A question I hear a lot of people ask is "Can we really bring democracy to Iraq? What are the chances democracy can take root in an area and culture that has had so little experience with it?" How about some historical perspective on democratization, as it pertains to our goal of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq?
Surprisingly, from that viewpoint, in the end almost everything we see happening— the violence, the constitution, the debate over sharia—is probably a sideshow. Based on history, there is one variable, lurking well behind the headlines, that is likely to matter the most in the question of whether Iraq ultimately becomes a free and democratic nation: GDP per capita growth.
Two political scientists, Adam Preworski and Fernando Limongi, looked at statistics for every country in the world for the last 60 years. In virtually every country in which democratization has succeeded — and we’re talking about countries like Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Japan, S Korea, Taiwan — it has happened during a period where GDP per capita was between about $1,500 and $6,000. Those under $1,500 have lasted less than 8 years on average. In between $1,500 and $3,000, democracies last an average of 18 years. If their economies grow to $6,000 per capita GDP, they usually join the ranks of rich, free, democratic nations: historically, the chances of such a democracy failing is only 1 in 500. No free democracy has ever failed to stay free and democratic once it reached $9,000 GDP per capita; thirty-two democratic regimes have lasted around 800 combined years above that level. These numbers cut across many cultures and nations, and apply regardless of previous democratic experience.
GDP per capita in Iraq was $2,100 in 2004. This year, it may break $3,000 as economic growth was 50% in 2004 and may be close to that in 2005. A lot has been quietly done behind the scenes to help that growth continue, such as the creation of an independent central bank, tax cuts, lifting of restrictive tariffs, a relatively stable currency, setting up systems to protect property rights, etc. History suggests these will ultimately be decisive in the question of whether Iraqi democracy succeeds.
That’s not to say the democratic processes currently underway are meaningless or unimportant; far from it, as they’re laying the foundation for democracy in Iraq. This just suggests that the ultimate success or failure of that Iraqi democracy doesn’t rest on any constitutional phraseology, religious/secular divisions, or technicalities of gov’t structure, but rather on Iraq’s economic future.
(historical figures from the study; you can find them in The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria, who also writes for Newsweek)