EVERYONE knows that business isn't good these days, and now we can add the business of democracy promotion to the list. The world may have woken up to a global economic recession in the past year, but a global political recession has been underway for at least three years. According to Freedom House, 2008 was the third consecutive year in which there was a decline in freedom worldwide, the first three-year setback in the past 15 years.
Moreover, the Obama administration hasn't offered much comfort. No senior officials seem to have democracy promotion as part of their portfolio.
So, in these tough economic times, many civil-society advocates have turned to one of the economic crises' silver linings for hope: the fall in the price of oil. Last summer, oil was trading at a record high of $147 a barrel. Yesterday, the price of oil closed at under $60 a barrel. For those looking for the democratic tide to turn, the conventional wisdom is that collapsing oil prices will make it much harder for some of the world's oil autocracies like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela - the so-called axis of oil - to maintain their hold on power. There is a palpable hope that plummeting prices will force the world's authoritarians to liberalize their political and economic systems and pave the way for democracy's advance.
The drop in oil profits is causing Moscow, Tehran, and Caracas to tighten their belts. In some areas, Washington may find them more cooperative. But the fall in the price of oil will not achieve what our foreign policy and best efforts at democracy promotion could not.
That is because, when a commodity swings, the results are rarely the ones we are hoping to find. The history of past boom and bust cycles shows that authoritarian regimes rarely buckle because of such economic stress tests. During the most volatile period for oil prices prior to today's swings - 1977-1992 - less than a quarter of major oil-exporting countries experienced any political change, let alone regime change. An oil shock may have helped push a teetering Soviet Union toward the abyss, but there is a big difference between the costs of sustaining a global empire and maintaining control in today's standard autocracy. And, given the careful attention that popular strongmen like Hugo Chávez and Vladimir Putin have given to centralizing their power for most of the past decade, their brand of authoritarianism is more durable than most.
Unfortunately, durability is not as guaranteed among many of the world's young democracies. If Iran is more open to the possibility of negotiations because of the danger sanctions pose to the regime during a financial crisis, this is a good thing. But our exuberance should be tempered, given the growing stresses on young democracies like Mongolia and Ukraine. An economic downturn can be fatal for new democracies when its leaders fail to deliver on their promises. It doesn't matter how much the international community smiles on free and fair elections if the newly enfranchised blame their reformed political system for unemployment, higher prices, and failing banks. Just ask Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko. A few years ago he was the brave darling of the country's Orange Revolution. Now a majority of Ukrainians want him out.
A strategy that places so much emphasis on the price of petrol is no more reliable than the swings in the market. An economic collapse offers no guarantee of what is to follow. Russia was essentially bankrupt in late 1998. Rebuilding on that foundation did little to deter the creation of Putin's autocratic machine. It is anybody's guess what oil prices will look like a year from now, but many analysts predict it will be above $80. The average price of oil in 2006 - $66 a barrel - was more than enough to fuel the authoritarian gambits of Ahmadinejad, Chávez, and Putin.
The Bush administration may have given democracy promotion a bad name. But the mistake was in its methods, not its goals. There is no substitute for the heavy lifting of promoting civil society, press freedom, and the rule of law. Because expecting oil to do our work for us is worse than doing nothing at all.
William J. Dobson is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.