Promoting democracy in authoritarian regimes is now a central goal of US foreign policy. Yet Iraq, the test case, is not going well. Which is not a reason to abandon hope – democracy can be nurtured in even the most difficult places. First in Georgia, and now the Ukraine, Europe is demonstrating democracy promotion done right.

“This young century will be liberty’s century. By promoting liberty abroad, we will build a safer world.” – US President George W. Bush

Something quite unusual happened when, following the November 2003 uprising known as the “Rose Revolution,” Georgia’s new president ascended the steps of parliament to deliver his inaugural address. He raised the European flag, twelve stars on a blue field, above his country’s parliament, declaring, “This, too, is the Georgian flag.”

It is a rare thing indeed when a liberated country raises any flag but its own. But this was not the first time that European ideals had inspired a movement for democracy. Nor would it be the last.

In the mid-1990s, Slovakia was drifting towards authoritarianism. President Vladimir Meciar had allied with the quasi-fascist Slovak National Party and passed laws weakening the power of parliament and the constitutional court. He then turned the secret service on opponents in the media, labor unions, and local government.

The European Union (EU) responded by announcing that Slovakia was the only one of the ten Eastern European applicants that was failing to meet the political criteria to join the union. With their European dream slipping away, Slovakia’s divided opposition rallied together. The 70 percent of Slovaks that favored EU membership lent genuine popular support. Meciar was thrown from office, his authoritarian policies reversed, checks and balances restored, the secret police brought to heel.

A similar movement has now gripped the Ukraine. Another authoritarian state, and another democracy movement with genuine popular backing. Viktor Yuschenko, the opposition leader, has rallied his supporters with a long-term, four-point plan for his country to join the EU. Yuschenko is a personal friend of Mikhail Saakashvilli, the leader of Georgia’s Rose Revolution, the man who raised the European flag.

Contrast these stories with the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq, and one has a powerful illustration of the point that Fareed Zakaria argued in his recent book, shortlisted for last year’s Gelber Prize in foreign relations. That is, elections are the trappings of democratic success but not its core. Just as important – perhaps more important – to the long-term success of any democracy is a commitment to liberalism, a commitment that must be enshrined in law, practice and the popular imagination.

It is possible, Zakaria pointed out, to have liberalism without democracy, and these countries can be successes. For example: in September of 1997, the editors of the Washington Post railed against repressive Chinese policies in a piece entitled, “Undoing Hong Kong’s Democracy.” Hong Kong, of course, is not, and has never been, a democracy. But it had the rule of law, protection of basic rights and freedoms – so many of the characteristics of successful democracies that, in the minds of the Post’s editors, it became one.

By contrast, there are good many countries where elections are held – technically, “democracies” – and yet, liberalism and stability are both so absent that to call them democratic seems a mistake. In such places, elections can actually undermine political stability, trading repression for anarchy. In 1997, Zakaria singled out Haiti and Sierra Leone as particularly troubling cases. This was prescient. Haiti has since imploded, requiring US intervention to restore order, and Sierra Leone descended into civil war.

Elections encourage mass political competition, and in illiberal places, this may be no good thing. Iraq’s Sunnis are certain they will lose this competition, and that the government that wins will fail to uphold their rights. So they have turned to violence. It is democracy, but profoundly unstable. As is often pointed out, elections held tomorrow in Saudi Arabia are more likely to bring to power Osama bin Laden, or someone like him, than any liberal democrat. In short, “promoting liberty abroad” – in practice, promoting elections abroad – is highly unlikely to produce a “safer world.” This policy confuses the most obvious trappings of democracy with the underlying commitment to liberalism that has created open and stable politics in the west.

But is this a fair criticism of US policy? Surely promoting genuine liberalism in authoritarian places is little more than a pipe dream?

One could well argue this point, were it not for the stunning success of the European project. The European Union has brought liberalism to the illiberal parts of the continent in waves: first Italy, Germany, Spain; then Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary; today Georgia, Turkey and the Ukraine. Each step in the EU accession process builds liberalism in law and practice. The 80,000 pages of standards and norms that EU applicants must ratify are, to be sure, European over-regulation taken to the extreme. But these also put into place the rule of law and the myriad, mundane checks and balances that put open politics on a stable footing. Moreover, each EU success story grips the popular imagination in neighboring countries and builds political support for liberalism at home.

This is, to be sure, no guarantee of success for Viktor Yuschenko in the Ukraine. His country is genuinely divided, and those in the east favor union with Russia over Europe. But divided or not, liberalism has gained the kind of popular commitment that can create, in the long run, genuine stability.

When the Ukraine’s elections were rigged, the opposition held peaceful protests in Kiev until an agreement on new elections was reached. Ukraine’s democracy was not working. A popular commitment to liberalism may yet make it work. That is democracy promotion done right. And what are the odds of such an outcome if elections go badly in Iraq?

This article was originally published on, before I sold the site to Roubini Global Economics.