By Erin Rodewald // July 3, 2017
(This article originally appeared at Philos Project)
Tomorrow, America will celebrate its 241st birthday. As in years past, July 4 festivities across the nation will stir our collective sense of patriotism. There will be parades and marching bands. Spectacular fireworks will light up the night sky from New York to Los Angeles. In towns and cities across the land, Old Glory will wave and remind us that because we are steeped in a tradition of democracy, we remain a country where all men are created equal – that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
But the contentious political climate in America circa 2017, combined with an apparent upsurge in popularity of autocrats abroad – Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, to name a few – has many observers wondering if the American experiment has timed out. Could this generation be witness to the worldwide decline of democracy?
In her new book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, former U.S. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice abjures the skeptics and dispels the myth that democracy is in retreat. On the contrary, she argued that democracy – while inherently flawed and always imperfect – remains the best means to promote peace and ensure human freedom, dignity and progress around the world.
“No matter their station in life, people are drawn to the idea that they should determine their own fate,” Rice writes. “Ironically, while those of us who live in liberty express skepticism about democracy’s promise, people who do not yet enjoy its benefits seem determined to win it. Freedom has not lost its appeal.”
One might expect such a posture from a chief architect and advocate of the Freedom Agenda, the policy adopted during the George W. Bush Administration, to advance liberty and democracy as alternatives to repression and radicalism in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Rice spends a substantial portion of her narrative parsing the shaky movements toward democracy in the Middle East, a region that commanded much of her attention during her tenure at Foggy Bottom.
Freedom has not lost its appeal.
Rice also offers firsthand and compelling accounts of democracy’s ebb and flow in other regions, including Poland, Kenya, Colombia and most notably Russia and the Ukraine, where she demonstrates the depths of her Cold War scholarship. It is her clear-eyed analysis of America’s own complex and sometimes-delicate journey, however, that lends credibility to her hypothesis. She does not shy away from addressing America’s faults, particularly what she calls its “greatest birth defect:” slavery. Neither does she dwell on the blemishes, however. Instead, she uses them instructively to assemble a viable framework for success.
“Democracy, particularly in its first moments, will be messy, imperfect, mistake-prone and fragile,” she writes. “The question isn’t one of how to create perfect circumstances, but how to move forward under difficult conditions.”
In her examination, Rice points to five aspects critical to successful democratic transitions: institutional balance; limited role of the military; a healthy separation between the state, religion and politics; a robust civil society; and a spirit of constitutionalism. For the average civics student, these aspects are not hard to spot in the American example. Institutional balance is found in our three-branch system of government. Our armed forces are second to none, but we do not typically have soldiers stationed on street corners to keep the peace. Religious freedom is enshrined in our First Amendment. Private enterprise, non-governmental organizations and philanthropic foundations comprise perhaps the most stable pillar in American society. And our citizens – not just our leaders – actively engage in government via the ballot box and other ways.
Rice credits the Founding Fathers with devising a workable framework of principles and laws that have guided generations of Americans, even as new challenges and tensions have emerged.
“The lesson for young democracies is that not everything can be settled at the start,” Rice cautions. “But if the institutions are put in place and citizens use them, there is at least a way to channel the passions of free people and to resolve the hard questions of governing as they arise in future times.”
Still, while critics might acknowledge the value and viability of democracy at home, many warn it is nothing short of American arrogance to believe democracy can or should be inserted elsewhere. Indeed, that sentiment was the driving undercurrent of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. In remarks delivered to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, Obama said, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years. Let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” This was, of course, a reverse of the Bush Administration’s Freedom Agenda so carefully nurtured by Rice.
On the topic of democracy, President Donald Trump seems to be echoing his predecessor. In a speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit in May, Trump reiterated one of his inaugural messages, saying, “America is a sovereign nation, and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture; we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for all.”
Democracy is never imposed. It is tyranny that must be imposed.
By contrast, speaking at the American University in 2005, shortly after Saddam Hussein had been deposed, then-Secretary Rice offered unequivocal words in support of democracy: “It is time to abandon the excuses that are made to avoid the hard work of democracy. There are those who say that democracy is being imposed. In fact, the opposite is true: Democracy is never imposed. It is tyranny that must be imposed. Liberty is the universal longing of every soul, and democracy is the ideal path of every nation.”
In Democracy, Rice remains an unabashed advocate for democracy, particularly in the Middle East, where others might be inclined to throw up their hands and walk away after years of sectarian fighting, escalating terrorism and rampant corruption. Rice refuses to write off the democratic prospects in the region, however. “A stable Middle East will one day have to be a democratic Middle East,” she writes. “Only through institutions can people of all religious and ethnic groups find a way to peacefully protect their interests and rights.”
In the context of the Middle East, it is worth noting that Rice draws an important distinction between democracy promotion and the decision to overthrow Hussein. She writes that that decision was made in the interest of national security and predicated on the desire to end a perpetual state of limited war against the Iraqi dictator who had repeatedly ignored United Nations resolutions. The decision to give the Iraqi people a chance at democracy, she notes, was a subsequent and separate decision consistent with the principles of the Freedom Agenda.
Rice offers a few concluding lessons of encouragement for freedom-loving people intent upon harnessing the promises of democracy. First is to consider the existing institutional landscape and, whenever possible, work with what is there to develop a good foundation for progress. Second, first presidents matter because they will set the tone for the balance and transfer of power moving forward. Third, crises can mean danger, but they also signal opportunity. The fourth lesson is a reminder that politics must connect with the people. If citizens lose interest, if they feel insignificant or ignored, democracy will be compromised.
And finally, Rice notes that democracy does not take root quickly. Democracy takes time – a long time. But that is not a reason not to begin.
“If democracy is in recession,” she says “we need to make every effort to reinvigorate it. I suspect, though, that the dire warnings about its prospects stem in part from the dashed expectations that democracy’s march would be linear – a straight line toward progress.” It is, of course, a journey.
Independence Day is a fitting time to pause and consider that journey and the remarkable gift the Founding Fathers gave this country. Democracy is not perfect. It is not easy. It does not come cheap. Rice reminds us that it is a gift worth preserving – and sharing.