Oddly, Zakaria, Chua, and Ferguson never challenge the Eurocentric premise that democracy’s roots are purely Western. Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Princeton political philosopher, among others, have shown that key elements of democracy — namely, popular government at the local level, public debate, and tolerance of dissent — have flourished in many different Asian, African, and Middle Eastern societies as far back as the fifth century b.c., including times when they were conspicuously absent in Europe (during the Inquisition, for example). By failing to acknowledge democracy’s global roots, Zakaria and the others concede far too much to opponents of democracy who claim that freedom is an alien value imposed by the West, and to pessimists who doubt that it can ever take hold in what Ferguson dismissively calls “the backward regions.”
Like Chua, though, Zakaria is a firm believer in the need for markets and liberty. His finely tuned argument is that democracy involves more than elections. For democracy to work in poor countries, considerable authority must be delegated to institutions insulated from day-to-day political pressures — just as it is in the United States. As models, he offers the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve, and the U.S. military. The Court, for example, is the guarantor of the individual freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Readers will be reminded of the debates among America’s Founding Fathers, who tried to balance majority rule with individual rights by adopting a Bill of Rights and a system of checks and balances. His point is that extending the franchise without securing these rights — via an independent judiciary — can lead as easily to tyranny and violence as it can to genuine democracy.
At a time when the fates of rich and poor nations are closely intertwined, far too much of the public discussion of America’s role in the world is either utterly vacuous or dominated by ideology. Despite their sharp disagreements and occasional blind spots, these authors manage to combine high ideals with reasoned argument, fresh insights, and a willingness to embrace inconvenient facts. That’s the kind of thinking that should help to frame the debate about citizenship, government, and global business in the 21st century.
Sylvia Nasar (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1998), the award-winning biography of mathematician John Nash. She is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Business Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and was formerly a writer at the New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, and Fortune. She is currently working on a book on 20th-century economic thinkers.