Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Spirit of the (Rule of) Laws

Robert Green Lane of The Economist has a nice essay in TNR reminding us that while putting the formal procedures of democracy in place can occur overnight, getting a hang of the spirit of the thing can often take a long while. The Russian experience is particularly instructive in this respect, for here we have a people who seem to have no great desire for the principles of liberal democracy, yearning instead for the constrained certainties of the authoritarianism that has always been the Russian man's lot.

How long does it take for a democracy to emerge from the shadow of totalitarian dictatorship? That's the question facing American policymakers eager to make a success out of the gamble in Iraq. And if the example of another prominent country making the transition from dictatorship--Russia, which holds legislative elections on December 7--is any indication, the answer is: quite some time.

As both Iraq and the former Soviet Union make clear, the legacy of totalitarianism is utterly debilitating. Not only are there no opportunities for political initiative--such as voting, referenda, political protest--in totalitarian societies; there is no room for individual initiative of any kind. (This is the key difference between a totalitarian society and a merely authoritarian society, like Franco's Spain or Suharto's Indonesia.) Free choice turns out to be a habit, not an inborn human trait. The result is that citizens of formerly totalitarian countries must first learn how to make personal decisions; only then can they even begin to contemplate political decisions. The process can be agonizingly slow.

One corollary is that bringing democracy to a former dictatorship is even more difficult when that country has no experience with it earlier in its history. Many post-authoritarian countries in Europe, including Spain, Greece, and Portugal, as well as many of the former Soviet satellites, enjoyed some form of democracy before their detour into dictatorship. As a result, they managed to throw off their dictatorships relatively painlessly, and were comfortably established as democracies after roughly a decade. Notably, the politically worst-off countries of the former Soviet bloc--Romania and Albania, as well as Russia itself--had little or no democratic experience.

These are two major reasons why, twelve years and four major elections after the end of the Soviet Union, Russia is still barely democratic. In a recent book, Russia experts Michael McFaul of Stanford and Timothy Colton of Harvard politely call Russia a "managed democracy." Freedom House, an NGO that rates political and civil liberties across countries, calls Russia just "partly free." My own publication, The Economist, has flatly said that, "The West should stop pretending Russia is a free democracy."

Lane is undoubtedly correct when he says that the Russian experience should warn us against imagining that some sort of democratic domino theory will hold in the Middle East. While the transition to democracy, if successful, will surely prove an improvement for the Iraqi people on Saddam's regime, there will, for many years to come, still be people from all walks of life who will condemn the wearisome and "useless" cacophony of squabbling in a democratic society, and look fondly back on the strong-man era as being the "good old days." Listening to Iraqis bellyaching about the shortcomings of the American occupation brings to life the veracity of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld's cynical maxims about the human condition.