Beyond that, we need a fundamental rethink of our approach to the promotion of democracy abroad. It is neither racist nor orientalist nor any other ugly thing to say that different societies around the world are at different degrees of readiness for the rise of genuine democratic institutions. Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are not going to be building modern states anytime soon, much less democratic ones. China seems closer to building a stable and working democracy than Egypt is, and the obstacles facing democracy in China are immense and intimidating.
Many people who came of age politically in the late 1980s and 1990s have a warped sense of history. They lived at a time of rapid democratic advance: East Asia, Latin America, South Africa and above all Central and Eastern Europe hosted a galaxy of new democratic stars. One belief uniting the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama is that this democratic revolution would irresistibly sweep the rest of the world.
But it didn’t and it won’t, at least not anytime soon. The low hanging fruit has been picked; the fruit higher up in the tree isn’t ripe, or has been pecked by the birds. In many places, the “irresistible tide” has rolled back. In others, the clear streams of liberal revolution have been polluted and fouled by ethnic and religious hate.
This doesn’t mean our work is done or that we must despair of democracy’s future. But it does mean we need to shift strategy.