Director, Policy Planning Staff
U.S. Department of State
Council on Foreign Relations
December 4, 2023
I am pleased and honored to be here this evening. Being introduced by Fouad Ajami is about as good as it gets. Fouad is a wise man and a vivid wordsmith who makes clear in his books, articles, and commentaries what so often seems opaque. I am doubly indebted to him for shifting the locale of his class tonight so that he could be with us. Indeed, he brought his class here. That said, I figure he's indebted to me because he didn't have to prepare any lecture for his class. I'd say we're about even.
I am also pleased to be speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations. Given that I once worked at the Council, I feel at home. The Council remains the blue chip think tank in the field. I can say this in all honesty because when I worked next door at a fellow-some might say rival-institution we often measured success by how many of our scholars appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs or participated in Council study groups and task forces.
I am pleased to have the opportunity tonight to speak with you about opportunities to strengthen democracy in the Muslim world. Supporting and extending democracy has long been a centerpiece of American foreign policy. From Woodrow Wilson's 14 points to the Marshall Plan, we have seen the expansion of freedom and democracy as a fundamental national interest. More recently, the United States encouraged countries as varied as South Korea, the Philippines, El Salvador, South Africa and Chile in their transitions to democracy. We also played a leading role in supporting the spread of democracy in the former communist countries of Europe.
Democracy remains a focal point of American policy today. The National Security Strategy of the United States affirms: "America must stand firm for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; freedom of worship; equal justice; respect for women; religious and ethnic tolerance; and respect for private property."
Why has the United States so often emphasized democracy? At the most fundamental level, we support democracy as a matter of principle. It is at the very heart of what we are as a nation and who we are as a people. In receiving the Philadelphia Liberty Medal on July 4, 2002, Secretary of State Powell spoke of "our responsibility as citizens of the world's greatest democracy to ensure that our country is a force for freedom all around the world. After all, unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were given by God to all humankind. They belong to every man, woman and child on this earth." The United States will assist other nations to achieve these basic human aspirations because they are universal. These values are not just lifestyles America thinks it ought to export.
There are also practical reasons for the United States to promote democracy abroad, demonstrating that realism and idealism are complementary. Quite simply, we will prosper more as a people and as a nation in a world of democracies than in a world of authoritarian or chaotic regimes.
A democratic world is a more peaceful world. The pattern of established democracies not going to war with one another is among the most demonstrable findings in the study of international relations. This does not mean we cannot have overlapping interests and fruitful cooperation with non-democracies, nor does it mean that we will not have strong disagreements with fellow democracies. But the more established democracies there are, the larger the area in the world where nations will be more likely to sort out their differences through diplomacy.
We see this most clearly in Europe. Today, despite a long history of brutal wars culminating in two World Wars of immense human cost, Europe's democracies do not contemplate war with one another. To the contrary, Europeans are dedicated to ever greater integration. Germany and France went to war three times between 1870 and 1940. Today, when democratic France and democratic Germany have a dispute, they work it out over a conference table, not on a battlefield.
The sweep of democracy through Latin America, reaching almost all of the region, has also substantially reduced the prospects of war in our hemisphere. Coinciding with their democratic consolidation, Brazil and Argentina chose to abandon the pursuit of nuclear arms. When the Organization of American States' Democratic Charter was signed in Lima, Peru, on the very day of the September 11 attacks, every country in the hemisphere with the sole exception of Cuba pledged to reinforce democracy at home and to come to the aid of its neighbors if democracy is threatened or faltering.
Democracy is also closely linked to prosperity. We in the foreign policy business often focus on how market-based economic development tends over time to usher in democracy. And, to be sure, economic growth in South Korea, Taiwan, and Chile helped create a stronger foundation for democracy.
Yet, conversely, the transparent rule of law, and the greater equality of opportunity found in democracy, in turn helps spur economic growth and prosperity. Peaceful and predictable transitions of power, more openness, and less corruption in Mexico have established conditions under which more durable economic growth can flourish.
Before going any further, it is important to define terms. When I speak about democracy, I am not talking about forms or institutions or elections only. At its most fundamental level, democracy is based on a diffusion of power-in government and in society. In a democratic government, power is distributed, such that no one voice dominates unquestioned. National governments in a democracy require checks and balances, for instance, by a competition between legislative and executive branches, as well as an independent judiciary. A strong government must face the check of an electable opposition.
Checks and balances can also be introduced between different levels of government-national, regional, local. This is often the way by which multi-ethnic democracies survive.
Also central to the idea of democracy is that leaders must hand over their temporary power. John Adams was a great American president for many reasons, but arguably none was more important than his willingness to relinquish power peacefully when he lost a bitterly contested election to Thomas Jefferson. In a manner of speaking, democratic leaders lease their authority rather than own it-because their grant of authority comes from the people. Democracy is indeed "of the people, by the people, for the people." It depends on an active role of the people (the demos in democracy).
Just as there need to be some checks and balances within governments, there need to be checks and balances between government and society. There is much more to democracy than governments. Power must be shared with a vital, pluralistic civil society, one which possesses the "associational life" Tocqueville wrote of 170 years ago, namely, a wide array of private groups and private institutions. These include political parties, trade unions, business associations, schools, and media independent from one another and from state control. In addition, no ethnic group, gender, or class of people can be excluded from full participation in political life. Individual rights, including freedom of speech and worship, need to be protected.
Understood this way, democracy has achieved some important successes in the last three decades. A wave of transitions to democracy which began in Portugal and Spain in the mid-1970s reached Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and crested following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union. Samuel Huntington and Larry Diamond call this the "Third Wave," since it is the third and most significant spike in the number of democracies after those following World War I and post-World War II decolonization. It is worth noting that 118 democracies were invited to the Community of Democracies ministerial hosted by the Republic of Korea on November 10-12 of this year. That is 118 nations exhibiting real foundations of democracy, plus another 21 nations invited as observers. Indeed, South Korea is itself one of the premier success stories of this Third Wave. Its president is a former dissident and now a freely elected leader preparing to step down following free and fair elections.
Muslim World Experiments
A number of countries with Muslim majorities attended the Community of Democracies meeting in Seoul, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Jordan, Kuwait, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Qatar, Turkey and Yemen. These countries are either democracies or are on the road to becoming more democratic.
The fact that so many Muslim countries were invited to Seoul either as mature democracies or as observers reflects the fact that there are promising developments taking place throughout the Muslim world. I use this phrase "Muslim world" with some trepidation, recognizing the wide diversity of the countries that this term covers as well as its geographic span-from Morocco to Indonesia, from Kazakhstan to Chad. Yet within this diversity is also a certain commonality: namely, when given the opportunity, Muslims are embracing democratic norms and choosing democracy.
President Bush spoke to this point when he addressed graduating seniors at West Point on June 1, 2002: "When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes."
Dynamic reform experiments underway in many parts of the Muslim world demonstrate that democracy and Islam are compatible. I'd like to highlight a few, recognizing that this is hardly an exhaustive list.
In Morocco this past September, citizens voted in the freest, fairest, and most transparent elections in the country's history, creating a diverse new parliament.
In October, Bahrainis cast votes for the first time in thirty years to elect a parliament. It was also the first time women ran for national office. Just last week, Oman's Sultan Qaboos announced that he is extending the vote for the Consultative Shura Council to all his country's adult citizens. Earlier this year, Qatar announced a new constitution in anticipation of upcoming parliamentary elections. Yemen now boasts not only a multiparty system and an elected parliament but also directly elected municipal officials and, since 1999, a directly elected president. And following the Gulf War, Kuwait reinstated its directly-elected National Assembly; Kuwaitis are currently preparing for the next round of parliamentary elections, slated to be held next summer.
Elsewhere, we see many elements of democracy in Muslim-majority states like Malaysia and Indonesia. We hear inspiring Muslim voices advocating pluralism and democracy, from Mohamed Talbi in Tunisia to Nurcholish Madjid, half a world away in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country. These are just a few examples of the democratic ferment taking place elsewhere in the Muslim world, from Albania to Djibouti, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. These debates are nowhere close to being resolved, just as the experiments I just discussed have a long way to go before democracy is consolidated. But that should not obscure how much progress is being made.
We must also recognize that Muslims participate fully and actively in the civic life of democratic countries where they are not a majority. Some 40 percent of Muslims live as minorities, including several million here who are an important and active part of American democracy. In countries such as India, France, and South Africa, Muslims put lie to the canard that Muslim life is somehow incompatible with democratic participation.
We also recognize the potential for greater democracy elsewhere in the Muslim world. Let me cite just three examples. Amongst the Palestinian people, we hear the strong demand for democratic institutions. The United States is working, along with the European Union and Arab states, to help Palestinians create a new constitutional framework and a working democracy. President Bush noted that "an end to occupation and a peaceful democratic Palestinian state may seem distant, but America and our partners throughout the world stand ready to help, help you make them possible as soon as possible. If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression, equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government."
In Iran, we see a widespread popular clamor for reform which will hopefully result in greater democracy and greater openness. The people of Iran seek the same freedoms, human rights, and opportunities as do people around the world. The Iranian people are struggling with difficult questions about how to build a modern 21st century society that is at once Muslim, prosperous, and free. In the last two Iranian presidential elections and in nearly a dozen parliamentary and local elections, the vast majority of the Iranian people voted for political and economic reform.
Iraq deserves mention in this context, too. America is a friend to the talented people of Iraq and to their aspirations. Our demands are directed only at the regime that enslaves them and threatens the rest of the world. Freed from the weight of oppression, Iraqis will be able to share in the progress and prosperity of our time. The United States and our allies are prepared to help the Iraqi people create the institutions of liberty in a free and unified Iraq.
The Freedom and Democracy Deficit in the Muslim World
But despite these encouraging signs, we must recognize that there is, in fact, a freedom deficit in many parts of the Muslim world, and in the Arab world in particular. Adrian Karatnycky, Freedom House's president, documents in that organization's 2001-2002 Survey of Freedom, "a dramatic gap between the levels of freedom and democracy in the Islamic countries-particularly in their Arabic core-and in the rest of the world."
The democracy gap between the Muslim world and the rest of the world is huge. Only one out of four countries with Muslim majorities have democratically elected governments. Moreover, the gap between Muslim countries and the rest of the world is widening. Over the past twenty years, democracy and freedom expanded in countries in Latin America, Africa, Europe and Asia. In contrast, the Muslim world is still struggling. Indeed, by Freedom House's standards, the number of "free" countries around the world increased by nearly three dozen over the past twenty years, but not one of them was a Muslim majority state.
Some will suggest that these judgments are Western and thus unfair. To them, I would point to a document published this past summer by a team of more than 30 Arab scholars. The Arab Human Development Report, written on behalf of the U.N. Development Program and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, portrays an Arab world that is lagging behind other regions in key measures, including individual freedom, women's empowerment, and economic and social development. It describes people neither prosperous nor free. It points to disturbing trends, such as a youth bulge combined with youth unemployment reaching almost 40 percent in some places, thereby portending potentially explosive social conditions. The Arab world faces serious problems that can only be met by more flexible, democratic political systems.
Ending the Democratic Exception
Muslims cannot blame the United States for their lack of democracy. Still, the United States does play a large role on the world stage, and our efforts to promote democracy throughout the Muslim world have sometimes been halting and incomplete. Indeed, in many parts of the Muslim world, and particularly in the Arab world, successive U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have not made democratization a sufficient priority.
At times, the United States has avoided scrutinizing the internal workings of countries in the interests of ensuring a steady flow of oil, containing Soviet, Iraqi and Iranian expansionism, addressing issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, resisting communism in East Asia, or securing basing rights for our military. Yet by failing to help foster gradual paths to democratization in many of our important relationships - by creating what might be called a "democratic exception" - we missed an opportunity to help these countries became more stable, more prosperous, more peaceful, and more adaptable to the stresses of a globalizing world.
It is not in our interest-or that of the people living in the Muslim world-for the United States to continue this exception. U.S. policy will be more actively engaged in supporting democratic trends in the Muslim world than ever before. This is the clear message of the President's National Security Strategy.
We will do this in full knowledge of the fact that democracies are imperfect. They are complicated. Indeed, leaders in some Muslim states contrast democratic systems to their own, more orderly systems, and point with satisfaction to the seeming stability that they provide. Yet stability based on authority alone is illusory and ultimately impossible to sustain. We saw in Iran, in Romania, and in Liberia what happens when the pressure cooker explodes. Rigid authoritarian systems cannot withstand the shocks of social, political or economic change, particularly of the kind or at the pace that characterizes the modern world.
The role that democracy plays in providing domestic stability was vividly illustrated by a conversation I had with a Muslim group recently while visiting India. They explained to me what lies behind the lack of terrorism emanating from India's large Muslim community. Their explanation: India is a democratic country. Muslims participate fully. And on those occasions when they do not, they have full recourse to the judicial system.
Yet as we make democratization a higher priority in our dealings with the Muslim world, like medical doctors we must above all obey the Hippocratic oath and first do no harm. Unrestrained zeal to make the world better could make it worse. We must undertake this task with humility, understanding that the stakes for others are greater than for ourselves. As the countries and peoples of the Muslim world move toward more open and democratic development, we must not only encourage and help them, we will need to listen to the people most directly affected.
People might well question the timing and indeed our motives for raising this issue right now. Some will point to the fact that my talk tonight comes amidst heightened international efforts to bring Iraq into compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions. Others might see talk of democratization either as an effort to disguise our interest in regime change in Iraq, or as indicative of American hostility towards the people of the Muslim world. Indeed, some will go so far to as to argue that American talk of democratization is designed to overthrow regimes throughout the Middle East or to be used as a punitive action against those who are perceived to be anti-American. Allow me to address some of these concerns.
First, there is no hidden agenda here. America's rationale in promoting democratization in the Muslim world is both altruistic and self-interested. Greater democracy in Muslim majority countries is good for the people who live there. But it is also good for the United States. Countries plagued by economic stagnation and lack of opportunity, closed political systems, and burgeoning populations fuel the alienation of their citizens. As we have learned the hard way, such societies can be breeding grounds for extremists and terrorists who target the United States for supporting the regimes under which they live. Equally important, the growing gulf between many Muslim regimes and their citizens potentially compromises the ability of these governments to cooperate on issues of vital importance to the United States. These domestic pressures will increasingly limit the ability of many regimes in the Muslim world to provide assistance, or even to acquiesce, to American efforts to combat terrorism or address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
In the past few months, I visited Egypt, Pakistan, and many of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and had an opportunity to discuss these issues with people from a wide range of backgrounds and orientations. What struck me most was how frustrated many of them were with the United States for failing to speak out on behalf of democracy. To them, our silence is seen as tacit approval of the status quo. This is decidedly not the case, but my conversations show how when it comes to the conduct of foreign policy, the risk of inaction can be as dangerous as that of taking action.
Some will argue that the United States is prepared only to support electoral outcomes that please Washington. This is not so. The United States will support democratic processes even if those empowered do not choose policies to our liking. But let me clear on this point. U.S. relations with governments, even if fairly elected, will depend on how they treat their own people, and on how they act on the international stage on issues ranging from terrorism to trade and non-proliferation to narcotics.
In promoting democracy, we are well aware that a sudden move toward open elections in Muslim-majority countries could bring Islamist parties to power. The reason, however, is not because Islamist parties enjoy the overwhelming confidence of the population, but because they are often the only organized opposition to a status quo that growing numbers of people find unacceptable. That said, let there be no misunderstanding: the United States in not opposed to Muslim parties, just as we are not opposed to Christian, Jewish or Hindu parties in democracies with broad foundations. Our receptivity to the outcome of last month's election in Turkey clearly demonstrates this point. The new Prime Minister, Abdullah Gul, put it best when he said after taking the oath of office: "We want to prove that a Muslim identity can be democratic, can be transparent and can be compatible with the modern world." Americans are confident that the Turkish people can prove all this and we want to help them make it so.
There will be those who argue that democratization is impossible in the Muslim world since it has little history or tradition of democracy. This too I reject; after all, until recently, only a few parts of the world had any experience with democracy. This argument reflects what President Bush refers to as the "soft bigotry of low expectations." As a former Omani ambassador to Washington once remarked, "It is neither an Arab particularity, nor an article of the Islamic faith, that freedom of speech be suffocated in our national experience, that our people be denied free elections, that our affairs be conducted without the benefit of consensus, and that peaceful political activity be forbidden to our masses."
The United States will work more energetically than ever before to promote democracy in partnership with the peoples and governments of the Muslim world.
One mechanism for this will be a new partnership that will be announced in the coming months by Secretary Powell. This new initiative will focus on encouraging development in three areas critical to progress in the Arab world: economic, educational and political reform. We will provide new resources for this effort, in addition to the $1 billion we already spend annually in economic assistance in the Arab world. As we fund new projects meant to expand political participation, support civil society and the rule of law, we will be guided by eight lessons that we have learned in other parts of the world.
First, there are many models of democracy. The democratic process need not follow a single model; indeed, there is no single democratic model to emulate. From constitutional monarchies to federal republics to parliamentary systems of all stripes, history underscores the diversity of democracy. There is enormous diversity across the Muslim world, and political systems must be adapted to suit their local environment.
Second, elections do not a democracy make. As we saw with Iraq's elections where Saddam Hussein won one hundred percent of the vote, the most brutal regimes often seek to legitimize their rule through sham elections. Hence, for elections to be a true reflection of the people, they must be embedded in societies where there are strong and mature civil institutions and a diffusion of power. Elections should accompany the development of civil society. Bahrain's experience illustrates this point: its recent elections were held only after it had taken steps to free political prisoners, remove arbitrary powers from the constitution, reform the judiciary, and allow the media to function independently. By contrast, Algeria's 1991 experience highlights the dangers of holding elections in the absence of a pluralist society.
Third, democracy takes time. It takes time for ideas to sink in and for political processes, institutions, and traditions to develop. Democratization is best measured not in weeks or months, but in years, decades and generations. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently noted, "Because of our own history, the United States knows we must be patient, and humble. Change-even if it is for the better-is often difficult. And progress is often slow." Our own democracy is far from perfect, and is always open to improvement, as demonstrated by Amendments to our Constitution and steps taken to provide African-Americans and women the full rights of citizenry.
Fourth, democracy rests on an informed and educated populace. Education enables people to know their rights and how to exercise them. An educated populace capable of making informed decisions helps democracy take root. Countries throughout the Muslim world have made remarkable progress promoting literacy, but they have done a poorer job creating populations that are well read. Muslim commentators note that educational systems are not necessarily preparing students to succeed in the 21st century. Abdel Hamid al-Ansari, the Dean of the Faculty of Sharia at Qatar University, identifies the problem quite directly: "A significant part of our educational discourse is cut off from the modern sciences, and is based on a uni-dimensional view, creating a closed mentality and an easy slide towards fanaticism. It plants misconceptions regarding women and religious or ethnic minorities; it is dominated by memorization and repetitive methods." Education means much more than merely going to school. Thriving democracies require a tradition of questioning, not memorization.
Fifth, independent and responsible media are essential. The media has a critical role to play as a key element of civil society. In democracies, the media is free, and is not under the state's control. This allows for multiple views, ideas, and perspectives to be aired in the free marketplace of ideas. The best protection against the media promulgating views that people do not agree with is the proliferation of more perspectives, not the squelching of voices. At the same time, independent media, like governments and citizens, have responsibilities. They must uphold professional standards and insist on factual reporting. They should educate, not just advocate.
Sixth, women are vital to democracy. Countries cannot be successful democracies if more than half their population is denied basic democratic rights. The rights women enjoy is a key determinant of the overall vibrancy of any society. Patriarchal societies in which women play a subservient role to men are also societies in which men play subservient roles to men, and meritocracy takes a back seat to connections and cronyism.
Seventh, political and economic reform are mutually reinforcing. Market-based economic modernization helps usher in elements of democracy: the rule of law, transparent decision-making, the free exchange of ideas. Yet it is just as true that these elements of democracy sustain and accelerate economic growth. This need not be a sequential path, such as economic development followed by political liberalization. When political and economic freedom go hand in hand, they strengthen each other. Democratization will give the young a way to voice their aspirations. And equally importantly, democratization will reinforce economic growth, which can give the young hope by offering a piece of a growing economic pie.
Eighth, while it can be encouraged from outside, democracy is best built from within. Democratization is a process that is fundamentally driven by members of a society, by its citizens. Only they can promote a spirit and practice of tolerance, so that the rights of minorities and individuals are respected. If the United States or anyone else tries to impose the trappings of democracy on a country, the result will be neither democratic nor durable. The only way democracy can take root is if it is home-grown.
The Democratic Agenda and Beyond
My remarks tonight are obviously devoted to the question of democracy. Still, democratization can only be one aspect of U.S. policy. While the long-term forces of democratization work their magic, we still need to deal with other critical issues that come across our desks every day.
We need to continue our work to end the festering conflicts between Israel and the Arab world by realizing President Bush's vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security in less than three years. Similarly, the United States will continue to work to ensure that Iraq is disarmed and the integrity of the United Nations maintained. We will also continue to help Afghanistan and the Afghan people now that their country has been liberated. And we are prepared to help India and Pakistan-between them home to some 300 million Muslims-establish more normal relations, including a mutually acceptable solution to Kashmir.
Nor is promoting democracy in the Muslim world a task for the United States alone. We will work with democratic allies, such as those in Europe and Japan. In addition to what we do as governments, there is a crucial role to be played by non-governmental organizations, foundations, and individuals. There is an equally important role to be played by the American business community, which can have a huge positive impact through its investments, employment practices, and support for education and training.
Nor are we starting from scratch. The United States government is deeply involved in many ways in helping many Muslim majority countries develop democratic institutions and the societal infrastructure necessary for democracy to take root. For years, we have promoted educational and cultural exchanges with peoples and institutions throughout the Muslim world to strengthen the components of civil society and participatory government. Through teacher training programs, as well as through our own work teaching English, we help students imagine new roles as citizens. We intend to do even more. The United States is also working energetically to promote economic prosperity as an engine of democratic change. Membership in the World Trade Organization promotes both economic and political liberalization. The United States is prepared to encourage that integration process, and consider Free Trade Agreements like that we have completed with Jordan and are discussing with Morocco.
The United States is also working through a wide variety of programs-from the International Visitors Program to the provision of grants to local educational institutions-to promote the development of democracy's building blocs, including professional and balanced journalism free from state control, active non-governmental institutions, and independent judiciaries. U.S. Government-funded institutions, such as the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, are working in many Muslim majority countries to help foster democratic institutions. Americans have served as observers throughout the democratizing world-including the Muslim world-to help ensure free and fair elections. The United States also funds a significant portion of the activities of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Muslim countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the development of model electoral codes to strengthening the role of human rights ombudsmen, to practical training for independent media, the OSCE is working to bolster democracy in these newly independent states.
The road to democracy is long, and it is up to the people involved to walk it for themselves. We have been at it for over 220 years, and we still haven't reached our final destination of a perfected democracy.
But every step brings benefits-to citizens, to countries, to regions, and to the world. So far, too many Muslims have lagged behind. That must end. We understand that the United States can and should do more; promoting democracy, including in the Muslim world, is a priority for President Bush and for Secretary of State Powell. We are examining what we are currently doing in order to better and more effectively help this process. And in the coming weeks and months, we will be launching new programs, like the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative aimed at working with governments and people in the Muslim world.
Still, at the end of the day, the decision to move along the path to democracy belongs to the people of the Muslim world. It is in both their and our interests that they do so. It is also the only way in which these societies, like all societies throughout the world, can best maximize the potential of all of their people, and make real a future defined by greater freedom, greater peace, and greater prosperity.