Wednesday, February 01, 2006
State of the Union questions
First, the figure of "122" democracies in the world. How arrived at? Who determines? Freedom House designates 122 countries as democracies, but, interestingly enough, only 89 as "free".
The number drops dramatically, however, if Robert Dahl's twenty-year rule for calling a country a "mature polyarchy" is applied--meaning that the institutions and practices of democracy have become so ingrained that it takes a major disaster to upset the status quo. And one test is peaceful succession of power via elections. By this criteria, the Dahlian clock for Georgia starts in 2004, since both of Georgia's first two post-Soviet presidents did not serve out their terms but were overthrown.
And later on in his speech, he acknowledged, "Elections are vital, but they are only the beginning. Raising up a democracy requires the rule of law, protection of minorities and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote."
The second question has to do with whether the president recognizes the democracy paradox. He addressed the Iranian people thus: "We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran." The implication is that free and fair elections will bring a government to power in Iran that will align itself with the United States.
We still have no recognition that people might choose their own future that would bring them into conflict with the aims and interests of the United States. Let's face facts: Palestinians voted for Hamas with full knowledge of what the Hamas charter says and that its goal is the destruction of Israel. "Now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace." That sounds about as likely as the United States taking Osama bin Laden up on his offer to embrace his version of Islam and enact sharia law.
Hamas might be forced to recognize Israel because it has no choice, because it is defeated, or because it makes a pragmatic decision to do so--but I don't think that the president's appeal will have much weight.
Finally, the president took a page out of Jim Schlesinger's article in the Winter 2005/06 issue of The National Interest and said the "America is addicted to oil." We already have a lively discussion on the previous thread dealing with "Domenici's Challenge" and my thanks to all posters, including David Billington and Greg Priddy, for their comments and for providing facts. I don't know whether the tradeoffs were fully elaborated or whether the American people have had a stark enough vision of the threat (Schlesinger uses the metaphor of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD).
The PM was trying to say something to the effect that the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to bring religion into politics, to which the interviewer said what if that's the people's democratic wish. There is clearly no good answer to the larger question of the limits of democracy, as has been discussed at this blog and elsewhere.
The problem with the 5 second sound bite "freedom is on the march" is that there are clearly defined boundaries for that freedom, beyond which it is ineffectual in dealing with precisely the kind of extremism that is being encountered today.
Let's take the example of democracy in India. Compared to communist and now simply authoritarian China, in about the same time period since the late 1940s, democratic India has suffered significantly more in terms of instability, and endemic terrorism and conflict. Extremism and terrorism has been a staple in India, first in the northeastern states, then in Punjab, and more recently in Jammu and Kashmir. There are even violent Maoist/communist movements in parts of central, eastern and southern India. And Tamils in southern India have clearly collaborated with the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka.
One of the conclusions I come to is that terrorism maybe a phenomenon that has many roots, including, for example, religious, inter-ethnic and other inter-community conflict, conflict among populations over resources, and simply planting the seeds of democracy is just not enough to overcome all those other factors. Thus we should not be overselling what democracy can achieve.
On the second question, there has always been the problem of other countries democratically electing what we regard as the wrong leadership or choosing the wrong form of government. The real question here is how tolerable these situations are to the American people or to our friends and allies, not that they arise in the first place.
Finally, there seems to be a sense in the White House and also in Congress (both parties) that energy independence and economic competitiveness are functions of innovation and that the key to innovation lies in education and training in certain fields (math, science). The last of these two linkages deserves more careful attention. The call for producing more scientists and mathematicians misses the mark, if employment rates for these people are taken into account.
To the extent that this is an educational problem, the real need is for the broader population to have stronger math and verbal skills and to understand how innovation in a fundamental sense arises (historically it has rarely been prompted by science). But the content of teaching is the problem here, not the administrative devices being debated to improve teaching and recruit teachers, and content is an area in which federal influence in its conventional sense may be limited.
The compartmentalization of things like foreign policy and domestic education may be problematical if our longer-range needs cross these boundaries in a more serious way.