Should the west help spread democracy?
Democracy can be loosely defined as the institutional ability of the citizens of a state to change their government through non-violent action. The fundamental ideology driving the foreign policy of many Western governments following the end of the Cold War has been the promotion of democracy within a set of key principles, headed by freedom of the individual. To quote the US State Department, ‘Peace, freedom and prosperity – these fundamental principles fuel… American foreign policy known as American internationalism.
‘1 George W. Bush in the inauguration speech for his second term as US President gave special emphasis on the need for and policy of promoting democracy. The means of promotion in the past has varied hugely from military force or covert interference to sanctions and positive or negative conditional aid. Equally, the motives and success of such policies differ from state to state. In assessing whether the West should pursue such ends three key areas need to be examined.
Firstly, one must examine democracy itself to establish whether or not it is desirable as a universal form of government as its benefits must outweigh the costs of its installation. Secondly, this essay will examine the moral issues of a states intervention in the domestic affairs of another. Finally, this essay will examine the practicality of promoting democracy as even being beneficial and morally acceptable does not guarantee its attainability. For the promotion of democracy to be a pertinent policy its results must provide benefits to both the promoter and target state.
There are two possible benefits of a democratised world that apply to all states. The first, known as the ‘democratic peace theory’ hypothesises that democracies do not go to war with one another. This theory is supported by empirical evidence that shows since 1941 no democracy has declared war on another democracy. 2 Kant first put forward the idea of democratic peace in the 18th century; ‘[When] the consent of the citizens is required to decide whether or not war should be declared, it is very natural that they will have a great hesitation in embarking on so dangerous an enterprise.
For this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war… [whereas for a dictator] war will not force him to make the slightest sacrifice. ‘3 Apart from citizens of democracy despising the miseries of war, other theoretical supports for the democratic peace theorem include the ideas that democracies tend to be richer and so have more to lose in a war. Additionally, democracy is essentially an ethical system in which its citizens agree that the decision making process is more important than the decisions themselves – each citizen does not get his own way every time.
Therefore, a democracy learns the value of compromise in its policies and this can be applied to inter-state relations; it is better to forfeit some goals than to go to war in pursuit of each and every one, especially in relation to other states guided by the same principles. The second universal benefit provided by democracy, argued by Halperin, Siegle and Weinstein, is that democracy breads development and wealth. The orthodox view, especially during the Cold War (often used as a cover for maintaining friendly authoritarian regimes) is that only developed states can democratise.
However, empirical evidence strongly indicates that democracies consistently outperform autocracies in the developing world. 4 This stems from factors such as democracies ensure leaders respond to citizen’s needs, contain checks and balances against rash policies, spur the flow of information, reduce corruption, encourage economic competition and allow much greater flexibility, in comparison to autocracies. 5 Whilst the development of a state obviously benefits its citizens, in the modern globalised economy, it has the potential to benefit any other state with which it has economic relations.
There exist other benefits of promoting democracy that apply more specifically. In a democratic state certain moral standards such as human rights are more likely to be met as a result of increased accountability and a greater flow of information to the citizens. As a result, citizens of a newly democratised state will likely benefit from an increased dignity and freedom of expression. In addition, for the democracy promoter, the citizens of a newly democratised state may well look upon the promoter of their democracy with a favour that could advantageously manifest itself politically or economically.
The spread of democracy will not necessarily benefit all. It is often argued that democracy is simply not applicable to all cultures and therefore should not be promoted as a universal ideal. The basis for this argument is that democracy is closely associated with Western liberal ideas. Democracy is seen by some cultures as spiritually bankrupt, others fear its emphasis on the individual, to the detriment of the community, a unit valued very highly by some societies. 6 Another important point is that democracy offers no protection for minorities.
In a weak or fragile state this could well lead to popularly sanctioned discrimination or even abuses of human rights. Such minority fears are present in Iraq (the Kurds and Sunni’s) and repression has been evident in democracies such as Australia (the Aborigines), Israel (the Israeli Arabs) and Turkey (the Kurds), among others. For the West there also lie problems associated with global democratisation. Firstly, there is no guarantee that a democracy would in fact be friendly towards the West.
In fact, authoritarian states friendly to the West may well turn against it in democracy, as may be the case if Saudi Arabia democratises (such fears are again present in Iraq). Secondly, and ironically, if the West is successful in its promotion of democracy and the economic benefits of a democratised world come to fruition, the relative power of the West in international affairs will decline rapidly. Thirdly, if democracy is embraced by poorer nations with little to lose, the democratic peace theory may well be invalidated.