Washnigton and the Demise of the 'Third Wave' of Democratisation

18 July 2005
Walden Bello

Washnigton and the Demise of the 'Third Wave' of Democratisation
Walden Bello
Business World, 31 March 2000

During a recent visit to Manila, Stanley Roth, the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific Affairs, said that the chances of a coup attempt are 'nearly zero'. That was classic American diplomacy - a statement that served less as an assessment of the status of things than a calculated warning against restiveness in the barracks.

Roth doesn't like the military meddling in politics. A key aide to Rep. Stephen Solarz, head of the US House of Representatives' Asia-Pacific Sub committee, in the 1980s, Roth played a minor, though important, role in shifting US support from Ferdinand Marcos to Cory Aquino in the mid-eighties. With Bill Clinton's victory in 1992, he became a low profile but key figure in the Democratic foreign policy team headed by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. It was this group that forged the line of 'promoting democracy', that formed one of the pillars of the Clinton foreign policy towards the Third World, alongside containing Islamic fundamentalism and isolating 'rogue regimes' like North Korea.

'Promoting democracy' was billed as a distinctive, idealistic foreign policy thrust that contrasted with the support for authoritarian allies that had been the key feature of US policy under Ronald Reagan and with the pragmatic adjustment to rising democracies that had marked the Bush administration's approach. In fact, the Clinton line was a continuation of the Bush line, but with a heavy dose of ideological rhetoric. It was part of Washington's protracted response to the spread of electoral democracies in Africa, Latin America and Asia from the early 1980s to the early 1990s.

The 'Third Wave'

Labelled as the 'Third Wave' of democratisation globally, the move toward electoral democracy as a system of governance is documented in the statistics of Freedom House in New York: the number of free or liberal democratic states rose from 42 in 1972 to 56 in 1985 to 76 in 1995 - or from 29 per cent of all states in 1972 to 33.5 per cent in 1985 to 39.8 per cent in 1995.

This movement toward freer political systems, it must be pointed out, largely took place in spite of, not because, of US foreign policy. From the seventies to the mid-eighties, Washington had engaged in a foreign policy of supporting a string of repressive strongmen that were seen as serving US strategic objectives - from the Shah of Iran, Mobutu in Africa, Pinochet in Chile, to Marcos in the Philippines and Chun Doo-Hwan in Korea. The rationale for this policy was perhaps best articulated by Reagan's UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who wrote in a notorious Commentary Magazine article in 1981 that an autocrat ally like Somoza or Marcos deserved to be supported because without him, the organised life of society will collapse, like an arch from which the keystone has been removed.

But even as these lines were being penned, dictatorships in the Third World were in an advanced state of decay. After 20 years in power, the Brazilian military was gradually forced out of power in the early eighties by widespread popular disaffection and economic incompetence. After losing the Falklands War in 1982, the military junta in Argentina, stripped of all shreds of legitimacy, was hounded out of power by a vengeful civilian population. In South Asia, the death of the strongman Gen. Muhammad Zia opened the doors to the restoration of civilian constitutional rule in Pakistan. In the Philippines, Ronald Reagan's visceral loyalty to the embattled Marcos was overridden by pragmatists at the State Department who thought it the better part of wisdom to hitch the US to the democratic upsurge triggered by the Aquino assassination. Confronting a similar situation in Korea in 1987, the US lined up behind the student-led democratic revolution. A few years later, Washington quietly threw its weight behind the democracy movement that faced down the military strongman Suchinda in the streets of Bangkok in May 1992.

Promoting 'Polyarchy'

By the time Clinton and the Democrats came to power in 1993, the Third Wave of democratisation was at its apogee, with the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa and the erosion or collapse of several one-party and personalist regimes in Sub Saharan Africa. Like so many other things in the Clinton presidency, 'promoting democracy' was one-third substance and two-thirds PR. Promoting democracy merely attached an attractive ideological rationale to a pragmatic shift in policy that had been going on for nearly a decade under the Republican administrations - it was, after all, Republican Party operators that had created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was active in influencing democratic oppositions in the Third World in a conservative, pro-Washington direction.

Nonetheless, television images of US troops landing in Haiti in 1995 to drive out the military junta and restore President Aristide to his rightful place as the people's elected leader and Washington's strong rhetoric against the SLORC regime in Burma contributed to wiping out memories of Washington's sordid past of support for repressive regimes and endowed the Clinton administration in particular with the aura of being a champion of democracy.

Promoting democracy in practice meant Washington's encouragement of free elections, political party competition, the rule of law, checks and balances, judicial independence - all of which rested on the diffusion and institutionalisation of a core of liberal values such as the freedom of speech and freedom of association. Such a regime was seen as providing the framework for the spread of market forces, the untrammelled operation of which was expected to spur economic growth as well as put an end to the unholy relationship between authoritarian government and monopoly businesses known as 'crony capitalism'. What democracy promotion was not about was creating institutions and pushing policies that would bring about more equality in access to wealth and resources as demanded by the poor majority.

In short, what emerged were liberal democratic systems along the lines of the Washington or Westminster model, along with this regime's fundamental flaw: the great influence exercised on the decision making process by the realities of severe economic and social inequality. In other words, liberal democracy, as it developed in the Third World, prevented the monopoly over political power by one faction of the elite and provided an ideal avenue for opposing factions of the same class to deploy their resources to peacefully compete for votes and alternate in political office. This was not popular democracy but, according to political scientist William Robinson, 'polyarchy', or a system in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites.

For elites the advantage of a system of formal democracy was that it married political legitimacy to a system of gross economic inequality.

Polyarchy in Trouble

As Clinton leaves office, the policy of promoting polyarchy or elite democracies running into serious problems. Though there have been some dramatic recent instances of democratic transition as in Indonesia, the rate of increase of electoral democracies has sharply declined in recent years. More important, asserts political analyst Larry Diamond, the quality of democratic practice in the new democracies is deteriorating. This 'end of the third wave of democratisation' takes various forms - from actual coups, as in Pakistan, to greater military autonomy in internal security operations, as in Turkey, Sri Lanka, and Colombia, to widespread vote rigging as in Niger, Bangladesh, and Chad, to 'strongman democracies' as in the case of Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

Why are formal democracies or polyarchies in trouble? Of course, there is the problem of the difficulty of institutionalising multiparty electoral systems instates that had experienced only military rule following colonial rule at independence. In many cases, as in Peru, Pakistan, and Zambia, fragile democracies have lost their legitimacy because they became the vehicles through which the IMF and the World Bank imposed budget-cutting structural adjustment programs that triggered or worsened economic stagnation and impoverishment. But most of all, the erosion of legitimacy was created by the structural incapacity of a multiparty electoral system run by wealthy interests to produce less poverty and less inequality via serious social reform.

It is interesting to point out the striking parallels between the dynamics of the troubled polyarchies in the Third World and their model, US electoral democracy. Increasing numbers of Americans are troubled by the way elections, legislative decisions, and executive moves are increasingly determined by the deployment of vast amounts of wealth in the electoral system. Noting that nothing on the scale of the American system of political expenditure and influence exists anywhere else, William Pfaff, the columnist of the International Herald Tribune, remarks that the US has become a 'plutocracy', or a system governed by corporate wealth. Nevertheless, the political system is quite stable - at least in the near future - because inequality in access to political power is mitigated by the fact that the majority of Americans are materially comfortable. This cannot be said of Third World democracies like the Philippines which are wracked by poverty and inequality.

Democratic Degeneration?

With democracies stuck, are military regimes likely to experience a comeback in the next few years? Though there might be some successful military coups, it is unlikely that there will be a general trend showing a return to direct military or presidential-military rule. For one thing, many armies are reluctant to return to power and again risk incurring the blame for political failures. A second reason is that while people may be disaffected with many elite democracies, they are even more distrustful of military rule. A third reason is that once attractive authoritarian ideologies, such as 'Asian values', are greatly discredited and are seen as self-serving rationales for civilian or military elites.

What is more likely in the near or medium term is what Diamond describes as a situation in which democracy, instead of expiring altogether, has been hollowed out, leaving a shell of multiparty electoralism, often with genuine competitiveness and uncertain outcomes, adequate to obtain international legitimacy and assistance. A number of political systems might move along the path of 'strongman democracies' such as those in Peru or Venezuela, where executives expand their powers with the support of the military, temporarily suspend or change the constitution, dismiss and reorganise the legislature or judiciary, and, as Diamond puts it, reshape to their advantage a constitutional system that subsequently retains the formal structure or appearance of democracy.

A more probable outcome in most countries might be a slowly degenerating liberal democracy in a context where the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right are not strong enough to seize power in the short term yet are powerful enough to destabilise it. Here the 'democratic centre' is held together by competing political elites which are passively committed to democratic constitutional rules but lack the vision or courage to legislate and implement the program of social and economic democracy that the masses demand.

This is the Philippine scenario, and it becomes more of a reality with each day that Estrada remains president. And in the Philippines and elsewhere, Washington will grit its teeth but it will stand by the elite democrats.

But nothing is predestined or predetermined. We can avoid this death of democracy by a thousand cuts, to borrow a phrase from Larry Diamond. Democracy can be reinvigorated in this country, but only if there are groups that are determined to expand the democracy agenda to include fundamental economic and social reform within a constitutional electoral order. That is a big challenge in this country of short-sighted, greedy elites. That is a tall order when Washington smells an anti-US agenda in every progressive political program. But it is not impossible.

Copyright 2000 Business World