The Problem of Democracy: America, the Middle East, and the Rise and Fall of an Idea
In The Problem of Democracy, Shadi Hamid reimagines the ongoing debate on democracy’s merits and proposes an ambitious agenda for reviving the lost art of democracy promotion in the world’s most undemocratic regions.
What happens when democracy produces “bad” outcomes? Is democracy good because of its outcomes or despite them? This “democratic dilemma” is one of the most persistent, vexing problems for America abroad, particularly in the Middle East — we want democracy in theory but not necessarily in practice.
When Islamist parties rise to power through free elections, the United States has too often been ambivalent or opposed, preferring instead pliable dictators. With this legacy of democratic disrespect in mind, and drawing on new interviews with top American officials, Shadi Hamid explores universal questions of morality, power, and hypocrisy. Why has the United States failed so completely to live up to its own stated ideals in the Arab world? And is it possible for it to change?
Hamid offers an ambitious reimagining of this ongoing debate and argues for “democratic minimalism” as a path to resolving democratic dilemmas in the Middle East and beyond. In the seemingly eternal tension between democracy and liberalism, recognized by the ancient Greeks and the American founders alike, it may be time to prioritize one over the other, rather than acting as if the two are intertwined when increasingly they are not.
At the end of the Cold War, the democratic idea was victorious, so much so that it took on more meaning than it could bear. Democracy became a means to other ends, whether it was liberalism, economic development, or cultural progress. What if, instead, democracy was reconceptualized as its own end? What if the people are right even when they’re wrong?
The problem of democracy is no longer just a Middle Eastern problem. The polarizing effects of identity, culture, and religion are now haunting the world’s oldest democracies. At home, a growing number of Americans are realizing that respecting election results when the other side wins is easier said than done. To look then at the democratic dilemma abroad is to consider a deeper set of questions around why we believe democracy is good as well as whether we think it is good for other nations and cultures.
“Impactful books make you rethink fundamental assumptions. The Problem of Democracy does exactly that. Before reading Hamid’s new book, I embraced the conventional wisdom on the intertwined relationship between promoting liberalism and democracy as well as the US need to disengage from the Middle East. I now see the value of supporting ‘democratic minimalism.’ Anyone interested in new thinking about democracy promotion and the Middle East must read this terrific book.” — Michael McFaul, Stanford University and former U.S. Ambassador to Russia