Zakaria’s Prophecy

Reviewed by Yuval Levin

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad
by Fareed Zakaria
W.W.Norton, 286 pages.

Ours is the golden age of democracy. Whereas a century ago, the world boasted at best a handful of democratically elected governments, and not one that offered universal suffrage, today well over one hundred democracies dot the globe. In the past two decades alone, almost every state in Latin America and Eastern Europe has abandoned despotism and become a representative republic. And the trend seems to be continuing: In Freedom Houses 2003 study of former Communist states, ten countries in Central Europe and the Baltics registered significant improvements in democratic processes in the space of a single year. Now that the United States and other Western nations have committed themselves to bringing democratic institutions to developing countries, it is likely that even more nations will eventually follow suit, even in regions once deemed inhospitable to freedom. Indeed, President George W. Bush recently defined the postwar American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan as“transforming dictatorship into democracy and letting the people determine their own future.”
This would seem to be a very promising development, but Fareed Zakaria, in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, cautions against overstating its meaning. Our zeal for democracy, understood in its classical sense as the ׂrule of the people,׃ may in fact come at the cost of liberalism, or the protection of the economic, political, and religious autonomy of individuals. This is a daring argument, particularly these days, and few people would risk making it so boldly. But Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs, is one of Americas most creative and accomplished public intellectuals. A scion of the Indian political elite—his father was a leader of the Congress Party, his mother a respected newspaper editor—he is fully at home in the American political scene as well, and his admirers even hint that he may someday become the United States first Indian-born secretary of state.
The Future of Freedom is an expanded version of a 1997 article published in Foreign Affairs that helped propel Zakaria to national prominence. Its contrarian thesis—that democracy is overrated, and can sometimes even undermine rather than advance the cause of liberty—is intriguing and at first glance quite attractive. It appears to promise an updated expression of Alexis de Tocquevilles emphasis on the importance of liberal mores and habits over elections, and of Edmund Burkes doubts about the leveling winds of democratic times. Yet when one begins to plumb the depths of Zakarias argument, the flaws of the book emerge, seriously undercutting his thesis. His account of democracy makes sense in theory, but fails to convince in practice.
In his analysis of global democratization, Zakaria offers three basic contentions: First, that in assessing foreign governments legitimacy, we ascribe too much significance to elections; second, that democratic rule functions best if it is established following a period of stability and prosperity; and third, that in an effort to reach that interim stage, a liberal autocracy is preferable to an illiberal democracy.
With regard to elections, Zakaria warns that around the world, ׂdemocratically elected regimes, often ones that have been re-elected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights.׃ He is surely right: There have been many free and fair elections that brought to power racists, fascists, and fundamentalists. For a current example, we need look no further than the challenge the West now faces in the Islamic world. As Zakaria notes,“We recognize the need for democracy in these often repressive countries. But what if democracy produces an Islamic theocracy or something like it?” The notion that elections, even relatively free ones, are a panacea for political and social dysfunction or a mark of genuine legitimacy has too often been proven wrong by history.
Particularly in societies long distorted by despotism, experiments in democracy have at times turned ugly. Algeria comes to mind, as does Venezuela, which, under the rule of the democratically elected Hugo Chavez, has suffered from economic mismanagement, political corruption, institutional decay, and staggering levels of poverty, though just two decades ago its living standard was among the highest in Latin America. And of course, there is sub-Saharan Africa, in which 42 of the 48 countries have held multi-party elections since 1990, only to produce as much chaos and instability as before. In truth, the oft-expressed Western commitment to democratic values is really a commitment to liberal values;“One man, one vote” is not all President Bush has in mind when he speaks of a democratic Iraq or Afghanistan.
Zakarias second contention, however—that order and prosperity must come before democracy—is far more problematic. While this may seem sensible at first glance, it is no simple matter to figure out when a country is ready to move from orderly and prosperous authoritarianism to democracy. While it may be true, as Seymour Martin Lipset has argued, that“the more well-to-do a nation, the greater its chances to sustain democracy,” Zakaria proposes a somewhat crude method of determining when a nation is prosperous and stable enough to democratize.“One might conclude,” he writes, “that a country that attempts a transition to democracy when it has a per capita GDP of between $3,000 and $6,000 will be successful.” He offers some exceptionsׁsuch as Arab states that have reached these levels through rent income on oil, but have not distributed the wealth broadly among the populace—but nonetheless argues that this rule of thumb has proven right in the past, and still makes sense today.
Just how, then, should less prosperous countries, which by Zakarias standard are not yet ready for democracy, go about obtaining the wealth and stability necessary for a transition? Here Zakaria stands ready with his third, and most controversial, contention: They would do best to be governed by a “liberal autocracy,” the firm but benevolent rule of a strong­man committed to maintaining order and building up the economy. “In East Asia, as in Western Europe, liberalizing autocracies laid the groundwork for stable liberal democracies,” he writes. “In almost every case the dictatorships opened the economy slowly and partially, but this process made the government more and more liberal.” A liberal autocrat might afford the people some important personal freedoms, but would not ultimately be answerable for his policy choices. Zakaria has several examples in mind. His favorites are “Singapores brilliant patriarch” Lee Kuan Yew and Pakistani ruler Pervez Musharraf, although he also credits Franco, Pinochet, and Suharto with paving the way for democracies in Spain, Chile, and Indonesia.
All these liberal autocrats, he argues, put in place the measures necessary to stabilize and liberalize their economies, and most introduced some individual rights and personal liberties that led (intentionally or not) to working democracies. According to this perspective, even the Chinese governments efforts to introduce economic reforms while resisting the pressure for democratization may be viewed favorably: “It is too easy to caricature them [the Chinese leaders] as trying to graft capitalism onto a fascist state,” he writes. “They know that to introduce capitalism into China requires much more than economic changes, so they have allowed significant reforms of the administrative and legal systems as well…. The regime has even introduced open elections in some villages and allowed businessmen to join the Communist Party.”
This liberal autocratic approach, Zakaria believes, may in fact serve a people far better than an “illiberal democracy,” which can all too easily lead to ethnic wars, religious strife, economic disaster, and the collapse of social institutions. Indeed, all of the above have happened, Zakaria claims, in those regions and countries which pursued democracy before liberalism: Russia, Venezuela, sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet Republics, pre-Musharraf Pakistan, and even his homeland, India. In Zakarias view, while India has become more democratic in important ways, it has also “become less tolerant, less secular, less law-abiding, less liberal. And these two trends—democratization and illiberalism—are directly related.”

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