Back in 2005, Congress considered a bill to remove two dictators a year for the next 20 years. "Some people think a world without tyrants is utopian," former U.S. ambassador to Hungary Mark Palmer told me that year. "And they think it's more utopian to have a deadline." Palmer, whose book Breaking the Real Axis of Evil inspired the ADVANCE Democracy Act of 2005, continued: "we're down to a limited number of dictators, and it's entirely feasible to get the rest of them out. Most are pretty creaky and won't even live until 2025!"
The ADVANCE Democracy Act picked up only 17 co-sponsors in the House and died in committee in 2007. That same year, President George W. Bush's pledge to support "democratic movements in the Middle East and beyond, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world," was no more successful. Democracy promotion was fatally weakened by the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. economic and military support for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other authoritarian regimes over the years – a double-strength double standard – dealt this philosophy a death blow.
But today, pundits on both the left and the right are again dreaming of a world without tyrants. For them, a 2025 deadline is far too generous deadline.
Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali are now gone. Libya's Muammar Gaddafi commands a dwindling number of supporters. Ali Abdullah Saleh is facing daily protests in Yemen. Paul Biya in Cameroon and Omar Bongo of Gabon might be in the next hot seats. Protests in China and Cuba, though small and immediately squelched, have drawn inspiration from the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Dictators everywhere are calling their Swiss bankers and readying their escape jets. Perhaps North Korea's Kim Jong Il is reserving one of Robert Mugabe's villas in Zimbabwe, where he and his family might join Gaddafi in the last refuge for scoundrels.
Are we seeing the beginning of the end of an era that stretches back to the very origins of human political organization? And will Bush and his neoconservative advisors go down in history as philosopher-kings who, however unwittingly, set the wrecking ball in motion against the entire edifice of tyranny – rather than just targeting the tyrants not on our payroll?
To answer these questions, pundits are digging into history to find the most appropriate parallel to the current uprisings: the "springtime of nations" in 1848 when popular revolts spread throughout Europe and as far away as Brazil; the transformations in World War I's wake, the Russian revolution, and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points; and the victories for self-determination during the decolonization that followed World War II.
Perhaps the best comparison is the end of last century’s cataclysmic change. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, authoritarianism in South Korea, and apartheid in South Africa. "In 1991 alone, over 30 African countries were rocked by pro-democracy revolts," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Francis Njubi Nesbitt in A Middle Eastern Dream Deferred? "Millions turned out for peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. Military dictatorships fell like dominos. Between 1985 and 1989 only five countries held competitive elections – Botswana, Gambia, Mauritius, Senegal, and Zimbabwe. From 1990-1994, more than 38 countries held truly competitive elections of which 29 openly challenged dictators."
So far, the uprisings haven't been quite as influential. Nor are they achieving systemic change. Egypt's and Tunisia's military brass and political elite remain in charge. But it's early in the game. If public protests persist – as they have in Tunisia, resulting in the departure of the prime minister and two other ministers from the previous regime – some form of democracy might prevail, with real political parties and contested elections.
One conventional explanation for why democracy will eventually win out is that, whatever its virtues or flaws, it's the political system perfectly matched to the technology of our times. Tyrants can't compete against Twitter, WikiLeaks, and blogging. One-person rule requires control of the mass media. North Korea's Kim Il Sung, by using films as a principal mode of propaganda, understood the importance of controlling the message. But YouTube and DVDs of South Korean soap operas have eroded that monopoly. These technologies are the equivalent of arming the population. It equips them with the means of linking and friending movements into existence.
Both the Bush and Obama administrations have supported the use of these technologies as public diplomacy tools for promoting democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently noted that: "We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely." But this contention that technology is the mother of revolution – and the United States the midwife of this revolution – doesn't fully explain why we're experiencing the twilight of tyranny.
Here's why advocates of democracy promotion may well be right about tyranny's end – but not about how we will get there.
First, the events taking place in the Middle East aren't happening because of U.S. policy but despite it. Washington favors stability above all, because the status quois both predictable and favorable to the United States. This explains the double standard of supporting democracy in Iraq but not Saudi Arabia – a position many conservatives uphold in their lamentations over Mubarak's fall, as FPIF contributor M. Junaid Levesque-Alam points out in Focal Points. It also explains why the Obama administration hesitated to support the uprisings until it became clear that the status quo was no longer tenable. Even then, as FPIF contributor Fouad Pervez explains in Democracy Doesn't Equal Instability, "the Obama administration backed a transition to Omar Suleiman in the interests of preserving 'stability,' or more appropriately, existing conditions. If the army opts to implement some reforms but still tries to maintain much of the status quo, will Washington protest?"
Second, neocons assumed that new democracies would be pro-American, much as Eastern Europe backed U.S. foreign policy during the Bush years when "old Europe" equivocated. But new democracies like Indonesia and South Africa have proven rather independent in their global perspectives and favor a more equitable distribution of power in the international system. A democratic Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran will likely make geopolitics harder – not easier – for the United States (at least for those who hang on to the notion of U.S. economic and military supremacy). Democracy is more unpredictable than the House of Saud.
Finally, the uprisings were a response to economic injustice: the rise in food prices, exasperation over corruption, and the lack of jobs for 20-somethings. This injustice isn't merely a function of local conditions. As the UN University's World Institute for Development Economics Research discovered several years ago, the richest 10 percent of the world own 85 percent of all global assets, while the poorest 50 percent own a mere one percent. This gap is growing. The division of the world into rich and poor, what Citigroup describes as a “plutonomy and everyone else,” worries even big financial services companies like Allianz.
The tyrants are gone or on their way out the door. The bankers and plutocrats are worried that their turn is next. Whether in Egypt or in Wisconsin, democracy is not an end in itself – but a means to challenge economic tyranny. Those protesting in the Arab world don't just want to live in truth, like Vaclav Havel: they want to live in justice. Perhaps one day soon, Congress will debate a bill called the ADVANCE Economic Democracy Act that promotes fair trade, strong protections for workers and the environment, a financial transactions tax, and other ways of bridging the ruinous, destabilizing, and fundamentally undemocratic gap between rich and poor. Only then will night fall on tyranny.