I had the opportunity this past Saturday to take part in a day-long conference, “The Great Divide: Democracy’s Future” (sponsored by American University’s School of Public Affairs Graduate Student Council and the Graduate Leadership Council.) This symposium, in many ways, picked right up from the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs fall 2016 event on the crisis in the liberal order which also picked up on this notion of an emerging divide between elites/rulers and populaces even in the advanced liberal post-industrial democracies–and the sense that the postwar international liberal order is no longer bringing benefits to the average citizen.
My read of Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration leads me to an assessment that democracy is a means to an end–to offer to citizens the prospect of a safe, secure and prosperous life where individual liberty to pursue one’s concept of the good life is balanced against a series of obligations to make governance effective. In that regard, a number of the panels at the Great Divide conference focused on whether democracies–and in the U.S., in particular, are able to create conditions to enhance the health and welfare of its citizens or whether electoral systems in the last several decades are eroding the standing of the average person. If so, then one cannot be surprised if democratic forms of governance are weakened or calls for more authoritarian leadership to secure these blessings are heard, even in the U.S. or Europe. A decade ago, in the midst of the financial crisis, pundits wondered whether the Chinese model of authoritarian, state-led development was superior; today, it is the turn of populist nationalism to show whether it is more effective than postwar small-l liberalism to do the job.
This discussion then set up the panel I was privileged to participate in: “Democracy and Development Abroad.” How should the United States respond to the current worldwide democratic recession? Is it time to rethink democracy and development assistance, particularly in an era of austerity, along some sort of triage model: where more effort is made to repair democracy at home and to target assistance to those countries where a democratic breakthrough can occur and be sustained, with a secondary focus on identifying where assistance is more likely to help lay the foundations for a gradual evolution along more liberal norms? The latter runs up against the American preference for immediate results (now!) but is ethically justifiable based on an appeal to prudence. It also means coming to terms with places where aid would be wasted or even counterproductive–and recognize the limits of how much transformation the United States is capable of engendering.