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Opinion | Stephen Kinzer

Stability does not require democracy

The US should support leaders who establish control, provide security, and improve lives.

Visitors view the Singapore skyline from the rooftop pool of the Marina Bay Sands resort hotel on May 20.
Visitors view the Singapore skyline from the rooftop pool of the Marina Bay Sands resort hotel on May 20.AFP/Getty Images

It was revealed earlier this month that the United States has been sending agents into Cuba to identify dissenters and help them build an anti-government movement. At a moment when so many countries are in violent upheaval, why would we seek to destabilize one that is calm? We are romantically attached to the idea of spreading democracy — and underestimate the value of security, safety, and stability.

When Americans decide which governments in the world are good and deserve support — and which are bad and must be reviled — we like to use the standard of democracy. If a leader comes to office in a seemingly fair election and tolerates dissent, he or she qualifies for our seal of approval. Dictators are the opposite and thus our enemies: Down, Saddam! Down, Khadafy! Down, Assad! Down, Castro!

Those oppressive leaders, however, have provided something even more elemental than democracy. They exercised control over every inch of their national territory. This should be a key factor in our assessment of foreign leaders and governments.


Ungoverned areas are breeding grounds for local and global terror. Beneath all else, the central problem in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya is that governments have lost control over their territory. A large swath of Mali is beyond government control. The reason carnage in the Congo has taken millions of lives in the past quarter-century is not because the Congolese government is murderous, but because it is not sovereign in much of the country.

As we look around the world seeking governments and leaders to support, we should first ask: Can this person or group unite the country sufficiently to establish full territorial control?

Our second question should be about human security. Countries are only stable when people can live safely, work, send their children to school, and count on the police for protection. Regimes that guarantee those freedoms deserve sympathy.

Finally, we should measure governments according to what they do for ordinary citizens. If they preside over improving health care, economic growth, and widening access to education, they are praiseworthy.

In our fantasies, democratic governments do all these things better. We presume that Western-style democracy is best suited to all nations at every stage of their development. Recent history suggests otherwise.


Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul on Aug. 6.
Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Kabul on Aug. 6.AFP/Getty Images

South Korea and Taiwan skyrocketed to economic power under dictatorial regimes and only later evolved to democracy. Singapore has thrived for half a century under authoritarian one-family rule. The country with the most impressive growth rate in Africa over the last decade, Rwanda, hardly qualifies as democratic by Westminster standards. Dictatorship has brought Kazakhstan safe streets, a sharp reduction in poverty, and women’s rights. China’s one-party regime has pulled more people out of poverty in a shorter time than any government in human history.

Compare this record with that of democracies the United States has sought to implant. After toppling the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, we pushed our friends in those countries to establish regimes that were above all democratic. Those countries are now engulfed in terror and violence.

We should broaden the criteria we use in deciding what kind of leaders the world needs. It is fine to encourage those who seem most likely to be “democratic” as we define that term. But we should also ask: Who in this country can establish control, provide security, and improve lives?

When governments do not rule their territory and cannot guarantee the security of daily life, normal politics is irrelevant or impossible. That is evident today not just in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Libya, but in countries from the Central African Republic to Honduras.

Sociologists use a concept called “hierarchy of needs.” It tells us that although individuals want and need many things, they value some more than others. Living in a developed society, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the hierarchy we ourselves would probably embrace under other circumstances: First, I need to be safe; second, I need to eat, drink clean water, and live decently; later, once these physical needs are taken care of, I will think about my individual rights.


Americans understand the glorious potential of democracy. When conditions are right, it brings great blessing. But conditions are not always right. America’s campaign to promote democracy, often waged with military force, has had the opposite of its desired effect. The real way to promote democracy is to give people stability, safety, and decent lives. Politics thrives in that fertile soil.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.