The Spirit of Democracy

The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World

Larry Diamond

Times Books


I am a child of the Cold War, and this book has its genesis in that titanic struggle.

This may seem a strange way to begin a book about the prospects for universal democracy. The Cold War did not unite the world; it divided and bloodied it. Indeed, in October 1962, it came very close to destroying much of it. In the name of fighting global communism and “defending freedom,” the United States often betrayed and undermined its own democratic values during that four-decade global contest, supporting the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954, and in Chile in 1973 (among other covert interventions), while backing a host of right-wing military and monarchical dictatorships that took “our side.” If this Cold War “realism” of advancing the national interest, no matter how unsavory the dictator we had to embrace, could be described in a phrase, one could hardly outdo Franklin Roosevelt’s purported characterization of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Yet there was another more principled side to America’s posture in the Cold War. In his 1961 inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy expressed it when he promised to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” If these words could be interpreted as more of the same “realism,” embracing any ally against the Communists, Kennedy promised more. The United States would support the new postcolonial states in their struggle for real freedom, even while not always expecting them “to support our view.” His America would help people around the world to help themselves “to break the bonds of mass misery.” In the Americas, he would launch “an alliance for progress” to eliminate poverty and launch a “peaceful revolution of hope.”

Kennedy’s idealism was largely crushed by his perception of the imperatives in the battle against Communist expansion, drawing him (and the country) deeper and deeper into a disastrous engagement in Vietnam, and draining the military might, economic resources, diplomatic energy, and moral authority that might have been brought to bear to truly defend and expand freedom in the world. His assassination cut short what might have been a change in course, and led to two of the most cynical and coldly realist presidencies (in international terms) of our time, those of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But the democratic and idealist impulse in the American national spirit—that we must stand for something in the world, and that something must involve our core founding faith in freedom—could not be extinguished. It returned first in President Jimmy Carter’s initiative to promote and defend human rights, and then in Ronald Reagan’s far more ambitious policy of promoting democracy, which established a number of institutions, principles, and initiatives that his presidential successors sustained. Still, throughout these various presidencies, the tension between two divergent visions of America’s role in the world—realist and idealist—has endured.

My own engagement with the global quest for freedom began with Kennedy’s inaugural address and his bold appeal to the country and the world. As a nine-year-old boy, I was deeply and (as it would turn out, enduringly) moved by his call “to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’—a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” I could not possibly understand then what it all meant, but I believed that communism was evil, that dictatorship in all forms could not be tolerated, that people everywhere deserved to live in freedom and dignity. Kennedy’s call inspired me to read about the world. I became fascinated with the new political leaders of what was then called the Third World and with the march to freedom of a vast number of countries in Asia and Africa that were then breaking the bonds of European colonial domination. I became captivated by the personal stories of Third World leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno, and Kwame Nkrumah.

My college years were dominated by the war in Vietnam and the growing mass movement against it on campuses throughout the United States. I came to see how a noble quest to stop the spread of communism had become blinded to the forces of nationalism and anticolonialism and obsessed with preserving an image of American steadfastness, at tragic cost. The result was a moral, humanitarian, and geopolitical disaster. As I watched the United States backing one dictatorship to stave off another, destroying villages in order to save them, I began to question other aspects of our foreign policy, and to criticize the distorted calculus of national interest that had led us to embrace—and even to usher into power—so many “friendly” dictatorships around the world. I believed we had to press for democracy and responsible governance among our own allies if we were going to be credible and effective in challenging our Communist enemies. Then, during my senior year in college, in one of the low points of a long sad history of American engagement in Latin America, the Chilean armed forces brutally overthrew the elected government of the Socialist president, Salvador Allende, and, it soon became clear, with backing from the Nixon administration. The clarion call of Kennedy’s inaugural address had become a cruel joke, and my own alienation from what my government was doing around the world deepened.

Although I had been engaged, morally and politically, with world events, I had not yet actually seen the world. When I graduated in June 1974, I was determined to do that, and planned a six-month trip through some of the countries that had captured my attention. I began in late October of that year in Portugal, which six months before had just had a military revolution to overthrow a quasi-fascist dictatorship that had stood for half a century. The country was then locked in a fateful struggle between Communist and other radical leftist forces that sought to establish a new form of dictatorship and a diverse array of parties committed to a democratic future. From there I traveled to Nigeria as it was experiencing the first full flush of an oil boom and was supposed to be returning to democratic rule—only to have the military dictator, Yakubu Gowon, postpone the transition shortly before my arrival in December 1974. I continued on to Egypt and Israel as they were each emerging from the drama of the 1973 war, to Thailand as its new democracy was trying to find its footing (which it would ultimately fail to do), and then to Taiwan, one of the key authoritarian states in the East Asian miracle.

My month in Portugal in November 1974 marked the real beginning of my journey to understand what constitutes and sustains the spirit of democracy. There I observed for the first time a live political struggle for democracy. Having recently been an elected student body leader at a time when American universities and society were in upheaval, and having struggled against intolerant, Marxist revolutionary currents within the antiwar movement on my own college campus, I found familiar echoes in the political atmosphere of Lisbon.

However, in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the stakes had been limited: to end our enervating involvement in a misguided war, to terminate the military draft, to create a more just society, and to open up power and the full possibilities of American life to racial minorities and women. Beyond that, “the revolution” was never more than a fantasy; it had the potential to disrupt the academy, to discredit the quest for peaceful change, and to polarize the country. But it never seriously threatened our democratic institutions.

In Lisbon, I found familiar revolutionary slogans and zeal, and the same struggle between closed and open minds, between two types of quests for justice and social progress: through a ruthless ideological certainty or through a flexible, tolerant politics of dialogue, persuasion, and coalition building. There, however, a country’s whole political future was at stake. Democracy hung in the balance.

I could not know what the outcome would be. But as I watched and interviewed for a month, two things struck me most. One was not just the differences in program and ideology, but the contrast in spirit between the drab, dogmatic, unquestioning atmosphere of the Communist Party, with its grim visages of Lenin and Stalin bearing down, and the life and color, the spontaneity and openness, the idealism and pragmatism, the faith in freedom and intellectual skepticism, as well as the turbulent creativity that infused the offices, meetings, and rallies of the principal democratic parties, the Socialist Party, the Popular Democratic Party, and the Social Democratic Center. The second was the commitment, talent, and nerve of the people I had met in the democratic parties and their obvious passion for freedom.

If nothing else, that experience taught me what much subsequent research, reading, travel, and reflection has reinforced: that the fate of democracy is not simply driven by abstract historical and structural forces. It is a consequence of struggle, strategy, ingenuity, vision, courage, conviction, compromise, and choices by human actors—of politics in the best sense of the word. This is some of what I mean by the democratic spirit. In the end, the democrats won in Portugal, in part because of the tenacity, courage, and skill of democrats like Mário Soares, leader of the Socialist Party, who would later become prime minister and then president, and in part because of the heavy investment Western democracies made in support of the democratic parties. That international solidarity to advance freedom was the harbinger of a much greater effort to come and the manifestation of another dimension of the democratic spirit.

I drew from the Portuguese experience, and from my experiences in Thailand and Nigeria, where democracy was so clearly and hopefully struggling to take root, a strong sense of democratic possibilities and an instinctive skepticism about the academic theories that would dismiss them out of hand for a whole class of countries. This led me, in graduate school, to make a choice that was then easily ridiculed among the rising ranks of my chosen discipline, sociology. Rather than studying the processes of economic development, state building, or revolution, or the forces of “international dependency” (and by frequent extension, international capitalist “exploitation”) that were inhibiting autonomous development, I wanted to study democracy itself. I did not accept that democracy was a facade that did not matter to people, or that we had to give up hope for democracy in poor countries. If India could survive as a democracy for decades (with only a brief interruption), why not Nigeria? They were both poor, intensely divided along ethnic lines, and with British colonial traditions. Why did Nigeria’s democracy break down in the mid-1960s, and with the traumatic fallout of a civil war? In my doctoral dissertation, I attempted to answer that question, and in doing so, I sought to identify the cultural, economic, political, and international factors that might foster and sustain democracy, even in the poorest countries. In the discipline of sociology in the late 1970s, my effort seemed to many quixotic and naive, if not absurd. Frequently my work was dismissed with the derisive declaration that the challenge was not to explain why democracy would fail in a place like Nigeria, but why it should be present anywhere outside the West, with its high levels of development and Judeo-Christian cultural traditions. I did not accept this way of looking at the world, intellectually or morally, and fortunately so. For the world was going to change during the next two decades in ways that neither my critics nor—frankly—I could possibly imagine.

As I document in the first part of this book, democracy would boom during the quarter century after the Portuguese revolution. That boom—what Samuel P. Huntington calls the third wave of global democratic expansion1—began slowly and imperceptibly with the transitions to democracy in Portugal, Spain, and Greece, then spread to Latin America, and then far and wide beyond. By the mid-1980s, about two in every five states were democratic. By the mid-1990s, after the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union collapsed, about three in every five states were. The 1980s and ’90s expressed the spirit of democracy in a third sense. During these two decades, democracy became a zeitgeist, literally (from the German) “the spirit of the time.” While the term encompasses the entire cultural and intellectual climate of an era, it denotes politically “a feeling shared across national boundaries that a particular [form of political] system is the most desirable,” typically reinforced by the perceived dynamism of powerful states “that are successful with a particular type of regime.”2 Just as the zeitgeist of the interwar period seemed to be fascism, that of the twentieth century’s last two decades was democracy.

While the overall number of democracies more or less stabilized after 1995, the birth of more than ninety democracies in this period represents the greatest transformation of the way states are governed in the history of the world. By the mid-1990s, it had become clear to me, as it had to many of my colleagues involved in the global struggle for democracy, that if some three-fifths of the world’s states (many of them poor and non-Western) could become democracies, there was no intrinsic reason why the rest of the world could not do so as well. But if this transformation is to be completed, we have to identify the historical and structural obstacles to democracy around the world and the conditions not only for getting to democracy but for sustaining it and making it work. That, in essence, is what this book aims to do. To begin, it is useful to recall what the world looked like in the mid-1970s and why the prospect of a democratic world seemed, so recently in historical time, such an illusion.

Copyright © 2008 by Larry Diamond. All rights reserved.