The phrase “be careful what you wish for” comes to mind when reviewing the waves of public protest and revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Long-established dictatorships are collapsing, which is an extremely promising development of historic importance.
Of immediate concern, however, is the despicable murder of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, information manager Sean Smith, and security personnel and former Navy SEALs Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty. Three more U.S. diplomats were injured. A rampaging mob armed with heavy weapons destroyed the American consulate there.
Another mob invaded the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, though no deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
Still unclear is the degree to which these incidents were spontaneous or coordinated; considerable media commentary has highlighted a bigoted anti-Islam film produced within the United States.
Diplomatic service has become more dangerous since World War II, as traditional concepts of immunity faded in our turbulent age. Stevens was the first serving U.S. ambassador to be killed in more than 30 years.
Ironically, the U.S. has played a prominent role in toppling dictatorships in both Egypt and Libya. The long-lasting Hosni Mubarak autocracy in Egypt and the Moammar Gadhafi terrorist state in Libya have been replaced by fragile, uncertain but representative governments. The regional trend began in Algeria and Tunisia in early 2011.
In this context, the brilliant scholarship on democracy by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington is instructive. His influential 1996 bestseller, “Clash of Civilizations,” argues that the contemporary world is defined by a variety of increasingly intense conflicts between fundamentally different cultures. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the consequent struggle with Islamic-based terrorism and the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq all seemed to provide evidence for his thesis.
How ever, another book by Huntington is much more useful in addressing the current turmoil. “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century” argues that for two centuries there has been a trend of broad public movement toward democracy, interrupted by the resurgence of dictatorships.
The first wave was spurred by the American and French revolutions and reflected by extension of the right to vote in Great Britain, Switzerland and other countries. Huntington calculates that the first great wave of democratic reform extended from the 1820s to the 1920s.
The years after World War I brought anti-democratic reaction favoring varieties of communism and fascism. This in part reflected the unprecedented casualties and costs of that total war.
Huntington argues the second democratic wave began in the midst of World War II and continued into the 1960s. Representation was spurred by defeat of totalitarian Axis powers, and encouraged by postwar economic developments.
However, especially in Latin America, strong reactions developed against democratic institutions and toward authoritarian governments. Many new nations that had been European colonies became dictatorships.
The third wave toward democratic government began in 1974 with collapse of military dictatorships in Portugal and Greece. Over the next 15 years, democracy was established in more than 30 countries, and the Soviet bloc began to collapse.
Huntington demonstrates democracy and rule of law are powerful long-term trends, but easily derailed over the shorter term.
U.S. leaders should encourage Islamic democracies. Our multiple advantages include expanding global investment capital, service organizations and involvement of women. However, assuming revolution automatically means democracy only confirms our historic naivete.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and author of “After the Cold War.”