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Democracies Love Peace, Don’t They?

Sun, Jun 1, 1997

Press

The New York Times / By Barbara Crossette

EVER since the American Revolution, Americans have believed that democracies are the most enlightened form of government and, by their nature, should be friends and allies. The nation’s biggest wars have been fought in defense of democracies or under the slogan of making the world safe for them. Even when Washington has joined forces with dictators like Stalin or corrupt regimes like that of South Vietnam, it has felt compelled to recast their images to make them more acceptable partners.

”We are a revolutionary country with a revolutionary tradition,” the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset said. ”We want everyone to be democrats.”

Then along came Mohammed Khatami. Iran’s religious leaders had approved Mr. Khatami’s candidacy for President, but he was not their favorite. Campaigning for some relaxation of restrictions on life under the Islamic fundamentalist regime, last month he won a startling victory with 69 percent of the vote.

Mr. Khatami had the enthusiastic support of young people and of women of all ages who appeared to believe that change was possible, that there was hope that a long night of Islamic repression might finally let in a little light. Nobody was calling Iran a democracy, but many political scientists agreed that a significant expression of popular opinion had been allowed to take place.

”A tremendous energy has been released,” said Mahnaz Afkhami, an Iranian exile in Washington who was a minister for women’s affairs in the Government of Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi. ”The people want freedom, they want participation. We now see that the society is not summarized by its Government. It is more complex than that.”

But at the State Department, the Iranian vote won no applause. After several days President Clinton was able to find some room for hope in Mr. Khatami’s election, but he quickly fell back to the policy outlined by a State Department spokesman, John Dinger, as the vote took place.

”Our analysis of the election and the new Government in Iran will be based on Iran’s international behavior, first and foremost,” Mr. Dinger said. ”That involves its efforts to undermine the Middle East peace process, its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, and its state sponsorship of terrorism. That is the standard against which we will measure this Government. Full stop.”

Competing Concerns

The Iranian election, a number of scholars say, is only the most recent in a growing number of cases that challenge American assumptions of what democracy is as it proliferates around the world. The United States can no longer assume that democracies are automatically friends. It will not be easy to use a nation’s political system as the main criterion for better relations, when there are other issues, like security and trade, pressing.

”Even people like me who believe that promoting democracy or human rights deserves a central place in U.S. foreign policy must acknowledge that it can’t be the only issue,” said Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and author of ”Exporting Democracy” (AEI Press, 1991). ”After all, the bedrock of our policy is keeping the country safe. There will always be times when security interests pull one way and democracy interests pull another way.

”In the case of Iran,” he said, ”one of the paradoxes has been that Iran has throughout the period of the Islamic Republic been more democratic than a great many other regional states, including the states with whom we have had quite friendly relations.”

The obvious comparison is with Saudi Arabia, said Mr. Lipset, a professor of public policy at George Mason University. ”You do get the problem that some countries that are definitely non-democratic, like Saudi Arabia, are better supporters of the United States,” he said. ”We have all sorts of trouble with Iran, and probably will have in the future, that we don’t have with the Saudis.

”It’s been argued,” he added, ”though I don’t know that it’s been documented, that democracies don’t go to war with each other. If for no other reason, it might be useful to have more democratic countries. But in the case of Iran, we have the question of Islamic hostility to the West.”

At the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Larry Diamond, a senior research fellow who is co-editor of The Journal of Democracy, said the confusion of dealing with new democracies and would-be democracies and demi-Democracies is compounded by the erosion of many democratic systems established since the end of colonialism and the collapse of the Soviet system.

Like Samuel Huntington and other scholars, he is concerned that partial democracies like those in Southeast Asia, in which limitations on democratic institutions are accepted, will become the standard.

”Political freedom has deteriorated in several of the longest-surviving democracies of the developing world, including India, Sri Lanka, Colombia and Venezuela,” Mr. Diamond wrote last year in The Journal of Democracy.

The backsliding among relatively new democracies has heightened caution in Washington, dimming enthusiasm over political changes abroad that might have been cheered only a decade ago.

While more countries call themselves democracies, Mr. Diamond said, ”It isn’t enough to have elections.” There must be independent political organizations, the rule of law, accountability for corruption, protection of civic rights and equality for women, among other measures, he said.

Thus the election of Mr. Khatami in Iran may prove to be heartening, as may the movement in China toward greater village democracy. ”Democracy is not something that is simply present or absent,” Mr. Diamond said. ”It’s not like a light switch that you flip on or off. It emerges in different fragments in different sequences in different countries and in different historical periods.”

Photo: Mohammed Khatami won a startling popular victory in Iran’s Presidential election. In Tehran, residents followed the returns. (Agence France-Press)

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Democracy

"Tuned to the law, Muslim societies are historically and structurally receptive to democracy's motto of 'government of law not of men' ". - Faith and Freedom

"Religious zeal makes democracy problematic because it turns every attempt at understand and compromise - the hallmarks of democracy - into an evidentiary test of religious righteousness." - Rights of Passage