Democracy-Adventurism is Doomed. Democracy-Promotion will Endure

, by Ira Straus

Democracy-Adventurism is Doomed. Democracy-Promotion will Endure

Democracy promotion is not a Bush Administration event. It has a long background, and has been carried out by many free countries in addition to the US. It has been impressively successful over the centuries, with the normal share of mistakes and detours along the way. It is alive and well. It has a good future ahead of it. It is only the radical overextension of Democracy-promotion under Bush II that is doomed. It has already faded; it will die a natural death Jan. 20, 2009.

Democracy promotion has been a major endeavor of Western countries for an entire century, and it has a 500-year pre-history. It has done on the whole quite well in the course of that history. It also has a long term secular trend of playing an increasing role in the course of the modern centuries.

The adventurism of the Bush Administration’s democratization policies, while disastrous and potentially catastrophic, are in the longue durée picture a blip on the screen. They will cause a retreat and retrenchment in democracy-promotion. It is important for the West to get a more serious discussion underway about the substantive content of the corrections needed. Nevertheless, assuming that humanity survives its crises, the long-established fundamentals of democracy-promotion are here to stay.

Democracy promotion in the 20th century

In most of the 20th century, democracy promotion in the third world went together with development-promotion, or, as it was called in the preceding four centuries, with the spreading of civilization. Its achievements from the 16th-19th centuries are wide and deep; they penetrate the entire world, and have borne fruit in decent and democratic or quasi-democratic government in about half the world.

The colonization of America was meant to spread what was called civilization, including norms for decent treatment of humans; as one Latin American writer put it, it replaced religions of human sacrifice to the gods with a religion where a god sacrificed himself for humanity. This program was carried out with an ample share of war and brutality, magnified by the greater technological capabilities on the part of the more developed societies (or more civilized ones, if the reader thinks that old-fashioned language more honest); in those days, few people on the weaker side doubted the rights of stronger societies to conquer, and few people on the stronger side doubted the merits of using force and strategy to spread civilization. Human rights were massively violated, but nevertheless at the same time advanced as global norms. Within the British colonies, representative government was also spread; the beginnings of democracy in northwestern Europe were exported to North America, with a result that today “developed” democracies cover the better part of both continents, not just Europe.

In addition to what were called “colonial empires”, the Western European powers ‪– which were meanwhile becoming fully democratic powers – had the “dependent empires”. Vicious human rights abuses such as suttee were outlawed in them although far from eradicated; meanwhile the imperial powers continued to apply force and sometimes massive brutality for their own purposes. The imperial powers gradually became embarrassed when there was a gulf between their civilizing goals and their own behavior, and reduced greatly the brutal and violent elements in their rule; later they became embarrassed to rule with force at all without the consent of the governed, and withdrew from empire, convincing themselves along the way that it was too expensive to remain.

Thanks perhaps to the longevity of imperial rule in the Indian subcontinent, democracy has stabilized in India along with a rule of law connected to English common law and its norms of human rights. A number of smaller ex-dependencies have also maintained democracy. Many however have suffered regression, and some of their older people remember the imperial period as a golden age (as do some Central Asians today, after they have suffered the consequences of being forced into independence of the Russian empire).

In much of Africa, what used to be called “neo-imperialist” intervention has in recent years been welcomed by the populaces and sometimes the rulers in order to salvage their societies. Similar sentiments of nostalgia for Western imperialism are at times found in the Islamic world, and might be found more often if it were not for the oil-rent wealth, which has found its necessary moral rationalization in a religious- or civilization-pride doctrine that it is part of God’s plan for restoring the supremacy of Islamdom over the West or Christendom. In these conditions, what is amazing is not how much resistance there has been in Iraq but how many Iraqis welcomed the initial invasion for the hopes it gave them of freedom in the Western sense of the word.

Democracy promotion took place not only in the “underdeveloped” world but also among other “developed” countries. There it went together with the world wars of the 20th century and their aftermath. It also went hand in glove with promotion of regional and trans-Atlantic integration of the new post-conflict democracies with the older pre-conflict ones. This gave the new democracies a tie to democratic experience and a pro-democracy international strategic perspective within which they could realize national aspirations that they had earlier sought through anti-Western strategies and anti-democratic regimes. It has borne solid fruit in democracies in Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, South Korea, and a few other countries. It has also borne fruit in what seem by now to be fairly well consolidated democracies in most of Eastern Europe.

This article was originally published in the March 2008 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

Image: Colossus of the pacific; source: Wikimedia Commons

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