Essay: ISIS and Other Fanatics Overshadow Long-Term Democratic Trends

Dec 4, 2014

As people begin to look at the leading storylines from the past year, the rise of the so-called Islamic State movement – and its attacks on western interests – will surely be one of the international stories at the top of the list.

But Lake Effect essayist and foreign policy contributor Art Cyr thinks ISIS needs to be considered in a broader context.

‘Be careful what you wish for’ comes to mind when reflecting on the ongoing waves of public protest, revolt, violence and war in the Middle East and North Africa. Across the broad region, long-ruling dictatorships have collapsed.

The self-immolation of street vendor Tarek al-Tayeb.Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 inspired protests which quickly spread to Algeria, and beyond. Optimists including President Barack Obama embraced the term ‘Arab Spring’ to describe what was regarded as a birth of democracy and freedom.

Yet the result has been neither stable representative government nor development of the rule of law. On the contrary, often remarkable brutality and instability have ensued.

The extraordinary rise of fanatical ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) is the latest challenge. Chaos has continued in Iraq since the United States military invasion of 2003, and has become a prime element in the regional instability. Declarations by President George W. Bush and associates that democracy was being created there are now too tragic to be comic.

In September 2012, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi Libya was attacked. This resulted in   the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Militants also struck the U.S. embassy in Egypt.

The American deaths in Libya fed Washington partisan fighting. Congressional Republicans have tried to develop traction for negligence charges. Prime target is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Does ISIS represent the future of this region?

No, and scholar Samuel Huntington explains why. His most well-known book, the best-seller ‘Clash of Civilizations,’ argues that our contemporary world is defined increasingly by intense conflicts between fundamentally different cultures. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the consequent struggle with Islamic-based terrorism, and the Bush administration invasion of Iraq all seemed to provide evidence for his thesis.

However, another book by Huntington is much more useful in addressing the current turmoil. ‘The Third Wave – Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century,’ published in 1991, argues that there has been a very long-term trend over two centuries of broad public movement toward democracy, interrupted by resurgence of dictatorship.

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 antidemocratic 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 post-war economic prosperity.

However, especially in Latin America, strong reactions developed against democratic institutions and toward authoritarian governments. Many new nations which 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 fifteen years, democracy was established in over thirty countries, and the Soviet bloc began to collapse.

Sam Huntington demonstrates democracy and rule of law are powerful long-term trends spanning centuries, but easily derailed shorter term.

U.S. leaders should encourage Islamic democracy. Our multiple advantages include expanding global economic development, education and the political involvement of women.

However, assuming revolution automatically means democracy confirms our historic naiveté.

Essayist Art Cyr is Professor of Political Economy and World Business and the Director of the A.W. Claussen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha and author of After the Cold War.