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World: Analysis from Washington -- Democracy Helps To Guarantee National Security

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 6 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Many people in post-communist countries are beginning to recognize that the pursuit of democracy does not undermine national security but rather helps to guarantee it both in the short term and over the longer run.

And at least some authoritarian leaders are beginning to understand that democracy can help them develop the national security of their countries rather than threaten it.

That understanding has not come easily to either group. All too often, some leaders in the region have justified their openly authoritarian rule or more subtle limitations on democracy by pointing attention to the need to create state structures strong enough to defend the security interests of these countries.

Moreover, many of these countries face challenges within and without that make it difficult for them to move quickly toward full democracy. Indeed, in many cases the factors that limit the spread of democracy there have restricted it in other parts of the world as well.

And finally, those interested in promoting democracy, especially those on the ground there, have typically made their case in moral terms. They have seldom talked about the positive practical consequences that democracy can have for a country's stability both now and in the future. Indeed, they have often seen any reference to the need for the development of national security as a threat to themselves and their goals.

As a result, they too have limited the scope of their influence on precisely those they most seek to change.

But in many of these states, both leaders who have focused on the need to promote the national security of their states and activists who have devoted all their efforts to promoting a democratic system are beginning to recognize, at least in part, the practical benefits of those in the opposite camp.

At least some of the leaders who have sought to promote national security by authoritarian means now understand that the stability and independence they have achieved is far more fragile than they thought. Not only does authoritarianism tend to deprive these leaders of the popular support that more participatory regimes obtain through competition, but it has three additional consequences that undermine the very possibility of national security.

First, authoritarian regimes do not tend to give birth to a large number of people capable of thinking and acting independently. Indeed, authoritarian leaders tend to do everything they can to prevent the emergence of such people. That means that in their day to day activities, the bureaucracies of these states often cannot respond quickly and cleverly to the challenges all around them.

Second, authoritarian regimes do not provide people with the kind of political responsibility that democracies inevitably do. As a result, the number of people capable of taking over greater responsibility remains extremely limited. In democracies by contrast, the system by itself generates ever new generations of people capable of doing just that.

And third, regimes led by a single power leader, one who justifies his role because of the threats to his country from within and without, can often die with him. And as a result, all the security that this individual may in fact have brought his country during his lifetime can quickly disappear along with him.

The most far-sighted of these leaders do not want that to happen. Instead, they have an obvious interest in institutionalizing their achievements in the area of national security. And consequently, some are now prepared to look at the democratic process not as a threat to what they want for their countries but as a possible ally.

Obviously, such a change in the minds of most of the more authoritarian leaders has not gone as far as many democrats would like. But it has already begun to happen in a few places and may spread to others as well.

Equally interesting is the process taking place among democratic activists. Many of them are increasingly prepared to recognize that the development and maintenance of a country that feels itself secure, democracy itself will always be at risk. Such people see that countries at war or under the threat of war are seldom likely to be democratic.

And consequently, they to are beginning to recognize that the establishment of a secure country is a prerequisite rather than a threat to democratic development. They even are beginning to understand that democracy by itself can seldom answer one of the most fundamental questions of political life: the territorial extent of the state itself.

Quite clearly, the authoritarian leaders have the furthest to travel toward this convergence in the understanding of how to build a better future. But the fact that there is now some indication that they are doing just that gives rise to hope in places which have not seen much of it yet since the euphoria at the time of the collapse of the communist system.