Should we be allowed to intervene in a country for the purpose of promoting democracy and human rights, if the people in this country don’t want to have a democracy or human rights? If they do want to have democracy and rights, then it’s of course, possible and acceptable, maybe even necessary to assist them and to help them in their struggle against their government, as long as our intervention doesn’t cause violence or other unintended effects that are counterproductive.
However, what can we do if they don’t want democracy and rights? Is it not undemocratic to force someone to be democratic? On the one hand, democracy implies respect for the will, the choice and the consent of the people. But, on the other hand, if we reject the creation of democracy with undemocratic means on logical grounds, then we foreclose other widely accepted courses of action such as the restoration of peace with unpeaceful means. And we don’t want to do that.
If we’re allowed to impose democracy from the outside and without the agreement of the people, then we obviously contradict ourselves because we don’t act in a democratic way. We’re not interested in the will of the people (the will of the state is of no importance here, although in most cases it is this will rather than the will of the people, which hinders democratisation). But this merely logical objection shouldn’t, it seems, be enough to stop us. After all, the same logical problem besets those who argue that democracy implies the right of the people to decide against democracy. One can’t logically force a system to be self-destructive.
However, the logic problems of our opponents don’t make our own logic problems go away. The choice of the people is an important thing and should be taken into account in democracy promotion. Choosing something other than democracy is choosing a system in which you can’t choose, but it’s still a choice and an expression of popular will.
The will of the people is a principle of democracy, but it is not an absolute principle and democracy is more than that. The choice of the people is not sacred and can be limited. If, in a democracy, the people make undemocratic choices, choices against democracy or choices that violate human rights, then this is legally unacceptable. However, this rule applies only to a people who already live in a democracy. Interventions in undemocratic countries should take into account anti-democratic popular opinion. At least to the extent that anti-democratic popular opinion can be ascertained in undemocratic countries. After all, propaganda, indoctrination and fear can make it very difficult to get a good view of popular opinion in such countries.
Still, it may be possible to be reasonably confident of informed and uncoerced popular objections to democracy and human rights in a certain non-democratic country. In those case, the type of intervention open to outsiders is strictly limited. One may try to convince people to choose for democracy, but beyond persuasion there doesn’t seem to be much that one can do. One can’t force people to be free. In the words of JS Mill:
“[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny [a people] can … be prevented from living … under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways … So long as the sufferers by the bad law do not invoke assistance from other communities, I cannot admit that persons entirely unconnected with them ought to step in and require that a condition of things with which all who are directly interested appear to be satisfied should be put an end to because it is a scandal to persons some thousands of miles distant who have no part or concern in it. Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people” (source)
In the vast majority of cases, however, we can’t be reasonably confident of popular objections to democracy in undemocratic states. The reasonable thing to believe in those cases is that we can’t ascertain the informed and uncoerced opinions of the people of those states. We can also reasonably believe that there may be hidden support, or that support would be forthcoming if more information were available to the people. If a lack of support is due only to misinformation, indoctrination or lack of knowledge, then interventions aimed at persuasion can be sufficient to convince people. And when there is popular support for democratic reform and rights protection, than the means of intervention can be extended beyond mere persuasion.