- The Case for Democratic Persistence
Condoleezza Rice's new book on democracy is many things at once. As its subtitle Stories from the Long Road to Freedom suggests, it is partly a memoir, told chiefly from her perspective as U.S. national security advisor (2001–2005) and then secretary of state (2005–2009) during the George W. Bush administration, that recounts how various countries have managed the challenges of democratic development. These are "cases that I know well from personal experience," she writes, "and that illuminate important lessons about the path to liberty" (p. 24).
Her book is also a work of analysis that tries to explain the importance of political institutions. Not least, it is a statement of personal democratic conviction, rooted in her experience as a black American growing up in the Deep South when racial segregation was still in force. Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1954, the year the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored segregation in schools to be unconstitutional. Her political outlook was indelibly shaped by the momentous struggles for equal rights and racial justice that were waged by the civil-rights movement during her formative years.
That outlook helps explain Rice's deep conviction that the United States has a fundamental obligation to advance freedom and democracy in the world. Her sustained argument in defense of that view comes at a time when democracy is being challenged on many fronts—from without by authoritarian countries like China and Russia, and from within by the [End Page 168] rise of illiberal populism and the erosion of confidence in U.S. democratic institutions. Rice's book seeks to join the debate on these issues and to explain to an American audience why the United States has an enormous stake in supporting democracy abroad. By personalizing her argument, she is able to give her own voice added authenticity and to link her case for democratic internationalism to the American experience.
Her first country story, therefore, is appropriately about the United States. Rice believes that U.S. history contains many important lessons for other countries that are today trying to make the transition to democracy—above all, that democratic development is a very long, difficult, never-ending process that requires patience, persistence, and perspective. She also stresses the crucial role of democratic institutions that restrain the abuse of power, protect the rights of individuals and minorities, and enable societies to work out their conflicts in a peaceful manner. In Rice's view, it was such institutions that made it possible for the United States to overcome the legacy of slavery and legalized segregation. "The lesson for young democracies," she writes, "is that not everything can be settled at the start. But if the institutions are put in place and citizens use them, there is at least a way to channel the passions of a free people and to resolve the hard questions of governing as they arise in future times" (67).
Rice distills additional lessons from various countries that more recently tried to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy. All these transitions were difficult, and some were not successful, at least in their initial phases. Her intention is not to present a simple and stirring picture of democratic progress, but rather to make complex political developments in distant lands understandable to ordinary American citizens, whose support for helping other countries become stable democracies is a precondition for sustained U.S. engagement in the world.
Her chapter on Russia, for example, explores whether the failure of its transition was inevitable. She suggests that it might have been doomed from the start amid the turmoil unleased by the Soviet collapse. Yet she is also harshly critical of Boris Yeltsin for centralizing power in the presidency, crushing the parliament, appealing directly to the street and "not to democratic institutions," and creating the conditions of chaos, confusion, and fear that paved the way for Vladimir Putin's authoritarianism. Failure, in other words, was not preordained. Things might have turned out differently if political leaders had acted differently. She...