For more than four decades, Larry Diamond has played a leading role in the contemporary study of democracies. A political sociologist and the author of seven books, and the editor of several more, his work has focused on the conditions and policies necessary to defend and advance democracy around the world. Diamond has put his scholarship into practice, supporting dissidents under autocracies and working as a political adviser and consultant, including in Iraq in 2004, when he briefly served as a senior adviser on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad after the U.S. invasion.
Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, where he is also a professor of political science and sociology. At the Freeman Spogli Institute, he leads the program on Arab reform and democracy, based at its Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
In his most recent book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, published in 2019, Diamond issued an urgent warning: "After three decades in which democracy was spreading and another in which it was stagnating and slowly eroding, we are now witnessing a global retreat from freedom." Diamond is a champion of democracy promotion—not as it came to be understood with the use of force and the war in Iraq, but through engagement with civil society to build up democratic institutions.
In a wide-ranging interview with Democracy in Exile, Diamond lays out the lessons learned from America's "democracy experiments" in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what those failures mean "in a world in which American power, and more broadly the power and resolve of Europe and America, is waning and doesn't seem to be effective." In the Middle East and North Africa, he adds, "this is the grimmest time for freedom and democracy since the dawn of the Arab Spring."
And in aftermath of Donald Trump's presidency in the United States, Diamond says, "we are really approaching a moment of truth for American democracy," as "a growing proportion of members of one party seem willing to defect from basic democratic norms." All hope isn't lost, though, and he urges citizens to act. "The first obligation is participation, obviously. But participation has many forms beyond voting and voice. Another obligation is vigilance."
Edited highlights of the interview follow.
"Democracy promotion is not invasion of other countries, or imposition of new forms of government. That's something else."
- Larry Diamond
Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was the big winner of Iraq's parliamentary elections last month, as his movement won the most seats by a wide margin. Sadr has been one of the most outspoken forces of resistance against America's presence in Iraq. After 20 years and billions of dollars spent to establish a Western-style parliamentary democracy and a one-person, one-vote system, America's efforts have failed. Nearly 60 percent of Iraqis did not even participate in the democratic process. What are the lessons learned from America's democracy-building projects abroad?
Let me try to distill it with these points. First of all, I think it is a mistake to argue that our principal goals in Afghanistan and Iraq were reflective of democracy promotion. Democracy promotion involves the use of peaceful assistance at first, and partnerships and diplomacy, to try to encourage and support democratic change and institutionalization of constitutional mechanisms in a civil society. Democracy promotion is not invasion of other countries, or imposition of new forms of government. That's something else.
After 9/11, Afghanistan was a war of necessity to displace the Taliban that had sponsored and hosted Osama bin Laden, and to give the country a chance at a new beginning. I don't think anyone ever expected that Afghanistan was going to become Switzerland or Denmark, or any other liberal democracy at any point in the foreseeable future. The hope was that it would become an effective and pluralist state with democratic mechanisms, that it would be a viable and effective state that didn't oppress its own people and wasn't a threat to anyone else. The point to be stressed is that we failed in achieving even that.
A major reason why both democracy experiments in Afghanistan and Iraq have disappointed—and in the case of Afghanistan, failed—is corruption. It's very hard to build a responsive and pluralistic state when that state is completely and thoroughly penetrated by corrupt forces who have their own enrichment—and enrichment on a really predatory, kleptocratic basis and scale—as their principal goal, rather than the development of the society. Afghanistan and Iraq each had windfall resources that have facilitated and enabled this corruption. In the case of Iraq, it was oil, and in the case of Afghanistan, it was external, primarily American aid. In addition, both countries have very deep ethnic and identity divisions that need to be bridged and complicate the state-building exercise. Both countries are plagued with hostile neighbors who were dedicated enemies of the project of building viable, independent, pluralistic states that could stand on their own, free of external influence. In the case of Afghanistan, the principal adversary of pluralistic state-building was Pakistan. In the case of Iraq, it was Iran.
Afghanistan and Iraq were, and are, troubled countries that have the misfortune of corruption, weak institutions, deep ethnic divisions, and bad neighborhoods. We probably set our sights unrealistically in terms of what we were trying to do. In Iraq, the list goes on and on. In the case of Afghanistan, the military victory of the Taliban, and the collapse of the Afghan state, is really a tragedy for the Afghan people.
Illustration by sophie Holin for DAWN
How might the United States' experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan affect other democratic developments in the Middle East and North Africa?
I'm not sure what the outcome of the effort to build a pluralistic and stable form of governance will be in the MENA region. Afghanistan is not a Middle Eastern state; it's a South Asian state. I'm not sure that the consequence is going to be very great, except that it adds to the impression that American power is waning. In a world in which American power, and more broadly the power and resolve of Europe and America, is waning and doesn't seem to be effective, autocrats become emboldened. There's very little doubt about that. If there is a knock-on effect, it's not, to my mind, due to the demonstration of the collapse of a model. It's just the crystallization of an unfavorable international order.
In the case of Iraq, the implications for the MENA region are more conflicted and ambiguous. On the one hand, there is a troubled and corrupt state. On the other hand, the troubled and corrupt state is substantially at peace with itself and has given the Iraqi people opportunities to change their government in what is now a pretty impressive succession of more or less regularly scheduled elections that virtually no other Arab state has had. When I say "regularly scheduled elections," I mean regular, competitive, multiparty elections. Iraq is now a semi-democracy where people can change their governments and where political leaders have to take account of political will, or pay a price. This could turn into something more deep and authentic and serious over time. We shouldn't dismiss trouble—though many of us are—about the state of Iraqi politics and state-building. At the same time, we shouldn't dismiss the positive elements of the state-building experience.
How about Egypt? President Mohammed Morsi was democratically elected by the Egyptian people in 2013. Eight years later, with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power and an estimated 60,000 political prisoners in jail, Egypt is far from a democratic society. Yet the U.S. has consistently provided military aid and diplomatic support to the Egyptian government. How could Washington play a more constructive role in Egypt's democratic developments?
The U.S. posture toward Egypt has long been very compromised and very disappointing—with the exception of the brief period when there was popular mobilization against the Mubarak regime during the Arab uprising. Then, as the Mubarak regime was tottering, Obama called for Mubarak to resign and encouraged a transitional process there. That was a departure from the norm and a hopeful moment. But then the Egyptian experiment collapsed for substantially internal reasons having to do with President Morsi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in addition to the general inability of the diverse political forces to get their act together and forge a system of conciliation and compromise that could move the democratic transition forward.
The democratic experiment in Egypt was also undermined by outside forces. The Saudis and the Emiratis have always viewed, with great anxiety, the emergence of any authentic democratic processes in the region. Increasingly, Saudi Arabia's behavior in the Gulf and more broadly in the entire MENA region now, like Russia, has seen any emergence of genuine democracy as an existential threat to its regime form, and therefore it tries to do whatever it can to subvert it. Russia was very subversive in the case of Tunisia, and still is.
Circling back to Egypt, you can't expect any country, not the U.S. or otherwise, to completely suspend its strategic foreign policy interests in the service of democratic and human rights goals. There is inevitably going to be some kind of balance. In the case of the U.S., there are a lot of strategic and foreign policy goals, and so it isn't as free as Sweden or Norway are to pursue its foreign policy through predominantly a human rights and democracy lens.
Under the Camp David Accords, the U.S. has an obligation to provide a certain amount of annual economic assistance to Egypt. It would be very difficult for us to stop doing that. There are so many other things that we could do and have not done, to challenge, condemn and pressure the Sisi regime, to lighten up on repression, and allow some kind of civic society to function, some kind of genuine political pluralism to reemerge.
"We're really approaching a moment of truth for American democracy, and we're doing so at a time when a growing proportion of members of one party seem willing to defect from basic democratic norms."
- Larry Diamond
We live in a real world where countries have other strategic and economic interests, and therefore, are unable to purely and completely reduce their foreign policy to democracy and human rights concerns, or to always put those into the unambiguous, dominant position in framing foreign and national security policy. Saudi Arabia, as still the world's largest exporter of oil, and as one of the world's wealthier countries in terms of the amount of cash it has to deploy around the world, is always going to be treated differently. Now that we're entering a period of oil and gas shortages and of high prices for fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia is going to have more leverage. Again, that's a basic reality that has to be recognized. There's always things you can do, even in the current context of geopolitical and geoeconomic balance of power, to raise concern and challenge bad activity.
What could the U.S. do to better encourage democratic developments in the Middle East and North Africa, while staying within the realm of its "real world" foreign policy agenda that you mentioned?
We can use public diplomacy and more forthright condemnation of what the Egyptian state has been doing. We can do more to document and challenge Egypt in national forums. We can sanction individual members of the Egyptian regime. We can look at other flows of assistance to Egypt, such as the military aid that we have a diplomatic amendment to, and reevaluate them.
I'll give you an example of something we could've done and didn't do. Egypt was selected by the African continent to host the next U.N. summit on climate change, COP27, which will take place in a year following the Glasgow summit going on right now. This is so obscene that it's almost incomprehensible. Egypt is not only a terribly human rights abusing state, it has a terrible record on environmental protection. For the U.S. to have not seen this coming, to have not worked diplomatically to make it clear that this was not acceptable, not to try and identify and encourage a different African host country, it's really just a massive failure of diplomacy on our part.
There has been a glide path for a number of years now, including most of the years following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, toward the normalization of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and looking the other way at the crimes he has been committing. His rule and his abuses need more international condemnation and attention. There needs to be more assertion of consequences.
There's a lot we can do in the soft power realm, or confronting the projection of sharp power and the penetration of our institutions. Saudi Arabia uses its money—it's been doing so for a long time, very strategically, to fund research institutes, universities, forge various kinds of partnerships in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. In doing so, obviously to launder its image, by silence and acceptance. We have to accept some kind of civic responsibility for this; it's not all on the government. Organizations that accept this money and then grow silent in the face of Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses, they need to be called out morally for their actions. They need to be held accountable by their own stakeholders.
It seems that what has been happening in Saudi Arabia and Egypt has had a domino effect on neighboring countries like Tunisia. Then, just a few months ago, President Kais Saied abandoned the constitution and made other moves to seize power. How does Tunisia's story fit into the bigger picture of democracy in the region?
It is clear that President Saied executed an institutional coup. My prediction is that it's only going to keep heading in one direction: toward the growing suppression of the media, civil society and the political opposition. The failure of democracy in Tunisia, as in Egypt, had a lot of domestic drivers having to do with the corruption of the old political class that returned, and of many of the new members of the political class that entered, and having to do with the failure to deliver the economic goods.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have played an encouraging and supportive role for the assaults on the democratic constitutional order. We might only know with time how far those interventions have extended. This is really disheartening because Tunisia was the only democracy in the Arab world, and now it's gone. If you consider Sudan part of the Arab world, it at least had a democratic transitional process that seemed to have a promising chance of returning democracy to Sudan, and now there's been a military coup there. It's obvious and fair to say that this is the grimmest time for freedom and democracy in the region since the dawn of the Arab Spring.
How has Washington's willful ignorance of anti-democratic practices in allied countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia impacted the global perception and practices of democracy?
There's very little evidence that what we do abroad in the MENA region affects Latin America or Asia. The bigger problem is not from demonstration effects—from people looking at how we're treating Saudi Arabia. It's a problem, but it's a fairly modest one. People understand geopolitics, and they understand the politics of oil. The bigger problem is that you now have these powerful Gulf states, principally Saudi Arabia but also the UAE, and to some extent Qatar, on one side, and Iran on the other, that are intervening pretty far afield.
There has been evidence for some time that Iran has spread its intelligence tentacles in Latin America and elsewhere. When these states project hard power, sharp power, intelligence power and covert security in other parts of the world, that's damaging to democracy. So that's what is most worrying now. Certainly, when the U.S. remains silent in the face of severe human rights abuses, or in the face of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, it does damage our standing and our credibility in the region and for those who are paying attention elsewhere in the world, as well.
How did Donald Trump's presidency impact America's democratic integrity?
Let me begin by saying that there is a substantial wing of the Republican Party, which unfortunately has now become the dominant wing, that embraces the lie that the last election was stolen and is pursuing a lot of legal and political initiatives to ensure that they will win power next time, even if they lose the election—to enable Donald Trump, or whoever the Republican candidate is in 2024, to succeed in post-election erasure of the legitimate result in a way that they failed in 2020. They're passing laws that would enable their state governments to intervene in the election count and review the legitimate results in ways that could throw out votes. They're obviously engaged in extensive voter suppression efforts that would turn back the clock on successful democratic initiatives—democratic with a small "d"—that try and make it easier for people to vote. Why would you not want to, in a democracy, make it easier for legitimate voters to vote?
This is very, very disturbing—both the efforts at voter suppression and the new efforts at voter subversion. If we were to have an election in which one party clearly won, not only the popular vote but the Electoral College, but then it was denied to them, then that would be the end of electoral democracy in the United States. The United States would no longer meet the minimum condition of electoral democracy, in which people can choose and replace their leaders in free and fair elections. And this might happen in the lower level, in some state elections as well. We're really approaching a moment of truth for American democracy, and we're doing so at a time when a growing proportion of members of one party seem willing to defect from basic democratic norms.
Can the U.S. tolerate another Trump-type presidency, and would American institutions be able to survive that kind of pressure and not collapse?
Well, I don't think American institutions are going to collapse—I don't think the United States is going to look like the Sisi regime in Egypt. And I don't think we're going to have fascism in the United States. But if Trump were reelected, or somebody very much like him in intention and populist style, I think that our democracy would certainly be very endangered. Polarization would deepen; violation of the rules of the democratic game electorally; misuse of the Justice Department to harass political opponents. A second Trump administration would feel emboldened and validated to violate constitutional norms, democratic values and rules more extensively than Trump did last time. Keep in mind that by the end, it was pretty extensive. He chose his words very carefully at that Jan. 6 rally. I think he was really deliberately inspiring and inciting the crowd to assault the Capitol. I think he knew exactly what he was doing. We don't know this yet for a fact, but I don't think it's a great analytic leap of inference to propose that theory. In the final weeks of his administration, the quality of personnel and the democratic commitment of personnel were deteriorating alarmingly. The kinds of people that had restrained him from his most crass authoritarian instincts were increasingly gone. They had left or had been fired. Another Trump administration, if it happens, would much more severely test our constitutional structure and norms.
Given the imminent danger to democracy, worldwide and in the U.S., what are our civic duties to safeguard and protect democracy?
The first obligation is participation, obviously. But participation has many forms beyond voting and voice. Another obligation is vigilance. Vigilance involves being alert to authoritarian encroachments or authoritarian narratives, and being ready to counter them democratically. We're in an era of authoritarian encroachment, globally and in the United States, and democratic citizens need to be more vigilant as well as more active. I think everywhere in the world is facing growing polarization problems. Democratic citizens need to restrain themselves as well, from language, or actions or styles of rhetoric and behavior that would needlessly contribute to this polarization. We need to try to find ways of reaching out across our political divides, and dialoguing with people who disagree with us, seeing if we can lower the temperature of politics, and find common ground whenever possible, across partisan divides.
Sophie Holin contributed to this interview.