PARIS - Elections stolen in Iran, disputed in Afghanistan and caricatured in Gabon: Recent ballots in these and many other countries do not so much mark the global advance of democracy as demonstrate the absence of the rule of law.
Of course, elections that lead to illiberal outcomes, and even to despotism, are not a new phenomenon. Adolf Hitler, after all, came to power in Germany in 1933 through a free, fair and competitive election. Moreover, problematic elections constitute a specific challenge for the West, which is simultaneously the bearer of a universal democratic message and the culprit of an imperialist past that undermines that message's persuasiveness and utility.
In a noted essay in 2004, for example, the Indian-born author Fareed Zakaria described the danger of what he called "illiberal democracy." For Zakaria, America had to support a moderate leader like Gen. Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, despite the fact that he had not come to power through an election. By contrast, Zakaria argued, Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, who was legitimately elected, should be opposed.
In our globalized world, the potential divorce between elections and democracy has assumed a new dimension. With instantaneous communication and access to information, the less legitimate a regime, the greater will be the temptation for it to manipulate, if not fabricate, the results of elections. The "trendy" way is to manufacture a significant but not too massive victory. Today's despots view near-unanimous Soviet-style electoral "victories" as vulgar and old fashioned.
But another new aspect of this phenomenon is opposition forces that are willing to attempt to negate such machinations by the party in power.
Confronted with this dual process of illegitimacy, the West often finds itself condemned to sit between two chairs, and to face criticism whatever the outcome. Those in power, as in Iran, accuse Western governments of supporting the opposition, and those in opposition accuse the West of supporting the government, as has happened to France in the case of Gabon.
So what lessons should we draw from the messy nature of elections in countries where there is either no middle class or only a rudimentary one, and where a democratic culture is at best in its infancy?
The time has come for the West to reassess its policies in a fundamental way. It cannot switch from "activism" at one moment to abstention the next. A refusal to act, after all, is also a political choice.
Of course, the temptations of isolationism are great, and will continue to increase. But the West has neither the moral right nor a strategic possibility of withdrawing into an "ivory tower," something that in most cases does not exist. It is impossible to say to Afghanistan, for example, "You have deeply disappointed us, so, from now on, you must clean up your own mess." In Afghanistan, Gabon, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere, fundamental Western interests are at stake.
In Afghanistan, the danger is that a terrorist haven could be reconstituted. The risk in Iran is an ever more hostile regime armed with nuclear weapons. In Gabon, the priority for France is to transcend neocolonialism without losing its important links to the oil-rich African nation.
But, in pursuit of these difficult objectives, the West must get both its ambitions and its methods right. Democracy is a legitimate objective, but it is a long-term one. In the medium term, the absence of the rule of law constitutes the most serious problem for the countries in question.
French TV, for example, recently aired a report on Haiti, where a local judge, without bothering to hide his actions, was protecting a narcotics dealer from the country's own French-trained anti-drug force. Corruption eats away at a society from within, destroying citizens' trust in a future based on a shared sense of common good.
It is the West's acceptance of corruption - either open or tacit - that makes it an accomplice to too many nefarious regimes, and makes its espousal of democratic principles appear either hypocritical or contradictory. On the other hand, setting the rule-of-law standard too high will also misfire. Singapore-style incorruptible one-party state bent on modernizing society is probably a far too ambitious goal for most nondemocratic regimes.
The distance that separates the West from countries that rely on sham elections is not only geographic, religious or cultural; it is chronological. Their "time" is not, has never been, or is no longer the same as that of the West. How can they be understood without being judged, or helped without humiliating paternalism or, still worse, without an unacceptable "collateral damage," as in Afghanistan?
The West's status in tomorrow's world will largely depend upon how it answers this question. It cannot afford to ignore the issue any longer.