What do you do when the people are the problem?

Bret Stephens’ last two columns at the Wall Street Journal denote a welcome elevation in America’s public discourse about foreign crises. Here are two excerpts, one from a June 25 note titled “Who Lost Egypt?”:


Who lost Egypt? The Egyptians, obviously. This was their moment, opportunity, choice. They chose—albeit by a narrow margin—a party that offers Islamic stultification as the solution to every political and personal problem. By the time they come to regret their choice, they won’t be in a position to change it.

Stephens also takes to task the Bush and Obama administrations for fostering illusions about the deposed Hosni Mubarak government and the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic proclivities, respectively.

And from his June 18 offering titled “The Decline of Democracy:”

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Everyone knows who said this, and everyone thinks it’s true. But is it, really?

After last weekend I’ve begun to have my doubts….Then there’s Greece, which also had an election over the weekend. The Greeks are supposed to have made the “responsible” choice in the person of Antonis Samaras, the Amherst- and Harvard-educated leader of the center-right New Democracy party. Responsible in this case means trying to stay in the euro zone by again renegotiating the terms of a bailout that Greeks cannot possibly repay and will not likely honor….Should anyone be surprised that democracy is having such a hard time in the land of Pericles? Probably not—and not just because Greece is also the land of Alcibiades. Despite its storied past, modern Greek democracy, like much of modern European democracy, is of a post-liberal variety. Post-liberalism seeks to replace the classical liberalism of individual liberty, limited government, property rights and democratic sovereignty with a new liberalism that favors social rights, social goods, intrusive government and transnational law.


Egypt displays pre-liberal democracy and Greece post-liberal democracy, and “both are rotten,” Stephens asserts. The mere form of democracy, he argues, is not sufficient if it is corrupted with the wrong sort of content.

The manifest failure of the Arab Spring, which has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to within striking-distance of state power in the most populous Arab country, has finally forced a reevaluation of our simple-minded pursuit of democratic norms, and Stephens’ recent entries are thoughtful contributions to the new national debate.

Another critical element in the new national debate is the renewed emphasis on demographics. Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah review the sudden implosion in Muslim fertility rates in the June issue of Policy Review. This sheds light on the inherent failing in the Muslim world: traditional society breaks down once it encounters modernity. Countries that fail to produce a new generation are unlikely to formulate a rational view of their own self-interest by any means, democratic or not. “The great and still ongoing declines in fertility that are sweeping through the Muslim world most assuredly qualify as a ‘revolution’ — a quiet revolution, to be sure — but a revolution in which hundreds of millions of adults are already participating: and one which stands to transform the future,” the authors write.

In the case of Egypt, a country with two-thirds of its people on the land that imports half its caloric consumption, a 45% illiteracy rate, a university system that can’t train an employable engineer, a 30% rate of consanguineous marriage, and a 90% rate of female genital mutilation will have difficulty voting for anything but short-term survival. The Muslim Brotherhood in good Leninist fashion has increased its power on the street, and large parts of the Egyptian people depend on Islamist organizations for basic necessities.


In the case of Greece, fertility fell to among the very lowest rates in the world in 2005, or just 1.28 children per female.

Period Total fertility

  • 1950-1955  2.29
  • 1955-1960  2.27
  • 1960-1965  2.20
  • 1965-1970  2.38
  • 1970-1975  2.32
  • 1975-1980  2.32
  • 1980-1985  1.96
  • 1985-1990  1.53
  • 1990-1995  1.37
  • 1995-2000 1.30
  • 2000-2005 1.28
  • 2005-2010  1.46

Source: United Nations World Population Prospects

The slight uptick in fertility after 2005 probably reflects the growing proportion of immigrants in the Greek population.

If the crisis zones seem caught between “pre-liberal” and “post-liberal” democracy, it is in large measure because their peoples are caught between pre-modern and post-modern social habits. The extreme turnaround in Muslim countries reflects a shift from pre-modern to post-modern fertility within a single generation. For more, see my 2011 book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too).

Friedrich Schiller wrote of the French Revolution that history had brought forth a great moment, but the moment encountered a mediocre people. Today’s Greeks and Egyptians are the wrong sort of people to solve the problems that beset them. Bret Stephens ended his June 18 column on an upbeat note: “The good news is that Egyptians may have a wider conception of freedom in 30 years or so, about the same amount of time it took Khomeinism to lose the masses in Iran.” I am less sanguine; Egypt, I believe, will enter a prolonged and terrible chaos. We shall see. What matters now is that a new national debate begin on America’s role in a world where some grand problems have no obvious solution, and perhaps no solution at all. Bret Stephens has made a big contribution to this debate.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)

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