What is Democracy? (49): An Export Product?

I strongly believe that democracy is a universal value and the best possible form of government for any country in the world (which doesn’t mean that democracy should necessarily take the same form everywhere). This is based on another belief, namely that democracy promotes favorable outcomes (such as prosperity, economic growth, quality of governance, respect for human rights etc.) and is also a good in itself.

However, democracy promotion poses some logical, moral and practical problems. I want to focus on the logical and moral ones here.

Shortly after the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte propelled his armies across Europe on behalf of the universal principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, somewhat in the style of the U.S. forces now deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Napoleon’s armies occupied Europe because they wanted to export French principles and French civilization. Everybody had to follow the French lead and had to enact a “French” Revolution, assisted by France if necessary. France was the advance guard of the struggle of humanity for freedom and against old-style authoritarianism.

A military type of democratic imperialism in the style of Napoleon is of course only one of many ways to promote democracy abroad and certainly not the best one. Attacking, conquering and occupying other countries, even with the purpose of liberating these countries from oppression and archaic authoritarian forms of government, seems to be highly illogical and self-contradictory. It’s incompatible with the very principles of democracy (democracy is self-determination). This is shown by the fact that, in most cases, the democratic crusade of the French failed to produce democracy in the “backward” countries of destination. On the contrary, it created resentment. The occupied countries, quite understandably, rejected France, and hence rejected its principles as well, perhaps for no other reason than the fact that it were principles of a hostile and conquering country. Traditional and often non-democratic political practices were reinvigorated by feelings of national pride that came with the struggle against France. Grave consequences followed, especially in 20th century Germany. Perhaps something similar can be said of current attempts at military-backed “nation-building”.

Other, non-military means to promote democracy around the world are not without problems either. If you want to liberate the world, then you will tend to see yourself as a model, superior to the rest and more “civilized” than the rest. This kind of megalomania will cause a reaction: people will stress their difference. It will, in other words, create the opposite of what is intended.

If people want to have democracy, then it is of course possible and acceptable, maybe even necessary to assist them and to help them in their struggle against their government. But can we promote democracy if the people of a country do not want to have a democracy? 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 want to create democracy with undemocratic means, we have the analogy that peace is not always restored with peaceful means either.

If, as this analogy suggests, you are allowed to impose democracy from the outside and without the agreement of the people, then you obviously give the appearance of incoherence. You don’t act in a democratic way because you’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 democratization). The question is: are we allowed to impose or enforce democracy in an authoritarian way? Or do the people have a right to reject democracy? Does democracy not imply the right of the people to decide against democracy and to choose something else?

There are several problems with this kind of question.

  • First, it forces a system to be self-destructive (it forces democracy to respect the will of the people in all cases, even when this means respecting the choice of the people against democracy), which is clearly an unreasonable requirement.
  • The second problem is that the question reduces democracy to a system of popular choice and obscures all other functions of democracy.
  • Thirdly, those castigating democracy promotion because it doesn’t respect the anti-democratic will of a people suffer from a paradox of their own: choosing something other than democracy is choosing a system in which you cannot choose. It is difficult to call this a choice. The decision not to decide cannot be called a decision either. A people who choose against democracy contradict themselves and are at odds with their own opinions, in the same way as the democrat forcing democracy down the throat of the same unwilling people.
  • Finally, a people can only choose for or against a democracy when they already live in a democracy. In a non-democratic regime, their choice is of no importance; it is not taken into account and often even impossible to determine.

In spite of all this, however, it’s possible that there is a tentative understanding that a certain people living in a certain dictatorship do in fact make the illogical choice of not being able to choose. So the question remains: are we allowed to impose democracy against the choice of those concerned? Or, in other words, are we allowed to promote democracy with undemocratic means? If we say that peace is not always promoted with peaceful means either, then Stalin could reply that he tried to liberate the Russians from barbarism by using barbaric means. There is not much difference between Stalin’s statement and the statement that we can liberate nations from undemocratic regimes by using undemocratic means. So we must be careful with this kind of reasoning.

The important thing here is the difference between the imposition of democracy on an unwilling (or seemingly unwilling) people, and simple democracy promotion. There’s no contradiction in trying to convince people to choose for democracy.

[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. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty

There is, however, an error is this argument, pointed out by the same author. The reason why we do not meddle with the free choice of someone else, is precisely his or her freedom. By choosing to submit to a tyrant, this person alienates his or her freedom. One free choice makes all other free choices impossible.

He therefore defeats … the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself … The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom to be allowed to alienate his freedom. John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.

The Anti-Democrat’s Paradox

Some people do not believe in the universal validity of human rights and democracy. They say that human rights and democracy are not meant for them, or are not meant for somebody else. They forget, however, that one cannot question, challenge or refute human rights and democracy, for the simple reason that the act of questioning, challenging or refuting implies respect for human rights and democracy.

Something that is unquestionable and irrefutable is by definition universal. Defending human rights and democracy is not the same thing as expressing an opinion, a western opinion, for example, which other cultures, states or groups can call into question. Human rights and democracy are necessary conditions for the appearance of different opinions and for debate between opinions. Hence they cannot be reduced to opinions that are not different from other opinions, or to an element in a struggle that they help to institute. They are above the level of opinion and questioning. Nobody can question human rights or democracy without, at least, implicitly accepting them.

Besides, most governments that claim the right to have a different opinion on human rights or democracy refuse to grant their subjects the same right to a different opinion – not in the least when this different opinion relates to the legitimacy of the government. This is, of course, a crude example of hypocrisy.

Another example of this kind of hypocrisy can be found in the so-called cultural defense of the violation or non-application of human rights. We are told that one cannot criticize a culture for violating certain human rights because all cultures must be treated with equal respect. Such a criticism would be a lack of respect for the culture in question and for cultural equality and diversity in general. This argument is hypocritical because the same equality that is claimed for cultures is not granted to the individuals inside the culture (for example equal rights for men and women, equal participation in the political process etc.).

It is evident that an anti-human-rights doctrine and also an anti-democratic doctrine is bound to get trapped in contradictions and paradoxes. I’m in favor of a strong link between human rights and democracy because democracy is based on a subset of human rights called political rights, and because democratic practice is so thoroughly dependent on and connected with all types of human rights that the difference is sometimes hard to see.

The anti-democrat hates the air he breathes, abhors the prerequisites of his existence, his acts and his opinions. He lives by the grace of what he hates. When we take away this detestable oxygen = as he seems to request – then he will drop dead. In fact, the anti-democrat hates himself. We witness an internal struggle of somebody who fulminates against a principle that he himself applies, against something he does, against something he is, namely someone who practices opposition, who freely expresses his opinions etc. At a theoretical level, the anti-democrat seems to preserve what he tries to destroy and only destroys his own background opinions.

Somewhat simplistically, I could say that those who want to promote human rights and democracy – and I am one of them – do not have to change the attitude of the anti-democrat. The only thing they have to do is make him conscious of what he already does.