Now Vladimir Putin has reversed course—and federalism is no check on the central government. Decentralization can bring government closer to the people, but in some circumstances it brings its own challenges. Federalism is healthy in most circumstances, but not all. This last point should remind outsiders who want to help to attend to local conditions in institutional design. No one size fits all.
Lesson Five: It All Takes Time
The most important lesson, though, is the need for patience. The messiness, the fits and starts, the imperfections are all a part of the process—they were for the United States, and they will be for every country that sets out on the road to democracy. It took Great Britain 240 years, from the Revolution of 1688 until 1928, to grant universal suffrage. And along the way multiple rebellions and a civil war almost allowed absolutists to triumph.
No country has had an easy path to democracy. It is well to remember again what Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers: “I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man.” And to remember too that no matter how imperfect democracy is, it remains the only system that fully accords with the “nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.”2
From the book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom. Copyright © 2017 by Condoleezza Rice. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.
- While Afghanistan has done a good job of keeping to its schedule of regular elections, the parliamentary elections due in 2016 became a source of dispute, as sought-after electoral reforms failed to pass and the election was delayed.
- George W. Bush, The National Security Strategy for the United States of America, September 2002, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/63562.pdf.