London Evening Standard comment September 1st 2009
Once the election results in Afghanistan are finally in, Western governments need to draw up new and detailed initiatives on how to deal with failed states. In the coming years, many other countries will begin that treacherous transition from dictatorship to democracy, and we need to find a way to try to avoid the violence of recent years that has dominated our TV screens.
In Iraq, Western governments had no detailed plans on how to deal with the country once Saddam Hussein had been overthrown. Six years later, Iraq is still racked with violence. Afghanistan was neglected after the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. There was no urgency to build the strong institutions needed to modernise the country. The result is the conflict that is taking the lives of British soldiers today.
In the previous generation, too, the West neglected Pakistan after its role in expelling the Soviet Union from Afghanistan ended in 1989. Pakistan swung from appalling democracy to appalling dictatorship and is now branded as one of most dangerous countries in the world.
Over the next few years, Western democracies may be asked to mentor transitions in countries that could either go smoothly or erupt into global crises. They include Burma, which has been under military rule since 1962 and is made up of ethnic communities often at war with each other. Aung San Suu Kyi, its symbol of hope, has spent much of the past 20 years there under arrest. But what would happen if the generals were suddenly overthrown and full and open elections held?
As the relationship between Cuba and the US thaws, Castro’s regime will come under pressure to hold full elections. Cuban exiles will try to win back their country, possibly sparking off massive instability.
As of yet, there are no clear policies on these questions. What is now known, however, is that the holding of full sovereign elections while institutions such as the police and the judiciary are corrupt and weak and infrastructure underdeveloped is highly risky, often leading to violence between ethnic, tribal and religious communities. If this were not so, the type of government that democracy is meant to create would not have left so many Africans poorer and caught in cycles of disease and violence.
There are formulas that have been proven to work, including those used in Europe, which just over half a century ago was itself an amalgam of warring and failed states. The Allies waited 10 years before returning sovereign power to Germany after the Second World War, and even now the international community retains control of Bosnia, whose ethnic civil war ended almost 15 years ago.
In East Asia, Japan was under American control for seven years and since then the region as a whole has forged ahead economically under mainly authoritarian and not democratic governments. Taiwan and South Korea have shown the way globally on how to move from dictatorship to democracy without violence – but it has taken them decades and not years to get it right.
Some of the concepts may be hostile to conventional thinking. But if they are taken on board, the next time the West embarks on a democratic mission it will be armed with fresh ideas on how to avoid bloodshed that creates trauma and hatred that can last for generations.
Humphrey Hawksley is a BBC world affairs correspondent. His book Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About Having The Vote is published by Macmillan on Friday.