Thursday, February 12, 2004

Crooked Timber's Henry Farrell supports an, er, interesting proposal for helping to democratize the Middle East. The plan, apparently being peddled by the US State Department, is modeled on the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the organization that oversaw the Helsinki Accords with the Soviet Union, and later helped encourage democratic movements in former East Bloc nations. Of course, there are differences between Eastern Europe and the Middle East. For example, the main alternatives to the latter region's ruling autocracies are not pro-democratic dissident movements, but rather Islamic fundamentalist theocrats. But Farrell suggests what he considers a suitable "trial run": Israel.
For all its flaws, Israel is the one country in the region that approximates a real democracy. However, its internal tensions have demonstrably had a destabilizing effect on the region and helped corrupt autocrats elsewhere to shore up their rule....A genuinely multilateral initiative to help solve the Israel-Palestine problem could help push both the Israelis and Palestinians into making some real concessions, while providing an external framework to help ensure that any agreement stuck, thus alleviating the fundamental problem of distrust between the two sides.
Now, the Crooked Timber folks, while unabashedly of the left, are fairly thoughtful academic types, so this kind of truly stunning nonsensicality requires a bit of explanation. How does the CSCE, which ratified the Soviet Union's colonial domination of Eastern Europe before volunteering its friendly advice to Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel et al., become a model for democratizing benighted Arab despotisms--after first resolving the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict? How can anyone sane calmly compare the conquered-but-restive nations of the Warsaw Pact with the tribal tyrannies of the Middle East--or with a functioning parliamentary democracy like Israel--and then prescribe the same political process for all of them?

The answer lies in Farrell's remarkable--and instructive--recasting of the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980's.
The CSCE helped to secure the democratic transition in Western Europe in two important ways. First, it created a normative framework that enabled democratic activists in Warsaw Pact countries to have their protests heard.....As time went on, the Helsinki commitments proved to be a potent weapon for democratic activists within Eastern bloc countries; they could now use their governments' failure to live up to international commitments as a tool to embarrass them in public. The US and other democratic states provided a sympathetic audience.

Second, the CSCE created a set of instruments designed to allow a limited form of collective intervention within CSCE participating states in order to shore up democracy. It's usually difficult to get states to agree to allow outsiders to intervene in their internal affairs. However, the states participating in the CSCE had previously made an internationally binding commitment to democracy. Furthermore, many of them were interested in joining the EU at some stage and wanted to show their willingness to reform. This meant that many CSCE states were prepared to allow the CSCE to become involved in internal disputes as a sort of honest broker, representing the collective interests of other states in ensuring a secure neighborhood.
The idea that the Soviet Union collapsed after decades of cynical casuistry (not to mention far-reaching conquest, brutal oppression and mass slaughter) because it couldn't take the embarrassment of failing to live up to the Helsinki accords is simply absurd. As for the notion that Western European diplomats made the difference between democracy and dictatorship in Poland, Hungary and Estonia (while failing in Serbia, Belarus and Bulgaria, and being entirely irrelevant and unnecessary elsewhere)--well, perhaps the sunrise, as well, depends on European diplomatic encouragement. But given that numerous factors--active local dissident movements, economic development, even northerly latitude--ended up correlating much better with post-Soviet democratization than CSCE involvement, the case for the latter's importance is pretty weak.

On the other hand, although Farrell claims his view "wasn't popular" when he proposed it several years ago, I believe he understates its appeal. Certainly the use of the Helsinki process as a rallying point by Soviet dissidents during the 1980's caused many Western analysts to credit it with an important role in the downfall of the Soviet regime. The current plan's supporters in the State Department apparently also endorse that interpretation of history.

This conclusion may have been somewhat less implausible in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the sudden dissolution of a powerful empire seemed so mysterious that pundits were grasping for any explanation they could find. In retrospect, though, it's clear that the Soviet Communist Party was in such a state of political decay by the late 1980's that it couldn't resist the obviously fatal Gorbachev-Yeltsin "reforms" until the coup of 1991, when it was too late. The diplomatic embarrassment associated with the Helsinki Accords was a minor symptom--and certainly not a significant cause--of Soviet decay.

But if you want to find the source of European diplomats' (and some US State Department officials') ludicrous faith in "soft power"--diplomacy, economic measures, "embarrassment"--to solve everything from Iraqi democratization to the Arab-Israeli dispute, you need look no further than the primal mirage of "soft power" as an effective tool: the fall of the Soviet Union. If earnest committees of chattering Western European bureaucrats can bring a superpower to its knees, after all, then there's no telling what else they might accomplish. And why would an earnest, chattering Western European want to think otherwise?

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