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After America, whither democracy?




December, 2000

LONDON - George Bush, the victor of an imperfect presidential election, looks out on a world that has become increasingly democratic the last decade and shows all the characteristics of becoming more so. But the less than straightforward way that Bush won and, in particular, how obvious it became that U.S. courts were political creatures, raises the profound worry that this will rub off on many parts of the world, which may now be democratic but which are immaturely so. We won't know the answer to that for some while but, meanwhile, reported recently in a new study published by Freedom House, an American organization that monitors trends in democracy, is some heartening evidence that we are in the midst of an era of historic progress.

First, it has become apparent that ethnic warfare, a major impediment since the demise of the Cold War to the further spread of democracy, is decreasing. Second, the evidence that political freedom enhances the process of economic development is becoming clearer with each new study.

Freedom House reports that a decade-long trend of positive, incremental gains in democracy and human rights continued in the year 2000. Yugoslavia and Mexico were the most significant new entrants to the democracy club, but there were another eight countries that also chose democracy as their political system, bringing the total number of democracies in the world to120, encompassing 60% of the world's population.

Not all are perfectly "free", measured by Freedom House's tough criteria. The number of truly "free" countries, enjoying a wide range of rights is 86 with 40.7% of the world's people. (And even this is arguably too loose a definition, as is clear in the wake of the U.S. election.)

At the other end of the spectrum, the number of countries living under authoritarian dictatorships is 47, with 35.5% of the world's people. But half of these live in China and another large portion in Africa. Take away those two parts of the world and the global picture looks even rosier. In between there are 59 countries that Freedom House concludes are "partly free", countries like Nigeria, Russia or Turkey that have elections but where there are constraints on freedom, either because of military pressure, police violence, ineffectual legal systems or limits on freedom of expression. To get the full impact of this state of progress one must compare today's world with the early years of the last century when no one lived in a country with fully competitive multiparty politics complete with universal suffrage. Or even fifty years ago when there were only 22 functioning democracies.

A good deal of the progress of the last decade has been made in the face of the media's obsession with ethnic warfare that has worked to convince a gullible public that the world was spinning out of control, and that western nations in particular were in danger of being drawn increasingly into a vortex of bloody civil wars.

In fact, as one investigation after another has shown, the impression of a growing number of inter-ethnic conflicts is considerably exaggerated. Nevertheless, it is true that democracy stands a greater chance of success in mono-ethnic countries. Freedom House research shows that 75% of "free" countries have a dominant ethnic majority. In "partly free" countries 58% are ethnically divided and among the "not free" states it is 47%. In short, a state with a dominant ethnic group is well over three times more likely to be free than a multiethnic state.

For all that it must be said there are numerous examples of successful multi-ethnic societies and with the diminution of ethnic conflict the hope must be for more. For years economists like Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate for economics, have suggested that "development is freedom", that economic progress is promoted by greater levels of political freedom.

It is an argument that Amnesty International's secretary-general, Pierre Sane, has deployed face to face with South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung in an effort to persuade this democratically elected president to free all the political prisoners he inherited. Yet the evidence until now, if not quite anecdotal, has been just one study by a former member of the World Bank.

But today Freedom House has broken new territory. After extensive research it concludes that "there is a high and statistically significant correlation between the level of political freedom as measured by Freedom House and economic freedom as measured by the Wall Street/Heritage Foundation survey."

This effectively answers the old conundrum whether the large number of prosperous countries are free in consequence of their prosperity and development or whether prosperity is a consequence of basic political and civic freedoms. Economic growth is certainly possible in an unfree political culture but political freedom accelerates it. Repressive countries with high and sustained economic growth rates, such as China, are the exception rather than the rule.

If the present course can be continued then, as political liberty spreads its tentacles further, we should see an even greater surge in economic progress and one, that because it is tempered increasingly by democratic impulses, is more equitable than the economic growth of old. It will also work to lessen ethnic strife, and that, in turn, will produce greater economic benefits.

The last fifty years have seen tremendous progress; the last ten have seen a great acceleration. The next ten should produce even more progress. But will this election in the world's most influential country undo the good work?


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:

I wish my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


Copyright © 2000 By JONATHAN POWER



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