The Democratic Recession

Posted in Democracy , Other | 10-May-08 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: The New York Times

There are two important recessions going on in the world today. One has gotten enormous attention. It’s the economic recession in America. But it will eventually pass, and the world will not be much worse for the wear. The other has gotten no attention. It’s called “the democratic recession,” and if it isn’t reversed, it will change the world for a long time.

The term “democratic recession” was coined by Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist, in his new book “The Spirit of Democracy.” And the numbers tell the story. At the end of last year, Freedom House, which tracks democratic trends and elections around the globe, noted that 2007 was by far the worst year for freedom in the world since the end of the cold war. Almost four times as many states — 38 — declined in their freedom scores as improved — 10.

What explains this? A big part of this reversal is being driven by the rise of petro-authoritarianism. I’ve long argued that the price of oil and the pace of freedom operate in an inverse correlation — which I call: “The First Law of Petro-Politics.” As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up.

“There are 23 countries in the world that derive at least 60 percent of their exports from oil and gas and not a single one is a real democracy,” explains Diamond. “Russia, Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria are the poster children” for this trend, where leaders grab the oil tap to ensconce themselves in power.

But while oil is critical in blunting the democratic wave, it is not the only factor. The decline of U.S. influence and moral authority has also taken a toll. The Bush democracy-building effort in Iraq has been so botched, both by us and Iraqis, that America’s ability and willingness to promote democracy elsewhere has been damaged. The torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay also have not helped. “There has been an enormous squandering of American soft power, and hard power, in recent years,” said Diamond, who worked in Iraq as a democracy specialist.

The bad guys know it and are taking advantage. And one place you see that most is in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has been trying to steal an election, after years of driving his country into a ditch. I would say there is no more disgusting leader in the world today than Mugabe. The only one who rivals him is his neighbor and chief enabler and protector, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki.

Zimbabwe went to the polls on March 29, and the government released the results only last week. Mugabe apparently decided that he couldn’t claim victory, since there was too much evidence to the contrary. So his government said that the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had won 47.9 percent of the vote and Mugabe 42.3 percent. But since no one got 50 percent of the vote, under Zimbabwe law, there must now be a runoff.

Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change claim to have won 50.3 percent of the vote and have to decide whether or not to take part in the runoff, which will be violent. Opposition figures have already been targeted by a state-led campaign of attacks and intimidation.

If South Africa’s Mbeki had withdrawn his economic and political support for Mugabe’s government, Mugabe would have had to have resigned a long time ago. But Mbeki feels no loyalty to suffering Zimbabweans. His only loyalty is to his fellow anti-colonial crony, Mugabe. What was that anti-colonial movement for? So an African leader could enslave his people instead of a European one?

What Mugabe has done to his country is one of the most grotesque acts of misgovernance ever. Inflation is so rampant that Zimbabweans have to carry their currency — if they have any —around in bags. Store shelves are bare; farming has virtually collapsed; crime by people just starving for food is rampant; and the electric grid can’t keep the lights on.

What can the U.S. do? In Zimbabwe, we need to work with decent African leaders like Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa to bring pressure for a peaceful transition. And with our Western allies, we should threaten to take Mugabe’s clique to the International Criminal Court in The Hague — just as we did Serbia’s leaders — if they continue to subvert the election.

But we also need to do everything possible to develop alternatives to oil to weaken the petro-dictators. That’s another reason the John McCain-Hillary Clinton proposal to lift the federal gasoline tax for the summer — so Americans can drive more and keep the price of gasoline up — is not a harmless little giveaway. It’s not the end of civilization, either.

It’s just another little nail in the coffin of democracy around the world.