The Problem of Democracy by Shadi Hamid review – democracy and its discontents | Politics books

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Should US foreign policy demand liberalism, as well as free elections?

Wed 18 Jan 2023 06.00 EST

Whatever else he leaves behind, Sam Bankman-Fried, the crypto-whiz charged with multiple counts of fraud, has bequeathed a lasting gift to the publishing business. “I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that,” mused SBF to an interviewer. “If you wrote a book, you fucked up and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”

Of course, most literary types would dismiss those as the words of a barbarian. But they have utility all the same. They could serve as an initial hurdle any would-be author must clear, if only with their own conscience: does this warrant a book – or could you boil it down to six paragraphs in a blog?

That’s especially applicable to a nonfiction work of argument such as the latest from Shadi Hamid, a rising-star scholar affiliated with two of Washington’s liberal bastions, the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic. Hamid writes the book as if prepared for his argument to be distilled into six paragraphs or fewer. Indeed, he regularly performs the task of summary himself, offering cable-TV-ready precis of his thesis’s core elements.

His case is that when it comes to US attitudes to the great abroad, especially the Middle East, there is a “‘democratic dilemma’: we want democracy in theory but do not necessarily want its outcomes in practice”. He cites the Arab spring of 2011 and especially the way it played out in Cairo, a place Hamid knows well: he was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but his parents came from Egypt and he was on the ground during the great upheaval a decade ago.

He describes how US policymakers were rhetorically all for democracy in Egypt, until the demos chose an Islamist, Mohamed Morsi, as its president. That choice alarmed Washington to such an extent that the US was not sorry to see Morsi toppled by the Egyptian military within 12 months. Barack Obama, who had taken his oratorical gifts to Cairo just a couple of years earlier, hymning the glories of democracy, refused even to call Morsi’s removal a coup.

The dilemma is hardly confined to either the past or the Middle East. Repeatedly, well-meaning democrats find specifically democratic means resulting in illiberal ends. It happened most recently in both Italy and Sweden, where free and fair elections handed power to politicians of the ultra-nationalist far right. It happened in the US itself six short years ago. The result, in the Middle East at least, has been for the US to put democracy to one side and support unelected autocrats – so long as those dictators are happy to go along with US strategic priorities for the region.

Hamid’s answer to the dilemma begins with separating democracy, the way a society makes its choices, from liberalism, which he regards as no more than one particular choice: “If democracy is a form of government, liberalism is a form of governing,” he writes. While stressing that he himself remains a liberal, committed to human rights, individual liberty and gender equality, he suggests that the US should no longer bundle up those principles with democracy in the set of demands they make of other countries. Instead, Washington should require no more than “democratic minimalism”, asking only that publics get a fair say in who rules over them.

The thesis would appear to stumble at an early hurdle: given the education Americans (and Britons) have had these last few years in the importance of democratic norms, can a system really be considered democratic if it’s stripped of its liberal accoutrements? In fact, when we speak of “democracy”, isn’t that shorthand for “liberal democracy”, which would include a free press, independent judiciary and freedom of assembly?

Hamid anticipates that challenge and counters that such essentials are included in his minimalist definition of democracy. It’s the quest for liberal policy outcomes in previously undemocratic states that US policymakers ought to drop. Yes, a new government in a hypothetical Arab state might legislate to allow, for example, women lesser inheritance rights than men, but if that’s what the people in that state have voted for, then the US should swallow it – and keep the military aid coming.

So that, in broadest outline, is the argument – expressed in six paragraphs, as it happens. Does it clear the Bankman-Fried hurdle? It does because Hamid combines an essay rooted in the abstract concepts of political philosophy with close-up Washington reporting. It’s an ambitious endeavour – a book that wants to be part John Rawls, part Bob Woodward – but it yields some valuable insights. Confirming Hamid’s thesis, and illustrating how gingerly Washington often approaches democracy in the region, one former Obama adviser explains that the US sought to ensure Egypt held presidential elections before parliamentary ones – because they feared that in the latter contest, the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood would dominate. As indeed they did.

Few would predict that Hamid’s “democratic minimalism” will become US policy any time soon. It’s hard to imagine Joe Biden telling Democratic party activists that they should be content to back states that hold elections, regardless of any violations of women’s or LGBTQ+ rights. But Hamid is surely right to say that continuing with the current long-established approach – which sees the US hail as partners regimes that are neither democratic nor liberal – should be no kind of option at all.

  • The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East and the Rise and Fall of an Idea by Shadi Hamid is published by Oxford University Press (£21.99). To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Delivery charges may apply.

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