The Relationship Between Liberty and Democracy
Lemar Alexander Farhad
In 2005, I was the deputy officer in charge of provisional and national elections in Iraq. This was Iraq’s first democratic elections. It was a monumental time in Iraq’s history as a state. It was also America’s first flirtation with exporting Jeffersonian values to the Middle East. The U.S. government violently replaced a secular, authoritarian, and brutal regime with a democratic one. Yet, the results following the elections, and now, ten years later, have been very disappointing. It is as if the American intervention, with its staggering loss of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars expended, has never happened. Iraq is ostensibly a democratic country, but like many other countries’ is one that is authoritarian, corrupt, and religiously biased. Why didn’t democracy yield a better outcome? The question lies within the question I have chosen for this article. In this article, I will argue that there is direct relationship between liberty and democracy. In order to have democracy, a state must value individual liberty and subscribe to liberal values.
Fareed Zakaria, in his essay, “A Brief History of Human Liberty,” argues that Christianity paved the way for the concepts of liberty to become entrenched in society, and thus liberty started in the West, and came before the concept of democracy. [i] He points out that although democracy was created in ancient Greece, the Greeks did not leave behind any viable democratic institutions to influence Europe.[ii] I do partially agree that the notion of liberty does trace its origins to Christianity. By contrast, I contend that liberalism traces its roots back to the European Enlightenment movement, which, was anti religion and against the Roman Catholic Church. Emmanuel Kant advocated the exercise of universal peace. The European Enlightenment ideas paved the way for the French Revolution. The concept of liberty, fraternity, and equality became mainstream political thought. These concepts soon made their way into the American Constitution. Zakaria maintains that, “America’s path to liberal democracy was exceptional.” [iii] Woodrow Wilson was influenced by liberal beliefs long after the founding fathers. His foreign policy was heavily partial to liberalism; as Wilson himself was deeply affected by Kant’s ideas. Zakaria in his essay, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” contends, liberalism is about individual rights. Western states combined the concept of liberalism and the rule of law to develop constitutional liberalism, which holds individual rights, property rights, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality, separation of church and state, and government of checks and balances, almost sacrosanct.[iv]
Phillip C. Schimmter and Terry Lynn Karl in their essay, “What Democracy Is…And Is Not,” contend that democracy comes in several forms, and that a state’s socioeconomic condition, institutions, and policies determine the form of democracy being practiced.[v] They define democracy as a modern system of governance where the rulers are held accountable by its citizens. The authors add that like all other forms of governance, democracies depend upon the leaders who hold positions of authority.[vi] Schimmter and Karl conclude by saying that final aspect of democracy is a state held free and fair elections.[vii] It has been widely noted that that liberal democracies yield better economic markets and quality of life, than non-liberal democracies. Examples of liberal democracies are the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, Denmark, and Germany.
Central Asia remains plagued by political stagnation and repression, rampant corruption, widespread poverty and widening socio-economic inequalities.
- John D. Negroponte, (former) Director of National Intelligence[viii]
The Soviets attempted to create a political society based on communist ideology. In reality, the Soviet Union relied on local actors to govern ethnically and linguistically diverse regions. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, political leaders and communist strongmen became the new ruling elite in the former Soviet republics. Most former Soviet states, especially those in Central Asia and the Caucuses are not liberal democracies. In this essay, I will argue that the reason most former Soviet states have not transitioned into liberal democracies is due to the totalitarian Soviet background shared by the elites who now govern these states. The notion of individual and collective liberalism has not yet manifested itself in these societies.
Former Soviet Strongmen
Leaders such Islam Karimov, Imam Ali Rahmon, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and Nursultan Nazarbayev have been labeled as Central Asian strongmen, or rather as dictators. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, in their essay, “Modern Nondemocratic Regimes”, espouse that when a regime has removed political, economic, and social diversity, while only promoting a system of unitary politics and institutions associated with the regime’s mission, these regimes become totalitarian in nature.[ix] Many of these states may not be truly totalitarian; however, they are authoritarian. The cast of former Soviet strongmen run political parties and dominate political and economic life. Guriev and Triesman, in their essay, “The New Dictators Rule by Velvet Fist,” state, “The new dictatorships preserve a pocket of democratic opposition to simulate competition. Elections prove the boss’s popularity. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev was re-elected with 97.7 percent of the vote.”[x]
The rationale behind their unwillingness to change is rather simple. The countries in which they preside were all given independence in the early 1990s. These leaders are products of the former Soviet regime, and only know and understand one system. Most of the countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus lack cultures that promote entrepreneurship, trust, and innovation. They are poor and have weak government, political and civic institutions. Through my own travel in Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, I have seen how mismanaged many of the government institutions are. These societies may not be able to handle overnight transition to true democracies.
Most countries that attempted to transition from totalitarian type regimes to democracy have been dismal failures. Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that had two different types of regimes prior to U.S. military operations, have suffered due to their governments’ inability to properly manage democratic governance. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have democracies, yet they are illiberal. Perhaps this is due to the fundamental concept of liberalism that is missing in their respective societies. Such is also the case for many of the former Soviet Republics.
Stability and Security vs Democracy
Former Soviet states are a direct product of the Soviet communism with an authoritative twist. The elites who took power were from the old guard, and were indoctrinated into a system of unitary governance. Many of these countries lack properly functioning government institutions. As a result, the governments over the years have done little to bolster education, and economic diversity. These societies have yet to fully grasp the concept of individual liberty and liberalism. Thus, they have not pressured their governments for change. These governments have promised their people stability, and many have delivered it. In an unstable world, many of the people living in these countries are content with stability, even at the cost of democracy.
As Fareed Zakaria presents in his essay, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy,” not all democracies are liberal. Illiberal democracies are on the rise in many parts of the world, from Pakistan to Malaysia, to Russia, and beyond. Governments that have not invested in liberal values may have a democratic structure, but they are considered illiberal democracies. For, true democracy is more than a method of electing political leadership and approving laws and budgets through an elected, legislature. The spirit of liberal democracy lies in the notion that the ultimate sovereignty in a state belongs to the people who, in complete freedom, build and democratically elect a government to serve them. It has been demonstrated in many states that there is a strong correlation between liberty and democracy. In order to have democracy as it is defined and practiced in the west, governments and societies must have liberty first. Liberal democracies are founded on the principles of liberty, absolute sovereignty of the people, and the rule of law. As my experiences in Iraq in 2005 have proven to me, without this relationship between liberty and democracy, you will have illiberal democracies. Perhaps, before exporting and championing for Jeffersonian democracy, we should have considered the relationship with liberty and democracy.
[i]Fareed Zakaria, “A Brief History of Human Liberty,” in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 4th ed., ed. Patrick H. O’Neil and Ronald Rogowski (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013), 188-89.
[ii] Ibid., 189.
[iii] Ibid., 198.
[iv] Fareed Zakaria, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracies,” Foreign Affairs, (1997), 26.
[v] Phillipe C. Schimitter and Terry Lynn Karl, “What Democracy Is…And Is Not,” in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 4th ed., ed. Patrick H. O’Neil and Ronald Rogowski (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013), 204.
[vi] Ibid., 204.
[vii] Ibid., 205.
[viii] John D. Negroponte, “Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence,”
testimony, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Washington, D.C., February 2, 2006.
[ix] Juan Linz and Alfred Stephan, “Modern Non Democratic Regimes,” in Essential Readings in Comparative Politics, 4th ed., ed. Patrick H. O’Neil and Ronald Rogowski (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013), 268.
[x] Sergei Guriev and Daniel Triesman, The New Dictators Rule by Velvet Fist. The Opinion Pages , The New York Times, 2015.