Condoleeza Rice’s recipe for democratic success

Condoleezza Rice addresses a Sept. 1 ceremony at the University of Notre Dame where a new postage stamp honoring Father Theodore Hesburgh was issued (CNS photo/courtesy Barbara Johnston, University of Notre Dame). Condoleezza Rice addresses a Sept. 1 ceremony at the University of Notre Dame where a new postage stamp honoring Father Theodore Hesburgh was issued (CNS photo/courtesy Barbara Johnston, University of Notre Dame).

Condoleezza Rice is unapologetically an institutionalist, emphasizing the importance of creating appropriate governmental and territorial arrangements while rejecting the notion that only certain cultures (religious or civilizational) foster democracy. With Democracy, she has written a highly accessible book that identifies the essential building blocks of democracy, examines the ways that they have interacted to produce that system in various countries and shows how their absence has impeded democratic development.

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Democracy by Condoleezza Rice

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As her analysis proceeds, Rice includes civil society as a key factor in democratic success and emphasizes the societal values of tolerance, participation and civic-mindedness. Finally, she stresses founding leaders. While some might take issue with her case selection (six countries—the United States, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Kenya and Colombia—and one region, the Middle East), she also includes discussions of other states, including China and India.

Like many students of democracy, Rice notes that the starting points for repressive regimes affect how they change and their likelihood of democratizing successfully. Transforming fully totalitarian regimes like Iraq is most difficult, because they lack the political and societal institutions that are essential for creating democracy. Decaying totalitarian systems (like those in the Soviet bloc) possess nascent governing institutions and some space for media, entrepreneurs and activists of various stripes; thus, they are more likely to consolidate democracy.

Like many students of democracy, Rice notes that the starting points for repressive regimes affect their likelihood of democratizing successfully.

In discussing the different outcomes in that region, Rice gives credit to institutions (parliaments, parties and executives), civil society organizations and early leaders, while also lauding the roles of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization in compelling aspirants to reduce corruption, respect the rule of law and craft political compromises. The relative significance of these factors, however, is not clear. Could Russia have become a democratic state if these Western institutions welcomed it? Was the essential problem one of leader personality? Or was the absence of deep-seated democratic values most significant?

This theme of the importance of political organizations, civil society groups and executives organizes Rice’s discussion of authoritarian transformations, focusing on regimes with political and societal advantages (better developed institutions) over the decaying totalitarians. In the case of Colombia, Rice asserts that long-standing institutions, wise U.S. policies (again, a nod to outsiders whom she never credits in her theory) and a leader willing to compromise (Juan Manuel Santos) created democracy. In Kenya, Rice sees some progress, though neither the formal political nor civil society institutions are as able to compromise because of deep ethnic divisions. Here, Rice discusses corruption, but a more nuanced explanation of the ways in which the colonial past, foreign aid and ethnic conflict intertwine to create Kenya’s political economy could have made the discussion of this case more satisfying and led to other interesting comparisons.

After reading Rice’s analysis, a reader can only wonder how she could have supported the invasion of Iraq.

Regarding transformations of quasi-democratic regimes – systems with elements of democracy but not fully consolidated, Rice performs no single case study, but several countries under analysis were, at one point, in this camp (Russia, Ukraine and Colombia) and whether they succeeded in reaching the democracy depended on that trifecta of formal political institutions, civil society and leadership.

After reading Rice’s analysis, a reader can only wonder how she could have supported the invasion of Iraq. It was a totalitarian state with divisions (between Arab Sunnis, Arab Shi’a—the majority—and Kurds) that had amounted to privilege or persecution, making compromise unlikely. In her defense, she claims that U.S. national security drove the decision. The pursuit of democracy was secondary because the president believed that democracy would remedy “terrorism and instability in the region.” Moreover, while she acknowledges mistakes in U.S. policy (likely not sufficiently for many readers), she insists she had no control over two decisions that destroyed key Iraqi institutions (disbanding the military and de-Baathification). Ultimately, Rice credits progress in Iraq to both “the Surge”—which created organizations linking disaffected and formerly powerful Sunnis to the state in productive ways—and the wise leadership of her boss, while blaming backsliding on progress there to Obama administration failures.

Still, the book is less about score settling and justification than about helping others avoid mistakes, as Rice sets out five lessons for developing democracy. The extent to which the analysis reflects the consensus among academics and policy makers is notable. Also remarkable is the contrast between her views and those of the current administration. For Rice, “America First” (not named, but clearly on her mind) risks the security and economic institutions that have kept Americans safe and prosperous. Still, “business as usual” in Washington will not be successful; implicit is that U.S. politicians have lost the ability to compromise and Americans have come to question our institutions and even the value of democracy. Moreover, Rice takes issue with the pursuit of wealth without worry for those left behind and calls for special recognition of minority groups; she opposes zero-sum outlooks domestically and globally. In fact, her last sentences provide inspiration for anyone on the right or left who seeks to make U.S. democracy great and secure:

[Achieving] the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness … involves taking a hard look at the realities facing so many Americans and making a commitment to address their fate. With that would come the confidence, as a nation, to insist that we are better off when we work to make this true not just for us—but for all humankind(emphasis in original).

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