George W. Bush’s secretary of state returns to her academic roots with this accessibly written study of that imperfect but ideal form of government.
The United States is strongly and customarily identified as the democratic power par excellence. However, urges Rice (No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, 2011, etc.), now a professor in the business school at Stanford University, democracy is not an exclusively American province, nor is there compelling reason to believe that other nations cannot enjoy the freedoms it affords. Having witnessed at close hand the Arab Spring and the fall of the Soviet Union, the author examines several avenues leading to democratic formation, including the collapse of a totalitarian regime that leaves an “institutional vacuum,” one capable of being filled by democratic agencies that may be weak at first, as well as the development of a quasi-democracy that may evolve into a more truly democratic system. In the latter instance, she writes, meaningfully, “an executive with too much power, ruling by decree and circumventing other institutions, is a sure path to authoritarian relapse.” The remark is evidently directed to the likes of Vladimir Putin and other autocrats, but much of Rice’s conversational and sharp book can be read as a quiet rebuke of the current occupant of the White House, who is no friend to the small-d democratic establishment in which Rice long made her career. Generally speaking, the author seems optimistic about the eventual odds of the world following the “path to liberty.” Even so, she warns that there are many obstacles and impediments to democratic progress, with challenges such as inequality, “stalled social mobility,” and particularly a lack of educational opportunity for the poor, education being key to democratic development in the first place, as the Founders well knew. Along the way, Rice offers a conditional defense of externally imposed regime change in Iraq.
Some readers may not be convinced, but this book deserves a broad audience, especially in our current political climate.