Vladimir Putin has been re-elected to the Russian presidency. While there were irregularities in the election, support from the vast Russian hinterland would have delivered “the strongman” an outright victory in any case. The country is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, and it remembers too well the chaos of the Yeltsin years and the pains of moving “cold turkey” from communism to the free market only to see the oligarchs steal state enterprises and natural resources for their personal enrichment. The people chose Putin and stability over more decisive democratic change.
After a year of uprising and harsh repression, the Syrian opposition has not yet drawn large parts of the country to join its protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. For the business class, Assad’s liberalization has been a boon. For minorities like the Alawites and Christians, Assad’s rule represents protection from religious oppression. The Arab Spring has not flourished in Syria in part, at least, because stability serves the interests of many and the outlook for any other future in Syria is unclear, or even worse, chaotic.
For generations, liberal internationalists criticized U.S. foreign policy for favoring stability over democracy. Over time that changed in democracy’s favor: in Latin America and East Asia, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The National Endowment for Democracy, a federally funded agency that is part of the State Department, and other nongovernmental organizations associated with the two major U.S. political parties played an important role in transitions in Ukraine, Georgia, Slovakia, Serbia and elsewhere.
President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in 2009 and his selective support for the Arab Spring seem to have extended that policy still further. The administration also seems for now to have defused a dispute over the arrest and trial of U.S. democracy workers in Egypt. But presented with the opportunity to bring popular democratic movements to power, citizens in a number of countries, like Russia, now seem to be opting for stability. Outsiders should not complain too loudly when insiders, who have known suffering, choose the status quo. They also have the most to lose when a political transition results in years of disorder followed by renewed oppression.
There are some counterexamples, of course. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has made the smoothest transition to democracy, with the moderate Muslim Renaissance (Ennahda) Party winning a plurality in the 2011 elections. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI instituted limited democratic reforms by royal decree, and they were approved by popular referendum last July.
Compared with Russia, Egypt and Syria, Tunisia and Morocco are small, more compact countries with fewer political crosscurrents, which makes it easier for them to achieve political consensus. In addition, the legitimacy of the transition seems to ease the move to democracy. For years, the oppressed Renaissance Party was the opposition in exile with broad internal support. In Morocco King Mohammed’s standing, as well as his agile efforts to get ahead of the Arab Spring, gave the transition some legitimacy. Elsewhere the move to democracy will go more slowly and face more difficulties.
The arrest and trial of American activists in Egypt illustrate how U.S. efforts to promote democracy are facing setbacks. Democracy and human rights activists, as well as foreign nongovernmental organizations, need to fall back and reassess their vulnerabilities and their untried opportunities. New ways need to be found to link promoters of democracy to local activists. Education, broadly speaking, provides a proven way to promote change. Post-9/11 immigration barriers have made it difficult for students to pursue higher education in the United States. Educators should work with the Department of Homeland Security to make the United States once again the favored destination of foreign students. Cultural exchanges should also be expanded. To that end, the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, formerly the U.S. Information Agency, ought to be cut free from the restraints of the State Department’s short-term agenda and allowed to build up, over the long term, knowledge of the United States at the grass-roots level among foreign populations.
Trade is also vital to the democratic agenda. China has proven that free trade does not always lead to democracy, and Russia shows how strong government can distort business development. But in many cases, improved economies will give countries in transition greater opportunity for political change. The development of an independent business sector can create domestic leverage for change. Increased trade and professional exchanges also stimulate familiarity among countries, leading to greater openness to experiment. Stability does not have to be the enemy of democracy. It can sometimes be its friend.