THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad

POLITICS THE FUTURE OF FREEDOM Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad By Fareed Zakaria W. W. Nodon & Co., 2004 304 pages, 0393324877 Hb


Three weeks after 9/11, Fareed Zakaria published a Newsweek cover story titled “The Politics of Rage: Why do they hate us?” Although already well known amongst policy makers and Washington insiders, the article served as a launching pad for Zakaria into the public consciousness. Three years and one best selling book later, he is now one of the more recognized and respected political pundits in America, appearing on Sunday morning talk shows and publishing op/ed columns that appear globally almost every week. It is hard to read much about Zakaria these days without finding references to his future as the first Muslim Secretary of State in American history.

To understand what kind of policies Secretary Zakaria would be promoting we should look no further than his book, The Future of Freedom, Illiberal Democracy at Home and abroad In the book Zakaria provides a framework for understanding the post-cold war global system. Whereas his contemporary, Thomas Friedman, chose networks and globalization as a means of understanding international systems, Zakaria sees the world as dimen- sions of democracy. His central diesis is predicated upon the assumption that democracy is the single most influential form of sociopolitical organization in the world, and will remain so for some time to come. In this sense, Zakaria is not only borrowing from his predecessors, who include Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, but updating tiie torch passed to him through a reexamination of democracy and its central tenants.

Zakaria argues mat in spreading democracy around Uie world, the United States mistakenly uses elections as a benchmark for success or failure. His observations are timely and somewhat prescient considering the cases of Afghanistan and most recently Iraq. What he goes on to argue is that elections do not necessarily result in the type of democracies that the US should be promoting, and in may often lead to what he calls “illiberal” democracies, or regimes with the trappings of democracy that lack its necessary substance. A historical reminder he uses is that of Germany in the 1930s when a man by the name of Adolf Hitler was popularly elected by the German people. Zakaria is more concerned with the political reality of transitioning states, and as a result sets forth the argument that establishing a ground work for liberal constitutionalism is much more important than organizing elections (by “liberal,” Zakaria means political liberalism and is not referencing the term as it relates to American party politics). In this sense Zakaria is urging Americans to look closely at the early history of their country and realize the context within which democracy developed. He argues, as Thomas Jefferson did, that the government must remain at some level insulated from the emotive reactions of the public in order to avoid the tyranny of the majority and to secure basic freedoms. In support of this argument, Zakaria recounts the current institutions of American government that enjoy the highest reputation amongst its citizens including the judiciary and the federal reserve bank. He argues that what makes these institutions so effective is that they remain unrepresentative and thus insulated from special interest groups and political machinations. They are all unelected institutions. For the developing world in particular, Zakaria is most interested in supporting liberal autocrats that are insulated from political strife, but committed to economic and political progress.

The trade off between liberty and democracy that Zakaria sets forward is nuanced and quite compelling. However, there are two critical assumptions that Zakaria makes that require further examination. The first is that the “unfettered masses” when given the choice, will always make the mistake of choosing political arrangements that centralize power and reduce freedom. The second is that the universal indicator of freedom is subsumed under the banner of liberalism.

Considering the first assumption, it is not necessarily the case that the impetus for consolidation of power and the relinquishing of freedom come from popular consent. Zakaria wants to limit the direct nature of democracy in favor of providing policy making power to insulated institutions free from the sway of public sentiment While he remains critical of the masses, Zakaria is not nearly as concerned about the narrow interests of the elite. While institutions like the World Trade Organization have enormous impact on the lives of billions of people, they remain entirely in service of the interests of the affluent few. While the need to temper the reactionary nature of public is an important point, placing faith in the hands of these elite demonstrates too much confidence in the assumption of their benign nature. In this sense, an antidote to Zakaria’s faith in centralized power structures and ruling elites can be found in Amartya Sen’s work on the relationship between famine and democracy. Sen, a nobel prize winner in economics, essentially argues the opposite of Zakaria by demonstrating that it the problem is not too much power is given to the people, but that influence resides in the hands of the elites. His most identifiable work in this area determines the relationship between popular empowerment as a mechanism for reducing the occurrence of famine.

Considering the second assumption it is necessary to further explore Zakaria’s understanding of illiberal democracy. One question that he, along with most others involved in formulating policy towards the Muslim world, neglects is the possibility of a democratic framework that is illiberal in its nature, but while remaining socially just in its makeup. While it is easy to dismiss the resurgence of political Islam as a natural reaction to a lack of indigenous political institutions in the Muslim world, what this view does not account for is the possibility that Islam would play a role in a democratic political landscape even if civic structures and political parties are established in the Muslim world. Malaysia represents an excellent example of this which is often forgotten by western political scientists quick to dismiss the relevance of religion’s role in politics. While Zakaria does discuss Malaysia in his book, he does not address the important role of political Islam in its construction of a multi-ethnic Muslim state. In this sense, it is important for Zakaria and others to acknowledge that conceptions of sociopolitical order can exist outside the current secular liberal framework that nonetheless respect individual, group and human rights. Of course the reality of these political arrangements will not be “Uberai,” but it would be i Iliberal of one to categorically condemn them as backwards or unjust without realizing the principles upon which they are founded. In defining the future of freedom in a globalizing world, I think it should be required to think outside a sometimes narrow “liberal” box.

Zakaria’s critiques are compelling, and in some cases legitimate. For his supporters, his analysis is born out of respect for the tradition of democracy so as to ensure its integrity. For his detractors, Zakaria is setting forth a justification for empire that is based on efficiency and rule of the elites. As important as it is to insulate a nation’s decision making process from the sometimes volatile swing of popular opinion, structurally investing so much power in the hands of a few seems disconcerting. At times it almost seems like Zakaria would be most comfortable managing democracy from behind a curtain with such efficiency that people no longer notice the attached strings.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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