Browsing articles from "September, 2011"
Sep 30, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Of the tweet, by the tweet, and for the tweet?

While Twitter may not be able to overthrow a government, some think it might be able to write a Constitution. Of course, some disagree.

Other
Sep 30, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Weapons to Bahrain

The Department of Defense’s timing is funny. It notified Congress about two weeks ago that it plans to go ahead with a US$ 53 millions weapons sale to Bahrain, including 44 Humvees, over 50 missiles and night vision technology.

Meanwhile, the administration continues to express its “concern” over the crackdown on protesters at the arab nation. Obama met with the royal family in the past months to press for reforms and investigations against abuses. The White House has classified the repression with terms like “mass arrest”, “brute force” and “violence”.

Human rights groups are already complaining about the incongruence. Now there is some State Department official telling the press that “the proposed sale would help Bahrain’s defense force develop its capabilities”, according to the Washington Post. He also said the purpose is to defend against external, not internal, threats.

Ah, then it is ok. Nevermind that they are putting doctors who treat injured protesters in jail.

The leverage the US has on Bahrain is complicated enough without shipping weapons to them at such a delicate time. Not only the island hosts the 5th fleet and is considered important to contain Iranian influence and fight terrorism, but its rulers have been defiant of Washington for ages.

One could say that it is not Washington’s problem. But it is. Bahrain is an ally, and the US has a big stance over the future of its government.

Maybe the relationship between the two countries is so strained that you need to oil it a bit with a few Humvees. It is hard to believe the DoD would really need those US$ 53 million that bad.

 

Sep 30, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The Value of a Vote

Associated Press Image

Recent events in Saudi Arabia have focused media attention once again on a nation regularly and conspicuously ignored throughout the Arab Spring.  When mentioned, the awkward relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is criticized often on the basis of the nation’s record on human rights and particularly the role of women in society.  As in Bahrain, another key US ally in the region, the events of the Arab Spring threatened to destabilize Saudi Arabia several times over the course of this year.  Again as in Bahrain the Saudi leader has sought the route of elections of questionable value and incremental change in appeasing the populace.  For those interested in democratic governance these gradual changes highlight a deeper issue often grappled with in the past.

Since the democratic movements of the late 20th century, in bolstering one political victory or another, elections have errantly become equated with democracy.  , Authoritarian or “semi-authoritarian” rulers caught on to the new status quo, and ran elections they could carefully control in an effort to legitimize their right to rule.  As scholars we’ve assigned any number of titles to these farcical systems of governance labeling them some form or another of adjective democracy.  These labels strike at recurrent questions on what it means to dub a nation’s government “democratic”, and what ultimately the value of a vote truly is.

Is there some innate worth in elections even when their results will ultimately have little impact on governance or people’s lives? I’d like to think so, but at the same time isn’t there danger in presenting elections as a step toward democracy, followed by little to nothing actually changing? It is hard to argue that public perception of participation is enough, but isn’t it better than an utter lack of representation?  As an American I’m often filled with a measure of loathing over our electoral systems and the relative value of my own vote contrasted with other Americans’.  Still the understanding that I do participate on some level or another fosters both a sense of responsibility for the actions of those that govern me, and the nebulous understanding that if I work hard enough I might be able to change something I don’t approve of.  To suggest that this ability to present one’s opinion is irrelevant even in the most flawed of systems seems somewhat disingenuous.

Often in more repressive states, states utterly inexperienced in basic themes of self-governance and states the US is closely tied to, there are assertions that elections, even when flawed, may be a step in the right direction.  It is argued that through participation in these flawed elections, the populace is being indoctrinated with democratic principles and values, or that institutions are being given time to develop.  On the other hand we are quick to decry nations with a history of democratic governance that may be heading in the wrong direction, or nations particularly out of favor in our current political discourse.  Here activists, political pundits and government officials point to flaws in policies, processes, politics and practices that may be non-conducive to a functioning democracy and delve into hyperbolic arguments over the gradual decline of the nation’s governance.  Neither of these reactions is really wrong or undeserved however, and each serves a purpose in reinforcing those central ideals of democracy while pressing ourselves and our neighbors to always strive for more responsible governance.

In the end the people of Saudi Arabia should ask themselves two questions regarding the decision to offer women the right to vote in four years.  First is this decision meaningful, and second is it enough?  The answer to the first question is arguable, but more importantly these answers need not be the same.  There is nothing wrong with recognizing progress while at the same time marking it as embarrassingly slow and demanding more.

Sep 28, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

The survival of the Putin-Mania

Dmitri Medvedev probably did not have a good night of sleep after the humiliatingt announcement that he will step aside next year to let Vladimir Putin get the Presidency back in 2012.

Medvedev will have trouble sleeping again soon: Not only will he not run for reelection, but he won’t be allowed a graceful exit either. If he left today, his name would go down in history as something between a puppet and a weak man. But to make it more complicated, Russia is poised to implement more austerity measures, and that unpopular move will have to be at least initiated before the end of his term.

While there are countless problems with this rather undemocratic way of orchestrating politics in Moscow, the fact is that Russians like Putin. They want him back, and they have solid reasons for it. There are no viable alternatives at this point. Putin himself made sure of that.

Is that problematic? Of course. There is an erosion of institutions, a near cult of personality, corruption, the smothering of the opposition, the press, the NGOs, the human rights groups and whatever else annoyed Russian’s strongman. But still, given his popularity, in a way the feelings of “disgust” echoed abroad after the announcement are paternalistic. Does the West knows better?

Too soon to despair, though. There could be some measure of vindication for the nauseated ones down the road. Russians are headed for a period of tight belts, which could hurt Putin’s popularity. Taxes, for one, will increase. In contrast with the 7% growth the country experienced last time Putin ran for president, the rate is now close to 4,3%, and should shrink to 4,1% in 2012, according to the IMF. That is after contracting nearly 8% two years ago. Oil production is supposed to remain flat for the next decade, making it more difficult to balance the budget. Meanwhile, modernizing the military will mean increases in expenditure.

There are already signs of problems. The finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, was sacked after a televised spat with Medvedev. Foreign investors are not happy, and they are a group that will be ever more needed in the years to come.

It hardly sounds enough right now to turn the tide on the Putin-mania, and it would be ridiculous to wish for a bad economy. But Putin will have a harder period in power this time around, and the sheer length of his dominance could provoke some fatigue.

As for what the switch will represent to Obama… not much. Given the political situation in the US, he might not even have to deal with it for very long.

Sep 27, 2011
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

A New Use for Freedom Indicators?

In the world of democracy and governance, one thing academics and practitioners alike consistently consider and debate about is freedom indicators. Freedom House has its “Freedom in the World.” The Economist puts out their “Democracy Index” each year. The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation publish their own “Index of Economic Freedom.” The CIA indirectly has its own index, the Polity data series. There are other widely accepted ones, too, like those from Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Canadian Frasier Institute.

Each freedom index uses varying measures of “freedom.” Generally these measures include things like civil liberties, election conduct, media freedom, political participation, corruption, and stability. Granted, different organizations include and weight different measures: it’s probably not surprising that The Heritage Foundation and WSJ place a heavy emphasis on investment and financial freedom in their index. But, at the end of the day, each index is respected as a product of highly diversified indicators; the amount of information that goes into each country rating is so  great that it doesn’t vary too much from the rating of its “competitors.” It’s a classic example of the law of large numbers at work.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon Matthew Yglesias’ response to a Washington Examiner editorial. His takedown is hilarious and worth a read, but I will try to rehash the more relevant points of the editorial for those interested in how freedom ratings actually work. You see, the Examiner piece, a screed against last week’s World Car-Free Day titled “Automobiles gave Americans mobility, prosperity and greater freedom,” makes no qualms about directly tying the role of automobiles to the relatively high level of freedom and economic development in the United States.

But fair-minded people with a knowledge of history understand that we should be exceedingly thankful for the automobile and its crucial role in the economic, social and political progress achieved since Henry Ford put America on wheels in 1908 with the Model T. Note that average life expectancy in America that year for men was 49.5 years and 52.8 years for women. Today, the overall average life expectancy in America is 78.37 years, a 58 percent improvement for men and a 48 percent gain for women. So much for the killer exhaust fumes. […]

Sadly, it’s precisely that individual mobility that makes Big Green environmentalists obsess about forcing “drivers out of their cars and into public transit.” But the more they try, the more Americans reject subways and buses and choose instead to drive to work, school and a zillion other destinations. That’s why Ford should have called his Model T the “freedom machine” and why we should celebrate it today.

What an astounding case of causation. Take a developing country, add a few automobiles, and voila! Freedom! A defender of the Examiner might say that the editorial board is arguing that the economic system initiated by the introduction of the automobile in the early twentieth century is responsible for the country’s development. But that doesn’t explain why the board rebukes outright the concept of (the “liberal,” “politically correct”) World Car-Free Day even while leaving its economic system intact. It looks like the board believes that the mere presence of automobiles on the road in America today make it the free country it is.

That’s an index I haven’t seen. I’d be really interested to see the Examiner, along with its sister conservative political magazine The Weekly Standard, come up with a set of indicators as simplistic and perverted as this. It might do a lot of harm in terms of undermining the indicators professionals have spent many years cultivating, but, at the very least, it would give me something to write about.

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Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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