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Democracy's Global Crisis: Not the Promised Cure-All

By Ralph Peters

Not so long ago we were told that democracy would sweep the world. A new age of governmental decency would dawn for hundreds of millions. Peace, constructive trade and general good-will would follow.

Now, as the number of real and nominal democracies continues to grow, we see little improvement in the human condition, no diminution of corruption, burgeoning discontents--and turmoil where we meant to implant peace.

Even in the West, where democracy is deep-rooted, there's a crisis of mediocrity and will. Elsewhere, democracy has been taken as a license to loot, as a launching pad for demagogues, or as a means of settling old scores.

Have we been wrong? Is democracy a tailored suit that fits only the most-developed forms? Is it culturally determined, after all? Does it fail to guarantee freedom and a population's general welfare?

Have we over-estimated democracy's utility?

The problem isn't with democracy. It's with us. We expected too much of a tool, forgetting that specific skills are required to use it well. We imagined that others could master in a day what we spent a millennium practicing. And we failed to allow for basic human emotions and bigotries: Hatreds, jealousies, ethnic and religious rivalries, and the fierce competition for resources in the lands of never-enough.

Democracy remains by far the most-promising form of government--but it's much more difficult to master than we pretended. A series of elections does not constitute democracy. Democracy also requires a spirit of compromise, of shared values and ultimate goals, of social and personal integrity, and a still-rare-in-this-world measure of identification with the state--not just with ties of blood or belief.

To function as we demand, democracy also may require general wealth sufficient to prevent violent struggles over resources or the legitimization of theft from one group for the benefit of another.

Today, there are two crises of democracy, neither of which need prove fatal, but both of which must be faced honestly.

The worst crisis is in the developing world, where democracy too often has been used to implement the dictatorship of the largest tribe; to legitimize the post-colonial kingship of "presidents for life"; to divide minorities, rather than unite them; and to erect reactionary regimes that masquerade as populist governments.

In too much of the world, election to public office remains a license to steal, to suppress and to oppress. In states with dysfunctional economies, frequent government upheavals stymie progress. And in those ill-drawn states that have no deep sense of collective identity, democracy succumbs to a constant re-division of spoils.

In Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia, the recent votes for leftist regimes were not triumphs of democracy, but expressions of dissatisfaction with democracy's inability to meet popular expectations (and, of course, the balloting also reflected destructive populism in the tragic Latin-American tradition).

In Africa, from Nigeria to Kenya, elections prove frustratingly unable to deliver good government. A vote may change the party in office, but fails to alter the culture of the candidates. On that tragic continent, the recent progress has been largely rhetorical, with a new generation of leaders saying the right things, but continuing to practice theft-by-incumbency.

In the Middle East, elections are either non-existent, wildly rigged, or won by Islamist parties (the lure of primitive identities may trump the desire for Western-model freedoms). Iran's "democracy" is poisoned with fraud, and Turkey has been raped and left bleeding by decades of corrupt party politics (paving the way for fundamentalist victories). Iraq, with its bitter history and truculent factions, is the great laboratory for the region. While there is reason for sober optimism, the experiment in Baghdad is far from a guaranteed success.

India is a national success story, but, at the local level, its democracy is that of the gun, the boss and the bribe. Pakistan has proven itself incompetent to master democracy and probably will remain so. Afghanistan may surprise the world with its success--but only if the Kabul government can assert a monopoly of coercive power. And Russia, that other troubled Asian state, is less a democracy today than Chavez's Venezuela.

Still, none of this means that democracy must fail--only that it is not "a machine that will go of itself." Democracy takes time, labor, commitment and, sometimes, the willingness to fight against the forces of the past. It also requires that rarest of human commodities, honesty. Contrary to our illusions, the one thing democracy isn't is easy.

Which brings us to the other, un-remarked crisis of democracy--the descent into governmental mediocrity in the West. In Europe, the end of the Cold War brought democracy, but rarely inspiring leadership. Eastern Europe celebrated, then woke up with a hangover. Old Europe slipped backward.

At a time when Europe's moribund socio-economic systems urgently need reform, the continent is strikingly devoid of promising leaders. Germany hasn't had first-rate leadership since the 1970s, and France has been poorly led since the late 1960s. Italy never had great leadership in the post-war era. Britain was blessed with the glorious Mrs. Thatcher and the early Mr. Blair, but the current political landscape looks bleak.

On the continent, a new tyranny of the haves threatens the soul, if not the outward forms, of democracy. The recent strikes in France were an attempt to stop the clock, and Euro-apartheid separates not only white skins from brown or black, but the securely employed from the never-to-be-employed. Soft socialism has created a general malaise among populations, forging a continent of critics, not creators. And the European Union has deadened, rather than enhanced, the continent's prospects with its dictatorship of the Eurocrats.

Even here in the United States, the past few decades have seen the triumph of the mediocre. Was Ronald Reagan our last visionary? Other than John McCain, is there a single galvanizing presidential possibility in either political party?

Has our gotcha culture driven greatness from the political stage, leaving it to the burrowing little souls? Is it to be an enduring American paradox that a country that facilitates internet porn and celebrates Oprah-style public confessions demands a private and public blandness in political leaders that eliminates the aptitude for greatness?

Have we entered the age of "little presidents?" Can America lead the world, if America is not led well? Make no mistake: This is not a Democratic or Republican problem. The self-interested corporatist leadership in Washington is a bipartisan problem.

Democracy isn't "over." It's only beginning. No other system of government approaches its potential for decency, opportunity and equity. But democracy is also hard. Those who prescribed it as a cure-all now must face the possibility that the medicine may make the patient sicker for years before recovery can begin.

Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, U.S. Army, is a retired intelligence officer and the author of 21 books, including the recent Never Quit the Fight (Stackpole Books).

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