Recently, it has felt as though political discourse has completely broken down and our elections and government are more contested than ever. However, most Americans take for granted that regardless of who was elected as president, once the term ends, the president will peacefully transfer power to the president-elect. The military will respect the results of the election and will not seize control of the country. States will challenge the federal government in court when they believe it has overreached its authority.

We often fail to fully appreciate the institutions, traditions, and checks and balances that help stabilize our democracy. This is certainly not the case for many of those living in the world’s young democracies that are still in danger of slipping back to totalitarianism.

The Long Road to Freedom

I highly recommend former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s latest book, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom. Rice takes the reader on a 486-page journey detailing how young democracies survive or fail, and drives home her belief that the promotion of democracy should be a key element in American foreign policy. Rice also writes about how her concerns with the rise of populism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism in the U.S. and Europe.

Rice is an expert in her field and her book is chock-full of data and thoughtful analysis to defend her positions. I found the moving personal anecdotes, such as growing up during the end of the Jim Crow era in Alabama, and incredible professional experiences, such as advising President George H.W. Bush during the fall of the Soviet Union, to be the most compelling aspect of her work.

Those who are skeptical of America’s role in the promotion of democracy may find the book particularly interesting because Rice confronts those often costly failures head-on. Regardless of your political leanings, I believe you will be a better-informed citizen for reading her book.

Beyond her main thesis, I believe Rice’s detailed analysis of what makes or breaks a new democracy provides an important lesson for business leaders looking to expand their operations into emerging democracies.

How Democracy Sinks or Swims

“There is no more thrilling moment than when people finally seize their rights and their liberty. That moment is necessary, right, and inevitable. It is also terrifying and disruptive and chaotic,” writes Rice.

Rice takes the reader through the democratic struggles of countries including Russia, Kenya, Ukraine, Colombia, Poland, Tunisia, Turkey, Ghana and Iraq. All of these countries have thrilling yet frequently terrifying and disruptive paths to democracy and faced serious challenges to their new system of government. Some have been democratic success stories, others have failed and for some, it is still unclear if democracy will take root.

This begs the question: what is the determining factor between a developing democracy that succeeds or fails?

As Rice explains, “Democracy’s development is never a straight line,” but a key differentiator in ensuring a democracy is built on a strong foundation is the strength of its institutions. “Democracy requires balance in many spheres…and ultimately between state and society. In functioning democracies, institutions are invested in protecting that equilibrium. Citizens must trust them as arbiters in disputes and, when necessary, as vehicles for change.”

The main theme of her work is that without strong institutions, young democracies can easily revert to totalitarian regimes. Imagine if George Washington decided to stay on for life as our country’s first president instead of peacefully handing the reins to John Adams. Or if a state refused to abide by a Supreme Court decision.

Both of these and other challenges were possibilities from our country’s founding until the crescendo of the Civil War and civil rights movement of the 20th century — which Rice calls the “second founding of America.” These same challenges are faced by new democracies that do not necessarily have a long tradition of stabling institutions.

Lessons for Businesses Expanding into Emerging Markets

Although Rice’s book is first and foremost an argument for promoting democracy around the world, I also saw it as a must-read for business leaders who plan on expanding their operations into newly democratic countries.

Included her analysis of what makes a young democracy strong are guidelines for companies to follow to ensure they are investing in a country that is less likely to revert to totalitarianism and experience the turmoil that typically accompanies such changes.

The same institutions that help create a stable democracy are also indicators of whether the country is a stable place to do business. This is particularly true in in places where, as Rice puts it, “the abrupt shift to capitalism outpaced the establishment of rule of law and institutions that could regulate against its excesses.”

Rice names the following as being important to a stable democracy:

  • Regular and fair elections
  • Peaceful transfer of power
  • Strong and fair police and judiciary
  • Free and open press
  • Vibrant private sector with a solid legal and regulatory framework
  • Strong political parties that include loyal opposition
  • Political discourse signifying a skepticism of populism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism
  • Support of NGOs, such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the National Endowment for Democracy, which give foreign aid only to countries that are taking positive steps to strengthen their democracies

Although Rice’s book is a clear defense of her belief that America has a moral responsibility and a security interest in promoting democracy abroad, its insights into the key features of stable young democracies can also serve the business community. For both points, I believe you will be better informed after reading it.