Commentary Magazine

Power to the People by Michael Mandelbaum

Power to the People
Democracy’s Good Name:
The Rise and Risks of the World’s Most Popular Form of Government
by Michael Mandelbaum
Public Affairs. 316 pp. $27.95

Is democracy in decline? Some observers seem to think so. For evidence, they point to the failure of the United States to bring stability to Iraq, the way reformers have been crushed by the ayatollahs running Iran, the increasingly sophisticated techniques used by Communist China to retain political control, the ascension to power, via elections, of the Islamist terrorist movement Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the radical left-wing leader Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the return of assertive authoritarianism in Russia. All this is happening, moreover, at precisely the moment when the expansion of freedom has been embraced by President Bush as a basic value of American foreign policy.

To Michael Mandelbaum, who teaches international relations at Johns Hopkins and has written on subjects ranging from U.S. foreign policy to baseball, such gloom betrays a serious misreading of democracy’s history and current status. As he argues in his new book, the extraordinary growth that political freedom has enjoyed over the past quarter-century is a much more important story than is its failure to emerge in the relatively small number of remaining autocracies. In Democracy’s Good Name he surveys the history of democratic government from the French Revolution forward, analyzes the circumstances that have given rise to and sustained it in disparate locations around the globe, and attempts to explain its resurgence at the close of a century that also gave rise to some of the most durable dictatorial regimes in human history.



Mandelbaum concedes at the outset that “[e]verything we know about history [has] argued against the triumph of democracy.” For centuries, it was believed even by enemies of tyranny that democracy was a dangerous alternative, one that would inevitably lead to another form of tyranny—namely, of the majority. And yet, in the face of this and other obstacles, the model set by a small collection of liberal democracies proved powerfully influential—and never more so than in the latter part of the 20th century when it became impossible to ignore or deny their unique ability to provide both freedom and prosperity to their citizens. Via the example set by America, Great Britain, and a handful of other countries, democracy “became the world’s most successful brand.”

Of course there were setbacks along the way. As recently as the mid-1970’s, Mandelbaum notes, democracy was under duress if not in outright decline. An emboldened Communism was scoring seemingly momentous gains in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, while juntas and strongmen held sway throughout the third world. Not only did democracy’s reach extend little beyond its West European and North American nucleus, but the democratic idea itself had fallen out of fashion. Many experts in the United States, and an even greater number in Europe, were maintaining that it was, in fact, an inappropriate form of government for the immature societies of the developing world.

But even as these pessimistic scenarios were being drawn, there had begun what has been called democracy’s Third Wave, a remarkable process that spread from southern Europe to Latin America, Asia, and, finally, the Communist world. Today, Mandelbaum records, some 120 countries, nearly two-thirds of the world’s total, are classified as democracies.



How did this turnabout occur? Mandelbaum writes extensively here about the central roles played by elections and civil liberties in maintaining young democracies once they have been established. But, for him, the principal engine of democratic expansion in recent decades has been the free market. The unfettered exchange of goods and services produces wealth, strengthens the middle class, limits corruption, and instills habits of trust and compromise in societies where envy and a winner-take-all mentality have long prevailed. Mandelbaum goes so far as to predict that market economics may eventually lead to democratic transformations in the world’s two most geopolitically important autocracies: China and Russia.

Not that the rise of democracy happens automatically, even given the presence of markets. Conscious agency plays a central role, as we see in the sacrifices made by dissidents and democratic activists in so many repressive societies. And the actions of outside powers can be crucial.

In the latter respect, Mandelbaum singles out the postwar role played by Washington in the political transformation of the two defeated powers of Germany and Japan. Both of them, by virtue of their stunning recoveries from wartime devastation, succeeded in building a framework of democracy not only at home but, no less importantly, in their larger geographic spheres. Similarly, Mandelbaum credits cold-war America with guaranteeing the physical security of existing democracies against the menace of the Soviet Union, and with using its diplomatic muscle to facilitate peaceful transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in places like South Korea and the Philippines.

This, he recognizes, was never a morally or politically simple matter: acting on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the U.S. had often found itself aligned with undemocratic regimes. But, in Mandelbaum’s judgment, the practice of realpolitik never prevented us from promoting our core values. As credible opportunities arose to foster democracy, America consistently seized them, often at the expense of long-established alliances with friendly dictatorships.



Yet even as Mandelbaum praises the thrust of American diplomatic and military policy in the first decades of the cold war, he is dismissive of later programs designed specifically to promote democracy, especially during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. True, he gives Reagan a high grade for establishing the National Endowment for Democracy, but in general, Mandelbaum contends, Reagan had a “limited” impact on the spread of freedom, and his administration’s policies were hardly the crucial factor “in determining when and where democracy took root.”

As for Bush, Mandelbaum suggests that he has actually set back the cause through the military occupation of Iraq and by mistakenly designating the Arab Middle East as the focus of his democracy-promotion agenda. When it comes to the Middle East, indeed, Mandelbaum is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for fundamental political change, seeing Arab and Muslim societies as too beset by religious and ethnic divisions, by their history of autocracy, and by the spread of political Islam, an ideology now explicitly and effectively competing with democracy for the allegiance of Muslim publics.



On the whole, Democracy’s Good Name brings clarity to its subject. While Mandelbaum is hardly the first to draw the connection between free markets and broader freedoms, his forthright defense of this point is especially welcome at a time when many on both the Right and the Left have begun to treat global trade as freedom’s enemy. But for all the light he sheds on the remarkable growth of democracy in the latter part of the 20th century. Mandelbaum (who served as an adviser to Bill Clinton during his first presidential campaign) falters badly in dealing with the presidencies of Reagan and George W. Bush.

By Mandelbaum’s own chronological reckoning, the Third Wave of democratic transformation coincided with the tenure of Ronald Reagan (and has been extended under Bush). It is true that market forces played a major role in helping to bring this about, but only an out-and-out economic determinist would deny that, in places like the Philippines, Nicaragua, and the Baltic states, and more recently and haltingly the Middle East, democratic advances were secured thanks in varying degrees to the policies of these two Presidents.

In addition, Mandelbaum accuses both administrations, but especially the Bush administration, of heavy-handedness and an unseemly impatience—the “cowboy” charge—warning that the prospects for promoting democracy “quickly and easily” are “poor.” But this is a straw man, and “quickly and easily” loads the dice. There is no evidence that advocates of democracy promotion believe in an immediate or low-cost payoff. As the decades-long experience of the cold war teaches, and as Bush himself has repeatedly emphasized, breakthroughs require patience and resilience—especially in places like the Arab Middle East and other hold-out parts of the world.

Finally, even as Mandelbaum expresses an all but immovable pessimism with regard to the Arab world—a stance that sits oddly with his persuasive refutation of earlier instances of pessimism—he comes across as overly optimistic about China and Russia. In these two cases, reposing his faith in the power of markets to wreak the desired social and political transformations, he fails to come to grips with the clear determination of the respective regimes to neutralize existing and potential sources of domestic opposition.

Such inconsistencies mar what is otherwise a valuable book by a thoughtful student of international affairs.

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