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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 13-19

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Debating the Transition Paradigm

The Democratic Path

Ghia Nodia

When I first read Thomas Carothers's essay, I agreed with all or nearly all that he had to say. But then a question began to nag me: What really was the target of his criticism? Or to put it another way: Did the sum total of the points that he made—and he was right to make them—add up to a demonstrated need for a "change of paradigm"?

Carothers offers an eloquent statement of the frustration that many feel as they look at countries which once were firmly authoritarian or even totalitarian and are such no more—yet which have not become fully democratic. This trend toward what Carothers calls the "gray zone" of ambiguity has replaced the optimism of the "third wave" era, when democracy seemed to be going from strength to strength in region after region around the globe. Clearly there is a need to rethink the basic assumptions that we have been making about democratization for the last decade or so, and efforts toward this end have been attracting comment and arousing discussion. A few years ago, Fareed Zakaria made a splash by saying that democracy may not be such a great idea for some countries, and recommended efforts to promote a supposedly more feasible "liberal constitutionalism" instead. 1 This general conclusion was too much for many to accept, even if they recognized the accuracy of the criticisms that Zakaria leveled against the simplistic ways in which too many Western analysts and democracy-promoters understood the democratization process.

Carothers is aiming at many of the same targets as Zakaria, but reaches far more modest conclusions. In assembling his bill of particulars, [End Page 13] Carothers tends to quote reports from the U.S. Agency for International Development rather than works by theorists and scholars. His major practical recommendations boil down to: 1) stop making countries that have been successful in their democratic transitions the focus of democracy assistance; and 2) stop expecting most countries now labeled "transitional" to fit that description anymore, for their positions in the "gray zone" will perhaps not change anytime soon, if at all. They might make progress toward greater democracy, or they might not. Neither eventuality should surprise us.

If by proclaiming "the end of the transition paradigm" Thomas Carothers means that being "in democratic transition" has become a more or less permanent condition for many countries, then I agree with him. But this observation is only a start. A number of intellectual and practical challenges emerge after we say what Carothers says. If "transition" is no longer an apt metaphor for what these countries are experiencing, how should we conceptualize their condition? And what, if anything, should we do differently because we have stopped calling them by one name and are searching for another?

Carothers analyzes certain assumptions that he attributes to the "transition paradigm," but makes no mention of other and even broader assumptions that we should revisit. The most basic contention that lay at the basis of "third wave" optimism was the notion that democracy is now the only "normal" political regime—the only game in the global village, if you will. At the end of the day, democracy is the only political regime that is fully compatible with modernity. One can reject democracy, but this implies some kind of rejection of modernity itself. The Muslim world, whose main problem seems to be finding an adequate response to modernity, and which has also had the least success in embracing democracy, is the most obvious example. For a time, certain East Asian regimes seemed to be challenging the democratic assumption with quasi-official teachings about uniquely "Asian values" as the ideological basis for successful modernization, but democratic progress in Taiwan and South Korea weakened that argument. Currently the doctrine of "Asian values" seems to be fading out of fashion.

This is the context in which "gray zone" countries find themselves—and with reference to which their situation should be understood. The "gray zone" regimes...