Many consider former World Bank President and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to have been one of the principal architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but at a Wednesday talk, he argued that democratic reform should be a gradual process, not a sudden shift.
Speaking to over 100 students and faculty in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Wolfowitz compared current revolts in Egypt and the Middle East to examples of revolutions in Asia, Africa and Latin America, emphasizing the importance of popular movements. He praised the American government’s role as a stabilizing force in Egypt, but criticized President Barack Obama for failing to support democracy abroad in other cases, especially during the 2009 protests in Iran.
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“I’m quite disappointed that [America’s] voice [of democracy] has been largely silent,” he said.
Many previous American governments have also been unwilling to harshly criticize authoritarian regimes, he said, adding that administrations often become too focused on negotiating with such regimes about critical issues such as nuclear armament.
Wolfowitz spoke extensively about popular uprisings, saying that while revolutions may lead to periods of turmoil, they can create lasting democratic governments as well. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s relatively peaceful departure may signal a brighter future for both the country and the region, he said.
“I think it’s a very hopeful sign for the future of Egypt,” he said. “People are saying, ‘This isn’t about bread. This is about freedom.’”
Wolfowitz added that it is important to examine both good and bad examples of democratic reforms, and pointed to the Philippines, South Korea, Chile and South Africa as examples of countries that overthrew cruel authoritarian regimes and have been able to maintain democratic institutions since.
The fall of the South African apartheid system in 1994 is an especially uplifting example, Wolfowitz said, adding that former President Nelson Mandela’s policy of “truth and reconciliation” played a vital role in the peaceful transition by preventing a racial civil war.
“I had the real privilege when I was the president of the World Bank to spend an hour with Mandela,” he said. “When you walk into the room, it’s like [he] radiates serenity. That kind of serenity is a very important part of the transition to democracy.”
Wolfowitz also stressed the importance of not treating voting as the equivalent of democracy. Voting is just a “means to and end,” he said, whereas democracy must be about freedom, rule of law and equal treatment under laws.
He ended the talk on an optimistic note, saying that he hopes the 21st century will be a “democratic century.”
Two students interviewed said they were impressed by Wolfowitz’s knowledge, and that they enjoyed his bright outlook on the future.
“I thought he was a very agreeable, engaging speaker,” said Ben Lempert ’14. “It was enjoyably optimistic, and he had an impressive command of recent history.”
Wolfowitz taught in Yale’s Department of Political Science from 1970 to 1973.