LONDON: It is a gulf of understanding wider than the Atlantic. Worldly, cynical Europeans just don’t get American idealism over democracy, especially if it comes from the warmongers of the Bush administration. But Democrats have the same virus. Whatever the hypocrisies and inadequacies, the American political class talk democracy and freedom with an enthusiasm that cannot be denied.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was at it again last week, announcing the biggest-ever shake-up of the US diplomatic corps. Hundreds of American diplomats are to be shifted from their ‘comfortable’ postings in Europe and relocated to ‘hardship’ jobs in the Middle East and Asia, notably India and China, where they are going to undertake ‘transformational diplomacy’ to promulgate the values of democracy. Every city of more than a million people should have a formal American diplomatic presence, she volunteered, missionaries for the democratic gospel.

Your first reaction is probably like mine. After Iraq, you would have thought that the US would have learned that exporting ideas like democracy is likely to backfire. Democracy has to grow from within a national community rather than be imposed from outside and unless buttressed by supporting institutions, culture and social factors, not least a middle class, is likely to fail. The idea that proselytising American diplomats are somehow going to change these basic rules is the arrogance of the neoconservatives taken to self-parody.

And yet. Suppose you took the unsurprising view that China and India are going to become economic superpowers during the next 50 years and that the growing dependence of the industrialized West on Middle Eastern oil is set to grow. Suppose you also believed that there is strong evidence that democratic regimes perform better economically, socially and as international partners than authoritarian ones. Invasion or quasi-imperial direction of the Middle East or Asia is impossible; any lingering ambitions have been dispelled by Iraq. How, then, to ensure that the international framework remains peaceful and the oil continues to flow? The only viable option is to do all you can to promote democracy.

Nor is it such a stupid idea, for all its idealism and apparent disconnect from reality. There is a burgeoning interest not just from the right in the US, but from the left, in how democracy sustains economic and social development that goes well beyond the homilies of George Bush.

Take, for example, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, written by the Open Society Institute’s Morton Halperin together with Joseph T Siegle and Michael M Weinstein. Its commitment to democracy puts Bush in the shade, yet the Open Society Institute’s backer is George Soros, who is probably George Bush’s richest and best-known enemy.

Democratic states, and states moving towards democracy, tend to have more interests involved in government decision-making, to be more open and to have more accountability. Their institutions may be rudimentary but over a period of decades, they tend to manage their resources more effectively and better accommodate themselves to necessary economic and social changes.

Halperin and his co-writers test the thesis every which way. They find, for example, that among poor countries, since 1960, poor democracies have grown 50 per cent more rapidly on average. Thus the Baltic countries, Botswana, Costa Rica, Ghana and Senegal have done very much better than, say, Angola, Syria, Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe.

“Ninety-five per cent of the worst economic performances over the past 40 years,” they write, “were overseen by non-democratic governments.”

The numbers are hard to dispute. It even seems that democratising countries are less vulnerable both to internal and external conflict. In sub-Saharan Africa, democratisers have been half as likely to experience civil conflict as others. Public accountability, the rule of law, checks and balances on arbitrary government, a free press, voting and independent trade unions all demonstrably produce better economies and societies. The only exception to this worldwide rule is in parts of Asia, with the success of authoritarian Singapore and communist China. Against that, democratic Japan, South Korea, Thailand and now India are tribute to the Open Society Institute’s rules working.

Even Singapore, like Hong Kong, has the British legacy of an independent judiciary. China is the genuine exception, but my view is that if it wants to carry on growing, it, too, will have to make itself more democratic soon.

The hardening cross-party American attitude is hard to dispute; the issue is how to advance the cause. Support from the US necessarily discredits as American puppets those who make the argument for democracy. The best route is to practise what the West preaches, back it with aid and show countries desperate to alleviate their poverty that the evidence is that a deepening of their nascent democratic structures will deliver what they want.

Europeans certainly sign up for the first propositions, but we instinctively recoil from the idea we should become intellectual crusaders for democracy. There is not the same inquisitive interest in the argument: who in Britain would write in the same vein as Halperin and co or attract the same political support? But standing back is neither honourable nor in our interests. The US has been so compromised by Iraq that it no longer gets a hearing, but on the wider case for democracy, and for advancing it as best we can, I’ve begun to think it’s unambiguously right.—Dawn/The Observer News Service

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