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Transparent Move

by Daniel W. Drezner

Only at TNR Online
Post date: 01.07.04

Pop quiz: You're in charge of protecting the national security of the United States. There's a pivotal country--let's call it Badistan--that plays a crucial role in advancing American interests. But elements within that country--including some who work for the government--are abetting actors that virulently oppose America. The leader of this government has pledged to cooperate with the United States, but the two attempts on his life over the past month suggest his domestic position is precarious.

What approach do you take to Badistan?

A) Directly pressure Badistan's leader into cracking down on anti-U.S. elements
B) Indirectly pressure the leader by allying more closely with the country's rivals
C) Provide support for the government in power and hope for the best
D) Combine the carrots and sticks as best as possible
E) Push for democratization
F) Invade the country
G) Invade Iraq again

I know the answer isn't (G). Current force deployments render (F) a non-starter. (C) is not so much a policy as an admission you don't have one. And the results from pursuing (A), (B), and (D)--some combination of which we already employ--are far from perfect. Crazy as it may sound, it may be time to give democratization another chance.

Dealing with strategically located, non-democratic countries ruled by vulnerable elites-- countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia--has always been a complicated chore. When advocating democratization and/or human rights, U.S. policy--regardless of party--has been to treat these countries as too important to pressure into liberalizing, or the results of liberalization too volatile to tolerate.

The problem is that weak, unelected leaders are tough to bully in international negotiations. More than 40 years ago, Thomas Schelling pointed out that, "in bargaining, weakness is often strength." Fifteen years ago, Robert Putnam demonstrated that leaders with domestic constraints on their bargaining position have an advantage in international negotiations. The reason is that, in a game of chicken, leaders with restive domestic opponents can act like they've thrown the steering wheel out the window: They can always claim that, even if they want to accommodate U.S. pressure, they have little choice in the matter since accommodation would collapse their regime. At times they may even be telling the truth.

At first glance, pushing democratization would seem to be the absolute worst policy option in a situation like this--particularly in light of the current state of Muslim public opinion toward the United States. Encouraging these countries to implement greater democratic representation would seem to empower the very elements of society with the greatest enmity toward the United States.

So why would any American ever want Islamic extremists to control either nuclear weapons or the world's largest petroleum reserves just because they happen to be democratically elected? Well, no American would. But, at present, there's no way to know how politically popular Islamic extremists are in these countries. Weak authoritarian leaders always have an incentive to say that they face restive populations--because there's no metric to confirm it.

A key advantage of democracy, by contrast, is transparency. Compare Saudi Arabia with Pakistan. Although neither could be categorized as democratic, the latter does boast a more open society, a recent familiarity with the concept of democracy, and more institutions that could be properly labeled as upholding the rule of law.

As such, it's been easier to detect the weakness of Pakistan's leadership than Saudi Arabia's. For example, an early barometer of Musharraf's political strength was the strong electoral performance of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, which won regional elections in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province in late 2002. Those election results, as much as the assassination attempts, made clear that Musharraf was in a weak internal position. (Though Musharraf's unwillingness to work with secular parties could overstate this weakness.)

As for Saudi Arabia, there we're still dependent on traditional analyses of palace intrigue. A recent example is Michael Doran's cogent examination of the "murky depths of Saudi Arabia's domestic politics" in Foreign Affairs. Doran's thesis--that there's an ongoing struggle for power between reformers and traditionalists within the Saudi government--makes sense. But the essay is ambiguous about the power of each faction. With some element of democracy, on the other hand, it would at least be possible to gauge the relative strength of the threats to American interests.

More important, perhaps, a policy of aggressively supporting democratization would bring greater consistency to U.S. foreign policy. As Samantha Power pointed out recently in The New York Times: "We have 'official enemies'--those whose police abuses, arms shipments and electoral thefts we eagerly expose (Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea, Iran). But the sins of our allies in the war on terror (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan) are met with 'intentional ignorance.'" A more consistent policy on this front would give the United States greater credibility in advocating democratic values. And there's also a tactical advantage--greater credibility leads to more resolute and believable bargaining positions.

The $64,000 question, of course, is what would happen if democratization led to extremist rule. This is undeniably a scary prospect. Still, the case of Iran, whose leadership seems increasingly out of step with its younger, pro-American generations, suggests that radical elements will experience difficulties retaining popular support over the longer run. Likewise, Hugo Chavez's attempts to pursue dogmatically anti-American policies in Venezuela have been met with increasing opposition. Anti-American jihads are of limited utility if they fail to deliver the goods.

And, in any case, none of this is to suggest that democratization should be the sole instrument of American foreign policy. Some mixture of carrots and sticks will always be the de facto position of the U.S. government. The question is whether, over the long term, this approach has any chance of succeeding unless democratization becomes a part of the policy mix. Increasingly, the answer to that question appears to be no.

Links to relevant documentation and further information can be found here.


Daniel W. Drezner is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Sanctions Paradox (Cambridge 1999). He writes regularly at


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