Americans are passionate about democracy.  We practice it.  We stand for it.  We have invested immeasurable blood, sweat, tears, and treasure into supporting it around the world.  Which makes the following question even more compelling:  What if America is wrong about democracy?  Specifically, what if the approach we take to supporting democracy and the advice we give—that countries should hold elections as soon as possible—is actually not the right advice?  Is it possible we’ve been wrong for 200 years?

Iraq, Afghanistan, Arab Spring fuel skepticism about spreading democracy

In the wake of recent events—Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring, none of which produced much in the way of democracy—Americans are increasingly skeptical about our efforts to spread democracy.  In effect Americans are asking this same question—are we taking the wrong approach to democracy?  In short the answer is “Yes, America has been wrong about democracy,” and there is actually a tremendous amount of evidence to support this notion.    

Culture is the missing link

Let’s start by summarizing how America has been wrong and we can do that in one word—culture.  We tend to see democracy as being an institutional framework—elections, parliaments, courts, etc.  But those institutions won’t function effectively is the culture isn’t right.  There are many examples of cultural attributes we could point to that impede the effectiveness of democracy—authoritarian leadership style (not just in government but throughout society), a populace that isn’t accustomed to questioning authority, etc.—but there is one cultural phenomenon that trumps them all—rule of law.  Public corruption, intellectual property theft, even traffic violations—there are actually a number of ways we can measure weakness in the rule of law and it is clear that countries that struggle with democracy have weak rule of law.  We tend to think that the rule of law is a political issue relating to the leaders at the top of society.  In reality the rule of law is a cultural issue that goes from the top of government to local government officials (often the biggest problem in the transition to democracy) to the man on the street. 

Elections are not enough to produce a real democracy

Perhaps the best example we have of this is India, often called the world’s largest democracy.  According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which measures corruption in countries around the world, despite 70 years of elections, India remains one of the most corrupt nations on earth, no better than celebrated non-democratic governments like China.  According to sources such as Freedom House, which evaluates democracies around the world, India is also plagued with security forces that engage in extra-legal killings, judges who use the court to silence critics, police bribery and torture, and even an unusually large number of provincial and local officials with criminal records.  Together with its measly economic growth (per capita GDP still hovers at about $1,600, roughly 20% of China) India has little to show for 70 years of elections.  Instead of being hailed as the world’s largest democracy, India might better be described as the world’s leading indicator as to the limits of democracy.  Or rather, the limits of elections—how, for a democracy to be successful, much more than an election is required. 

Economic development is more important than elections

On the other hand we have places like Taiwan and South Korea.  While India held elections very early, both Taiwan and South Korea had one-party rule for many decades (Taiwan even had martial law for more than 30 years).  Whereas India embraced socialism, Taiwan and South Korea encourage private enterprise, entrepreneurship, and foreign investment.  Fifty years later, Taiwan and South Korea’s per capita GDP is more than 20 times India, plus they have much less corruption and much better democracies. 

Democracy requires the rule of law which requires capitalism

Therein lies the rub.  It turns out that, for democracy to take root successfully, it is virtually always preceded by free-market-oriented economic development.  One major reason is that the rule of law strengthens when an economy develops.  Remember above we mentioned the Corruption Perception Index (CPI).  By that measure we can see that all rich countries score relatively low for corruption and virtually all poor countries score relatively high and it doesn’t matter if the poor countries have elections or not.  Plus, as the CPI for Taiwan and South Korea show, as countries develop, they become less corrupt. 

Economics-first countries outperform those that hold elections immediately

The fact that those who focused on economic development first and political development last, like Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, outperformed those who began with political development, like India, Russia, Nigeria, and Mexico, lends strong support to the idea that economics comes first.  So does the fact that, according to the CPI, rich countries are all significantly less corrupt than poor countries.  We also have one other piece of fascinating evidence—The World Values Survey (WVS).  The WVS has been conducting cultural surveys in 150 countries around the world for forty years and two of their most important conclusions are as follows.  First, democratization must be preceded by cultural change that supports democratic institutions.  Secondly, the economic develop always precedes that cultural change.  No matter how you look at it, economics comes first.  Democracy second. 

Exposure to culture will teach you how important it is

My interest in culture grew the old-fashioned way—by managing business out in the heartland of China, away from the big skyscrapers in the big cities.  You can’t avoid the cultural differences there.  They hit you over the head every day.  The notion that culture is important to not only business but to economic and political development becomes obvious in an environment like that. 

Policy Impact: From military to migrants, how we engage the developing world

If the above is true—and you can be sure it is—the implications are huge, from the use of the military to install democracy to the flood of migrants into Europe to how we assess and handle countries like China and India.  Culture impacts all of these issues.  If you consider that 85% of the world’s 7.4 billion people live in poor, non-democratic countries, and if you accept that culture is key to their rise from poverty and oppression, then you might say culture is just about the most important topic there is.