Democracy: history not destiny

Rein Müllerson
27 November 2008

There may be an element of quasi-magical recurrence about years ending in the number 9, for in modern history they are often momentous years when wars and eras begin or end. The title of EH Carr's book, The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919-1939 - which became a classic text for international-relations students - suggests the point. There are many other examples of chain-breaking events occurring at the end of a decade which went on to shape the next: the great financial crash (1929), the Chinese revolution (1949), the Islamic revolution in Iran (1979), and the fall of the Berlin wall which heralded the demise of communism (1989). Rein Müllerson is the author of seven books on international law and politics and more than 200 articles and reviews. His books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996) and Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007)

Also by Rein Müllerson in openDemocracy:

"The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

It seems more than plausible that - after twenty years of high expectations, disillusionments, unipolar actions and disorders - 2009 may continue the pattern. On its eve, the world seems to be moving - fitfully, painfully, even convulsively - towards a new political and economic structure. Two major events of 2008 - the global financial and economic crisis, and a local war with global implications between Georgia and Russia - contribute to a growing sense that a fog is being dissipated to reveal the clearer contours of a new international system.

It will not be a new cold war, though there are those both in the east and in the west who are nostalgic of the bygone clarity ("those who are not with us are against us") of the 1947-89 period. But neither will it be a world where the rules of the game are made in one centre and where only one political system enjoys legitimacy. Rather, what is emerging is a loose, multipolar, multidimensional balance-of-power arrangement that shares many characteristics both with earlier international systems and with features that arose during the post-cold-war (1989-2009) era. The result might be defined broadly as a kind of cooperative balance-of-power system.

The post-cold-war globalisation period included, inter alia, the expansion of both the market economy and democracy. This trend will probably continue. But the context will be new, in ways that - as Vidar Helgesen recognises, in his opening article in the International IDEA/openDemocracy debate on democracy support - make a degree of rethinking essential (see Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?", 17 November 2008).

So far, both market economy and democracy have spread by way of borrowing ideas and practices from more developed (i.e. western) societies which have to one degree or another worked there, and been made into tools of purposeful export. Their accumulated result has (for all the benign rhetoric that surrounds and packages them) have been a mixed blessing: successful and beneficial in many cases, while rather destructive in others. Why has it been so; and what factors have determined success somewhere and failure in other places? 

Rein Müllerson is professor and chair of international law at King's College, London. In 1992-94 he was visiting centennial professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). In 1988-92 he was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and in 1991-92, he was first deputy foreign minister of Estonia.

Rein Müllerson's article is a contribution to an international debate on democracy support co-hosted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy

Also published:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)The answers to these questions might be approached by posing in turn three more raised by the idea of promotion of or support for democracy:

* do all societies, in the process of their evolution, have to go through the same stages; do they all, in the end, evolve towards some kind of democratic model?

* even if there are sufficient grounds to believe that all or at least most societies indeed follow, in some important respects, the same historical path, and that democracy in its various manifestations is one of the features that all societies sooner or later will have, can countries that are "less developed" take shortcuts in order to reach the image of their own future that they see in the "more developed" world?

* to what extent can external support compensate for the weaknesses of domestic democratic potential? 

Democracy and determinism/voluntarism

The first question, about the stages of historical and democratic evolution, is answered by Karl Marx in one of his more deterministic statements: that there are "tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results", in which "the country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future".

Such an approach to history is widely shared by many whose ideas are otherwise far from Marxian, however. Many of those who promote democracy in today's world, or have done so in the past, also see the evolution of different societies as going through identical historical paths.

It is easy to criticise or even ridicule such rigid historical determinism. But it would be equally wrong to embrace another extreme and deny that some historical patterns and regularities do exist. The dominant attitude towards women or religious freedom in some developing countries today, for example, echoes that of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries (which is not to say that contemporary Europe has reached nirvana in these respects).

There are no iron necessities (in a Marxian or indeed a Fukuyaman   sense), but certain regularities in human affairs can be discerned. People are able to change and even transform the existing social order, even within constraints (including ever-more-significant environmental ones) that they neglect at their own peril. Marx, in a better judged mood, himself made the point that humans make their own history, though "in circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past".

The deterministic approach to history, as an outgrowth of the Enlightenment's legacy, has its opposite - voluntarism - that stems from the same source. Once the assumption is made that democracy is considered the best, if not the only worthwhile, political arrangement for every society, a voluntaristic approach to democracy promotion can easily lead to the belief that it is possible and even necessary to export democracy around the world - including to places like Afghanistan or Iraq. In this respect, deterministic and voluntaristic approaches may have the same result.

This convergence suggests that an honest answer to the first question above is that it's impossible to know whether or not in the end (insofar as there is an end to human development) all states will become democratic. But even if the whole world indeed some day is democratic, this will not necessarily be a western-style liberal democracy - for the resulting systems will probably have many features that carry the equivalent of (as it were) a "made in China" label.

The issue of democratic "readiness" 

The answer to the second question, about whether less-developed countries can take shortcuts to the putative democratic future, might be approached via a story that illustrates its complexities.  

In 1767-68, a physician called Johann Friedrich Struensee began to tend to the health of the feeble and mentally unstable King Christian VII of Denmark, and was as a result appointed royal physician. Soon he was de facto prime minister, the most influential person in the country; and he proceeded to issue laws that (for example) allowed unrestricted freedom of expression and religious practice. But the new laws had little effect in the Danish kingdom of the time; except that, indeed, in the case of the right of freedom of expression, everybody started to talk about Struensee's love-affair with the Danish queen.

It was not long before this man, who was well ahead of his time, was sent to the gallows and the queen into exile. As a reaction to Struensee's reform attempts, Denmark became even less tolerant and free than it had been before the royal physician had tried to implement some of the radical ideals of the Enlightenment. It took many more decades before these noble ideas became the reality in Europe, including the kingdom of Denmark.

The story has resonance for the issue of what might be called "democracy readiness". It is echoed in a pertinent question posed in 2002 by the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman: "Is Iraq the way it is today because Saddam Hussein is the way he is? Or is Saddam Hussein the way he is because Iraq is the way it is?" (see Thomas Friedman, "Iraq Without Saddam", New York Times, 1 September 2002).

It may not be so easy categorically to separate "Saddam" and "Iraq", but the general point is the need to avoid a simplistic or mechanical understanding of how ideas operate within the layered and specific reality to which they might be applied (see Neal Ascherson, "Only Iraqis can decide", Guardian, 24 March 2003). 

In some societies the short-term (or even medium-term) choice often does not include any meaningful form of democracy as one of its components. Rather, it would be between a secular dictatorship, religious totalitarianism, anarchy or civil war. In such cases the best scenario may be an "enlightened dictatorship" (a rare breed indeed) that may, but not necessarily will, gradually open a path to democracy. In some cases what is called "authoritarian capitalism" (democracy with authoritarian elements, or authoritarianism with elements of democracy, are even better signifiers) may be a way forward. Russia and China, in my view, aren't at all lost for democracy, especially if democracy is regarded as not confined to the model of the western-style liberal version.

Whether and to what extent outside forces can influence the democratic processes in a specific country depends on many circumstances. They include:

* the relative strength of local pro-democratic forces

* the presence and the level of material and cultural preconditions

* the existence and the size of the middle class

* the presence and nature of identity-based divisions (ethnic, religious, regional), the size and even geographic location of the country (for example, whether it is closer to Finland or Afghanistan).

This is not an exhaustive list; there are many other variables. Some experts do not consider these factors as preconditions but rather as core "facilitators or non-facilitators" that would make democratisation "harder or easier". This approach is acceptable as long as it is recognised that some combination of such "non-facilitators" makes democratisation impossible, at least for the time being.

In practice, outside pressure for democratisation may indeed effect positive transformations, but usually in small countries, and even then only when there is a confluence of favourable conditions.

The case of Afghanistan is emblematic; when even the senior British officer in the country, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, says that the west should not expect "decisive military victory" there, and that its forces have to "lower our expectations" and be ready to negotiate with the Taliban, this is an indication that to stop talking about a western-style democracy for Afghanistan may also be one precondition of modest but real progress. At the very least, the question of democratic "readiness" must be in the arsenal of democracy promoters.

Democracy in contradiction

The third question, about whether external support can compensate for a lack of domestic democratic capacity, raises the theme of what might be called the dialectical contradictions of democracy - an aspect of pairings  whose elements simultaneously presume and negate (or at least constrain) each other. Democracy forms such contradictions with other social phenomena: the liberal market economy, and nationalism. In each case, democracy is related in its genesis to its "partner"; each element has historically supported the other while at the same time constraining and in some circumstances clashing with it.

Democracy and market economy

Political and market freedoms are generally related in a positive sense: there has been no modern democracy without a market economy (though there have been and are market economies without democracy). The simultaneous spread of both may create serious problems, however. The "shock-therapy" introduction of unregulated markets - as in post-Soviet Russia - invariably has the effect of making a few people extremely rich while impoverishing many more.

It is not surprising that as a result it is hard to make economic shock-therapy compatible with political democracy. The economist Ha-Joon Chang goes even further in arguing that the "free market and democracy are not natural partners"; though it has to be emphasised that he is not speaking of the "market economy" as such, but rather of the unbridled markets advocated by Milton Friedman and his followers (see Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Guilty Secrets of Rich Nations and the Threat to Global Prosperity [Random House, 2008]).

Indeed, the liberal market economy (or capitalism) and democracy (in its liberal as well as other versions) can coexist and yet remain constantly in rivalry. The freer is a market, the greater is the economic inequality; the more there is inequality (as Larry M Bartels argues), the greater pressure there is on democracy; yet as democracy presses society to become more equal, the more market freedoms can be restricted. The result of such tensions in mature democracies is often a rebalancing where these two spheres - political and economic - in time can temper each other's negative impacts. In other parts of the world, where markets and democracy are introduced practically overnight, their clash may be disastrous.

Boris Yeltsin's Russia, where the incompetence of some and the purposeful efforts of others to weaken the former cold-war enemy had such unfortunate results, is a classic example. Jeffrey Sachs, an advisor of Yeltsin's administration from 1991-94, is among those who understood after the event the deeper layers of what had happened. Naomi Klein makes the case in The Shock Doctrine that at the beginning of the 1990s, "many of Washington's power brokers were still fighting a Cold War. They saw Russia's economic collapse as geopolitical victory, a decisive one that ensured U.S. supremacy." The then (March 1989-January 1993) US defence secretary Dick Cheney, for one, was dismissive of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and encouraged the break-up of the Soviet Union; Cheney argued on classic Realpolitik grounds that if democracy indeed failed there, it were better for Washington if the successor states were small.

The dialectical contradiction between the market economy and democracy has another aspect. Amy Chua has mapped the negative effects of processes of globalisation in societies characterised by "market-dominant minorities" (e.g., Indians in east Africa, Lebanese in west Africa, Ibo in Nigeria, Tutsi in Rwanda, Chinese in several southeast Asian countries); and goes on to argue that "the global spread of free market democracy has thus been a principal, aggravating cause of ethnic instability and violence throughout the non-western world" (see Amy Chua, World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability [Random House, 2002]).

This pessimistic conclusion is grounded in the reality that in some developing and post-communist countries there are minorities - perhaps better educated and more entrepreneurial than the majority population - who own disproportionate amounts of land or are otherwise in a better position to benefit from the liberalisation of markets than the rest of the population. The sudden introduction of democracy can release suppressed discontent that creates a combustible mixture ready to explode in xenophobia, ethnic cleansing or even in acts of genocide. In such cases there is neither a liberal market nor democracy.

Amy Chua concludes that "the United States should not be exporting markets in the unrestrained, laissez-faire form that the west itself has repudiated, just as it should not be promoting unrestrained, overnight majority rule - a form of democracy that the west has repudiated." With the qualification that in the west rule by the majority rule came not overnight but through sometimes centuries-long processes of trial and error, Amy Chua's warning must be taken seriously. This observation opens the related issue of the relationship between democracy and nationalism.

Democracy and nationalism

If democracy is regarded as almost an unquestioned good, nationalism - especially after the Nazi atrocities and the proliferation of inter-ethnic conflicts in the post-cold-war world - is often considered wholly negative, dangerous and unsuitable to today's postmodern world.

The contradiction has not always been so stark, for the development of democracy in western Europe at least was closely linked to the rise of nationalism and nation-states. John Stuart Mill was only one thinker who gave this bond intellectual ballast; he argued that democracy can only flourish where "the boundaries of government coincide in the main with those of nationality" because "among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the workings of representative institutions cannot exist."

The relationship between nationalism and democracy has always been complicated. The violent conflicts that erupted in different parts of the world in the 1990s to an extent mirror those that were endemic in western Europe centuries ago. Many of them have nationalism, state- building and democratisation among their ingredients.

However, there are also huge differences between nation-building in western Europe centuries ago and current developments. In the era of the formation of nation-states in the region, the use of violence - either for the purpose of unifying separate political entities or assimilating those who spoke different languages or professed other religions - was not regarded with the disfavour of later generations. Western Europe went through this process of homogenisation, even including "ethnic cleansing", at a time when such practices were considered normal; neither international law nor public morality condemned them.

The 21st-world, especially today's Europe, is in its dominant standards very different; what was typical centuries ago may be considered a crime against humanity now. Besides, today in most societies the general tendency is not homogenisation but heterogenisation; and nationalism (at least of the ethnic rather than the civic variety) clashes, sometimes violently, with this tendency.

Moreover, countries in transition want to join contemporary Europe, not that of the past; immigrants from war-torn and poverty-ridden regions seek refuge and prosperity in modern liberal-democratic countries. This, in its own way, testifies to the advantages of liberal democracy in comparison with other social and political arrangements. That is why Richard Rorty praised "parliamentary democracy and the welfare state as very good things, but only on the basis of invidious comparison with suggested concrete alternatives, not on the basis of claims that these institutions are truer to human nature, or more rational, or in better accord with the universal moral law, than feudalism or totalitarianism." However, a caveat is needed: many of those who aspire to join the liberal-democratic west do it not for the sake of democracy but in the hope of achieving material prosperity.

Extreme nationalists, or those opportunistic politicians who use the nationalistic card for political purposes, have done much to discredit any kind of nationalism. However, nationalistic sentiments amongst many peoples are extremely strong, even primordial. Governments as well as the political and intellectual elites of states that are in a sort of transformational disarray often embark on the search for a national idea that would consolidate society.

Although an agnostic and cosmopolitan, I nevertheless believe that a war against nationalism, especially if one were to try to get rid of it once and forever, would be as futile and counterproductive as a war against religion (of the kind waged in the intellectual sphere by Richard Dawkins). Extreme forms of nationalism that glorify one's own country while belittling other nations (or some specific nation) have to be countered by educational, political and legal means. Today's nationalism, even mild, can hardly support democracy; but democracy can live and cope with non-virulent forms of nationalism.

Democracy promotion: motives and maps

Three are three reasons why politicians become involved in democracy promotion abroad: hypocritical, idealistic and pragmatic (or realistic).

Hypocrites do not give a damn about democracy, especially in faraway places, but as today it is politically incorrect and almost suicidal to reveal what the real interests behind lofty words are, they have to be seen concerned with the fate of democracy, human rights and development - though their highest interests may be oil and gas, pipelines, and the safety of tanker navigation. A more general strategic goal for hypocrites, allowing them to reach various more specific objectives, is the maintenance of a current hegemonic domination (or, vice versa, the change in an unfavourable status quo).

If hypocritical approaches to world politics that use lofty words such as democracy and human rights to conceal economic and military-strategic interests, are always to be deplored, idealism - though often naïve and sometimes even dangerous - may nevertheless serve as an engine of progress.

Anthony Dworkin, in response to John Gray's attempt to outlaw all utopian projects as dangerous, writes in defence of minor utopias: "If realism is a necessary corrective to utopian idealism, it is equally true that unchecked realism is likely to lead to a narrowing political possibility. Without some appeal to universal values, there is no standpoint to challenge unjust practices that are widely taken for granted. To take two examples from the Enlightenment era, the slave trade would not have been abolished when it was, nor the use of torture banned in criminal investigations, if William Wilberforce, Cesare Beccaria and their followers had not clung to grand visions of human advance" (see Anthony Dworkin, "The case for minor utopias", Prospect, July 2007).

Idealism remains a tool of progress in today's world. However, in social affairs generally and in international relations in particular, idealism has to be tempered by realism. Social experiments are not carried out in laboratories; they affect lives of millions and failures of such experiments may be fatal; their disastrous consequences are usually irreversible.

Although hypocrisy is generally deplorable and the hypocritical use of concepts of democracy and human rights in diplomacy discredits these worthy aims, it is necessary to acknowledge that hypocrisy in politics and especially in international politics will remain with us for any foreseeable future. David Runciman is right that "hypocrisy, though inherently unattractive, is also more or less inevitable in most political settings, and in liberal democratic societies it is practically ubiquitous"; and therefore "hypocrisy is something we have to learn to live with" (see David Runciman, Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond [Princeton University Press, 2008]).

The countries whose foreign policy cannot do without hypocrisy are - strange as it may sound - mostly liberal-democratic ones with wide international interests. Beijing, for example, does not feel much need to justify (especially before its own population) how it satisfies its economic interests in Sudan, Nigeria or any other country. Governments in Washington, Paris or London, on the contrary, have to show, and especially to their domestic electorates, that their foreign policy is if not entirely dictated by ethical and humanitarian concerns, then at least these concerns are taken into account; though the same electorates would outvote any government that does not guarantee its financial or security interests. Most citizens may care mainly about their prosperity and well-being, but they also want to feel and to be seen as virtuous.

Moreover, there are some western leaders who quite sincerely care about democracy and human rights even in faraway places. If conditions permit and recipes are adequate, efforts to promote democracy and human rights abroad may indeed have positive effects. Not every politician who speaks of human rights and democracy in distant countries is necessarily a hypocrite; not every human-rights activist who claims to know a remedy for a dire situation in a remote country is inevitably ignorant or naïve; not even every autocrat who claims to have the support of the population is automatically to be considered wrong. However, it is always safer to doubt and double-check; in matters where practical interests and ideology intermingle, one can never be sure.

Democratisation: demand vs supply

The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik, asking why some developing countries have succeeded in their economic reforms while others have failed (none has succeeded, as he observes, when diligently following IMF and World Bank prescriptions), emphasises that "learning from other countries is always useful - indeed it is indispensable. But straightforward borrowing (or rejection) of policies without full understanding of the context that enabled them to be successful (or led them to be failures) is a recipe for disaster" (see Dani Rodrik, One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth [Princeton University Press, 2007]). 

This insightful observation is true, or even truer, in the case of promotion of democracy. Democracy, democratic institutions and values are more intimately related to and dependent on the history and culture of society than economic and financial institutions. Learning, not borrowing, but at the same time not discarding the experience of other societies by over-emphasising one's uniqueness is the best way to proceed. Democratisation is more an art than a science, even if the category is restricted only to social sciences, all of which contain a degree of artfulness.

A critical attitude towards democracy promotion is necessary, in a world where (as Vidar Helgesen notes) "there are constant reminders of how complex and often turbulent and potentially violent are [democratic transitions]". But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The fact that claims over rights and goods are made abusively should not mean that they thereby become less valuable. Human beings are capable of doing more than confusing and misleading others; they can also differentiate between use and abuse, sincerity and deception. Such intelligence is needed for outsiders to promote democracy and human rights in others' societies, for this requires also having quite a deep knowledge and understanding of these societies, as well as enough humility to be aware of the limits of positive effects any outside interference may have (there are no such limits for potentially negative effects).

Democratisation has to be basically demand-driven, not supply-stimulated. In the absence of these conditions any outside meddling does more ill than good. However, when these conditions are met, outsiders may indeed contribute to a spread of democracy that has intrinsic as well as instrumental value.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData