Sowing Democracy – a Messy Affair

Can the US get it right?

I’ve just read an article by Stephen M. Walt* in Foreign Policy, “American Values Are to Blame for the World’s Chaos – Why trying to spread democracy, liberalism, and human rights always backfires.” It appeared just two days before we celebrate America’s Independence Day, perhaps our most beloved national holiday, and started me thinking about how liberal values become part of a country’s political culture, and if there are better questions we might ask to get the right answers for advancing liberalism.

Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt

While on the topic of liberal values, I took part in a discussion last week in which a professor from the UK called out multilingual/multicultural programs in North Africa as a tool by which ruling classes maintain power. Her thesis is that multilingual programs divide people by social and ethnic background, affecting their economic advancement. She made this claim despite the fact that officially sanctioning one’s native language, in this case Amazigh, has been a long-standing demand across the Maghreb.

I rebutted her charges against “neo-liberalism” on historical and factual grounds, indicating that the issue of “identity” tied to language/culture expression was far more salient in countries such as Morocco that are still integrating complex national identities. And so it was quite interesting to find neo-liberal Stephen Walt, for whom I have tremendous respect, taking a one-way-street view of democracy promotion.

His basic thesis, with which I don’t disagree is, “the moral appeal of these basic liberal principles [democratic government, rule of law, freedom of expression, market economies] does not mean that they are a sound guide for the conduct of foreign policy.” He goes on to claim that “In fact, the past two decades suggest that basing a great powers foreign policy primarily on liberal ideals is mostly a recipe for costly failures.” My contention is that, in the 21st century, most countries believe that they are able to make choices about governing without reference to liberal values promoted by the “Washington consensus.” Moreover, with the erosion of the US as the global hyper-power, countries perceive more options for circumventing even the most stringent condemnation by other nations, short of outright warfare.

Furthermore, looking at neoliberal values only from the US perspective alleviates receiving countries from responsibility and accountability for their actions, positive and negative. It is true “that liberalism does not translate its moral absolutes into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about.” It is as guilty of this charge as any political ideology that posits “truths” and not tactics. And besides, there is the nagging reality that one size does not fit all and so neo-cons and neoliberals need to do much more homework in order to recognize where opportunities for and obstacles to their democratic agendas occur.

Taking the Plunge – Democracy Lite

There are lessons to be learned in various post-World War II democracies illustrating that liberal values are still critical to the functioning of tolerant, progressive systems of government. Morocco, which is working towards a parliamentary democracy, is a good illustration of the road forward for integrating liberal values into a traditional society that has honored the family over the individual, cooperation over competition, and consensus over innovation.

Morocco-US relations, full of firsts

Morocco was the first country to recognize the US in 1777

Morocco’s receptivity to liberal values begins with the articles of faith often heard in any discussion of Morocco’s relations with the US: first country to recognize the nascent republic; first US Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, still in force today; first multilateral treaty in which the US agreed to help fund a lighthouse in Tangier; first US Free Trade Agreement in Africa, and other hallmarks including the first Strategic Dialogue in North Africa, and other defense and security ties.

So can we learn anything about advancing democratic values by looking at our relationship with Morocco? And the corollary query, can Stephen Walt’s thesis be clarified by understanding the path Morocco has chosen if we agree that it is a liberalizing society?

Interestingly, Morocco’s only colonial experience was with France, which originated human rights as a contemporary political concept. It has historically been a kingdom, ruled by elites appointed by the ruler or pledging fealty to the sovereign for some six hundred years or more. Its transition to the 21st century has not been without difficulties as traditional interests and networks resist change and have little interest in sharing power. Yet it is changing. Initiatives stem from a visionary king working to empower civil society and citizens to challenge “business as usual” and remake politics and governance into tools that promote human and economic development.

There are three parts to this equation if forces supporting constitutional democracy are to succeed: continued clear messaging in support of liberal values from a well-respected king; growing cadres of civil society and political participants who utilize constitutional reforms to promote power and resource-sharing at all levels; and benefits accruing to the population from a more receptive, responsible, and accountable government.

Morocco's Parliament

Morocco’s Parliament

How does this fit with Walt’s thesis? Well, turns out his real target is “perfecting these [liberal] practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad…[if so] people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions [emphasis added].” And here is the rub: even if the US were the paragon of liberal values, would others follow this pied piper of democracy and rule of law? Since the end of the 20th century, it is apparent that there are no pure models of neoliberal values, and each country will move to its own rhythm in reaching new social contracts defining relations between government and citizens.

It is important for the US to show that, despite our own uneven progress, these values are worth striving for and are the true measure of closing the gap between a country’s aspirations and its achievements. The Morocco-US relationship illustrates that when liberal values are shared across a range of political and economic activities, and are promoted by a trusted leadership without forcing concepts that are antithetical to the local culture, the outlook is worth supporting and encouraging.

 

* Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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