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Achieving Democracy


Overcoming corruption and authoritarian government in developing countries is hampered by global institutional arrangements. In particular, international borrowing and resource privileges, which entitle those exercising power in a country to borrow in its name and to effect legally valid transfers of ownership rights in its resources, can be obstacles to achieving democracy. These international conventions greatly increase the incentives toward attempts at coups d'état, especially in countries with a large resource sector. In exploring how this problem might be highlighted and addressed, it is essential to understand that affluent societies have a great interest in upholding the prevailing institutional arrangements: Their banks benefit from their international lending and, far more importantly, their firms and people benefit greatly from cheap resource supplies. Institutional reform is more likely, then, to come from the developing countries.

Thus, fledgling democracies may be able to improve their stability through constitutional amendments that bar future unconstitutional governments from borrowing in the country's name and from conferring ownership rights in its public property. Such amendments would render insecure the claims of those who lend to, or buy from, dictators, thus reducing the rewards of coups d'état. This strategy might be resisted by the more affluent societies, but such resistance could perhaps be overcome if many developing countries pursued the proposed strategy together, and if some moral support emerged among the citizenries of affluent societies.

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1 To complement this brief account, let me mention some important works on large-scale modern democracy: Beitz Charles, Political Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); Bobbio Norberto, The Future of Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Christiano Thomas, The Rule of the Many: Fundamental Issues in Democratic Theory (Boulder, Colo.: West view Press, 1996); Copp David et al. , eds., The Idea of Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956); Dahl Robert, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Elster Jon and Slagstad Rune, eds., Constitutionalism and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); Elster Jon, ed., Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Guinier Lani, The Tyranny of the Majority (New York: The Free Press, 1994); Gutmann Amy and Thompson Dennis, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996); Habermas Jürgen, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996); Held David, Models of Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Lefort Claude, Democracy and Political Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988); Manin Bernard, Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Rawls John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996 [1993]); Rosenblum Nancy, ed., Obligations of Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Schumpeter Joseph, Capitalism, socialion, and Democracy (New York: Harper, 1984 [1943])

2 This literature is vast and still growing very rapidly. Here and in note 5, I can list only a few representative samples: Ackerman Bruce, The Future of Liberal Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); Diamond Larry, Developing Democracy: Toward Consolidation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Herz John H., ed., From Dictatorship to Democracy (Boulder, Colo.: West view Press, 1982); Huntington Samuel, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); Line Juan J. and Stepan Alfred, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

3 Some representative examples are Wallerstein Immanuel, The Capitalist World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), The Politics of the World-Economy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), After Liberalism (New York: New Press, 1995), and The Essential Wallerstein (New York: New Press, 2000); Falk Richard, The End of World Order (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983); Unger Roberto, Democracy Realized: The Progressive Alternative (London: Verso, 1998).

4 Regarding this goal, see Höffe Otfried, Demokratie in Zeitalter der Globalisierung (Munich: Beck Verlag, 1999).

5 Important instances of such work include Crocker David A., “Reckoning with Past Wrongs: A Normative Framework,” Ethics & International Affairs 13 (1999), pp. 4364; De Greiff Pablo, “Trial and Punishment, Pardon and Oblivion: On Two Inadequate Policies for the Treatment of Former Human Rights Abusers,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 12 (1996), pp. 93111; Hayner Priscilla B., Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity (New York: Routledge, 2001); Hesse Carla and Post Robert, eds., Human Rights in Political Transitions: Gettysburg to Bosnia (New York: Zone Books, 1999); Kritz Neil J., ed., Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1995); Little David, “A Different Kind of Justice: Dealing with Human Rights Violations in Transitional Societies,” Ethics & International Affairs 13 (1999), pp. 6580; Malamud-Goti Jaime, Game Without End: State Terror and the Politics of Justice (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996); Minow Martha, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998); Nino Carlos, Radical Evil on Trial (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996); Rotberg Robert and Thompson Dennis, eds., Truth v. Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Roht-Arriaza Naomi, Impunity and Human Rights in International Law and Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Teitel Ruti G., Transitional Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Weschler Lawrence, A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (New York: Pantheon, 1990).

6 See Parfit Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), sec. 2.

7 Ibid., sec. 36.

8 Farer Tom J., “The United States as Guarantor of Democracy in the Caribbean Basin: Is There a Legal Way?” Human Rights Quarterly 10 (1988) pp. 12, 157–76; Farer , “A Paradigm of Legitimate Intervention” in Fisler Damrosch Lori, ed., Enforcing Restraint: Collective Intervention in Internal Conflicts (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993), pp. 316–47; Hoffmann Stanley, “Delusions of World Order,” New York Review of Books 39, no. 7 (1992), pp. 3743; Hoffmann , The Ethics and Politics of Humanitarian Intervention (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996).

9 When a democratically legitimate government has been unconstitutionally replaced by an authoritarian junta, for example, some governments may not want to judge the change unconstitutional because they view the new government as “friendlier” and perhaps even had a hand in bringing it to power. Other governments may come under pressure from more powerful states to refrain from such a judgment—pressure they find it hard to resist when doing so would adversely affect their own interests.

10 One way to cope would be for this government to offer future resource exports as collateral for its debts. Potential authoritarian successors could then renege on these debts only by halting such resource exports altogether.

11 As evidence that something like this can happen, consider the 1997 Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Officials in International Business Transactions, which ended a longstanding practice under which most developed states (though not the United States after 1977) permitted their companies to bribe foreign officials and even to deduct such bribes from their taxes. Public pressure, generated and amplified by Transparency International, played a vital role in building momentum for this convention, which thus sets a hopeful precedent. Still, one should not overlook the fact that while the suppression of bribery may well be in the collective self-interests of the developed states and their corporations, the Democracy Panel and the Democracy Fund are not.

12 This name alludes to a period in Dutch history that began with the discovery of huge natural gas reserves in 1959 and, by the 1970s, produced revenues and import savings of about $5 to $6 billion annually. Despite this windfall (enhanced by the “oil-shock” increases in energy prices), the Dutch economy suffered stagnation, high unemployment, and finally recession—doing considerably worse than its peers throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.

13 Ricky Lam and Leonard Wantchekon, “Dictatorships as a Political Dutch Disease” (Working Paper, Yale University, January 19, 1999), pp. 35–36. In a later paper, Wantchekon presents data to show that “a one percent increase in resource dependence as measured by the ratio of primary exports to GDP leads to nearly 8 percent increase in the probability of authoritarianism.” Wantchekon, “Why do Resource Dependent Countries Have Authoritarian Governments?” (Working Paper, Yale University, December 12, 1999), p. 2; available at For earlier work on the Dutch Disease, see Jeffrey D. Sachs and Andrew M. Warner, “Natural Resource Abundance and Economic Growth” (Development Discussion Paper No. 517a, October 1995); available at

14 The value of immovable public property abroad is rarely significant, and I will therefore ignore such property, which, in any case, poses problems very similar to those posed by movable goods.

15 The developed countries also enjoy more lucrative business opportunities as a third dubious benefit: Authoritarian rulers, made more frequent by the international resource privilege, are more likely to send the proceeds from resource sales right back to the affluent countries, to pay for high-margin weaponry and military advisers, advanced luxury products, real estate, and financial investments.

* This essay is based on a lecture given in honor of my friend Otfried Höffe on the occasion of his honorary doctorate from the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Porto Allegre, Brazil. For important comments, which I have tried to accommodate in this written version, I thank my respondent Wilson Mendonça as well as Alvaro de Vita, Sônia Filipe, Otfried Höffe, Thomas Kesselring, and Alessandro Pinzani. I also gratefully acknowledge support through a grant from the Research and Writing Initiative of the Program on Global Security and Sustainability of the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation.

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Ethics & International Affairs
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