James Traub is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, where he has worked since 1998. From 1994 to 1997, he was a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has also written for The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and elsewhere. His articles have been widely reprinted and anthologized. He has written extensively about international affairs and especially the United Nations.
In recent years, he has reported from Iran, Iraq, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Vietnam, India, Kosovo and Haiti. He has also written often about national politics and urban affairs, including education, immigration, race, poverty and crime.
His books include, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power; The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square; City On A Hill, a book on open admissions at City College; and The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Question: How does the US effectively spread democracy in the world?
Traub: I think modestly is the answer. I mean, I think one thing we’ve learned over the last eight years, the obvious one is you can’t bring democracy at the barrel of the gun, and I think people would have known that in the first place, even the Bush people don’t say that they… that’s what they sought to do that would sure looks like that’s what they sought to do. The point is what can you do? What can any outside actor including United States do to try to bring more democratic outcomes in countries? And I think there’s… I tend to talk about it as a kind of high thing and a low thing. The low thing which happens with nobody particularly noticing it is the slow effort at building up institutions, the state building part of this. And this is a key aspect but a very gradualistic one where you try to help countries with issues of rule of law and transparency and limiting corruption as well as helping to build infrastructure and so forth, that’s the low thing. The high thing and the dramatic thing, these are public diplomatic act. So how can the United States make a difference there? Well, there are sometimes that elections are enormously consequential and it really matters a lot for United States to come down on the right side. We saw recently in Pakistan, the United States was on the wrong side, and the democratic civilian secular parties succeeded anyway, so it shows the limits of our power for bad as well as for good, but there are moments when it is enormously important for United States to say there is a democratic side and there is a not democratic side or less democratic side and we stand with the Democrats.
Question: Which features of democracy are indispensable regardless of the country?
Traub: So, to take an example which I think is not dispensable, you hear people say, “Oh, in the Middle East, we have a tradition of Islamic Democracy, we call it the shura,” which is to say a counsel of elders who together reach a consensual conclusion. Well, that’s not a democracy. That does not represent the will of the people. And, especially, in a complex society as opposed to a tribal society, a “shura” will not be a useful reflection of people’s will and will not be sufficiently accountable to them and will not be counterbalanced by other powers as well. So, there’s an example where I would say the local customs don’t get you there or the loya jirga in Afghanistan. There are very important transitional devices, but there are not the thing itself. At the same time, there are lots of elements of things like how power is divided between the center and the locality where the United States has a particular way of doing it that’s very different from other Western democracies, much less in other African countries. There are systems of adjudicating more traditional systems of justice, for example, which can live along side more Western systems of justice. So, clearly, there is not a one-size-fits-all aspect to democracy, but it’s a big mistake to think that it’s so variable that there are not a series of quite fundamental practices, values, institutions, which are essential for any democracy.