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Mr Rogers goes to war: America’s “democracy by force”

Mariano Aguirre
4 August 2005

In my openDemocracy article about Michael Ignatieff, I suggested that one of the tasks performed by the distinguished head of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University is to convince liberals to become hawks and to provide hardliners with the lowdown on liberal arguments. Steven Rogers’s reply is the perfect example of Ignatieff’s success.

Michael Ignatieff, Mariano Aguirre, and Steven Rogers: new readers start here!

Michael Ignatieff, the prolific author and distinguished director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine (“Who are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?”, 26 June 2005)

Mariano Aguirre, coordinator of research on global governance at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid, wrote a critique of Ignatieff’s article on openDemocracy: “Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff”, his articles represent his personal opinions

Steven Rogers, an American journalist working in the Philippines, responded to Mariano Aguirre in an openDemocracy article entitled “The United States, tyranny and democracy: a critique of Mariano Aguirre on Michael Ignatieff”

The article you are reading now is Mariano Aguirre’s reply to Steven Rogers...

Now read on!

Leaving aside the adjectives poured on my text (opaque, bizarre, superficial, irrelevant) and the paranoid suspicion raised by my mention of only some kind of dictatorships (don’t worry, I have a universal dislike for dictators) Rogers’s critique raises three interesting points: on democracy, the use of force, and torture.

America’s export of democracy

Steven Rogers considers that there is no perfect model of democracy, and that democracy is a process accountable to voters, not to “liberal orthodoxy”. My point is that – even though the United States government and many other sectors consider their model to be the world’s best, its many problems and flaws make it far from the best or fairest to promote elsewhere. There is no mission established by God or the “founding fathers” to promote, far less to impose their model worldwide.

I could go a step further: it’s because United States democracy is so imperfect and deeply conservative that its neo-conservative ideologues are pushing to promote it worldwide, and in a very authoritarian way (see John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, Penguin, 2004.)

Jürgen Habermas wrote in 2003:

"The universal claim of validity of the best ... about the procedures of democratic self-determination and the vocabulary of human rights, can’t be confused with the imperial pretension that indicates that the political life and political culture of one democracy, even if it’s the oldest one, must be an example for all societies" (“Qué significa el derribo del monumento? ”, El Pais, 20 May 2003).

Did you ever think, Mr Rogers, why Germany and Japan were so enthusiastic about promoting their vision of life when they were authoritarian racist states, but became peaceful (and economically competitive) members of the international community when transformed into secular (theological) nationalist democracies? Anatol Lieven's America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (HarperCollins, 2004) and the review by Robin Blackburn (New Left Review, March-April 2005) are very helpful in understanding the role of nationalism in US expansionism.

Behind the rhetoric about democracy as "process” not “outcome", Rogers thinks that the reference to the manipulation of the voters by the religious right is just a minor detail in an apparently fair US democratic game, and that the problem is that the Democrats (liberals) failed to run a consistent campaign in 2004. But innumerable studies now show that democracy is becoming a field of propaganda, a target of public relations, and a warzone of spin doctors – and the more it does, the more formal systems of representation fail to represent anything except big business and power interests.

In the United Status, religious groups play an important role (contrary to what Mr Rogers thinks) in fomenting the impulse to impose democracy. Many of these militant activists believe in the “rapture”, hold to a religious interpretation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Iraqi war, and they have strong allies inside the Republican Party (see the valuable book by Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters, University of California Press, 2005). Both for its mythological mission and for its content, the promotion of US democracy by such zealots is dangerous.

But suppose we assume that the American model is great and (as Americans like to say) “fun”, should Michael Ignatieff and others (including myself) favour its promotion, either by force or peaceful means? Steven Rogers thinks that Ignatieff and I agree on the aim but differ on the methods. Wrong conclusion.

Ignatieff believes that the American model of democracy must be promoted as a matter of principle, and even imposed by force over tyrannies (particularly if he, and George W Bush and Tony Blair’s administrations, disinformed public opinions about weapons of mass destruction). He’s a mystical ideologue promoting a mission, while stressing that the crusade is to be waged only against some governments.

I believe that democracy – as a model of civic, political and economic organisation – can be promoted, mostly indirectly, but never imposed from outside by force.

I like democracy, with all its various imperfections, in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Canada or Spain. But I have never heard politicians, pundits and academics in those countries discussing (as they do in America) whether to invade, promote, impose and fight in the streets of (some countries) of the world for the sake of democracy.

I also like democracy, with all its evident flaws, in Chile, Argentina, South Africa and the Czech Republic. But when they were dictatorships, I never heard of the US invading any of them in order to restore democracy.

Michael Ignatieff thinks that the US has a mission. I think that the international community has a series of values on human rights, social justice and democratic procedures to preserve which it must preserve and expand, and which can be promoted using tools such as trade, diplomacy, culture, and dialogue (and sometimes tougher means like sanctions).

This all implies the concept of a multilateral regime and an international rule of law. In other words, a cosmopolitan international system that combines democratic states with active civil societies and increasingly democratic multilateral institutions (see David Held, Global Covenant, Polity Press, 2004). This may prove to be imperfect, but it would be both less dangerous and more effective than foreign invasions justified with dirty tricks and false legitimations at the United Nations Security Council.

Are these ineffective means to overthrow dictatorships? Look around you, Mr Rogers. How many authoritarian regimes ended in the last twenty years thanks to internal opposition and international pressures, and how many collapsed through invasions?

Mr Rogers thinks that Ignatieff and I are on the same side with different approaches. No, sorry, he and the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy are on the same side: confused and wrong.

America and the use of force

Steven Rogers’s argument is characterised by a confusion over his use of two conceptual pairs: “regime change vs transition to democracy” and “war vs humanitarian intervention”.

Like an absolutist democrat, adding the obvious to the frivolous, he says that “(the) first step in any transition from tyranny to democracy is the removal of tyranny", and that this is "a necessary first step to the transition to democracy". He goes on to explain that the "soft" methods I recommend are "useless" where the "response to dissent is a bullet in the head". His conclusion: "When it comes to true tyrannies and utterly failed states, our choice is between abandonment and military intervention".

So, who defines the line between a "true tyranny" and an authoritarian government that might not quite deserve a proper invasion? Is it possible that the level of the alliances with Washington and some other western countries could be the key to measure the extension of "tyranny"?

But the respectful and thoughtful analyst who asks me to understand that democracy is a procedure that can’t be exported, suddenly jumps over the armoured tank to invade the tyrannies of the world because, good grief, there is no other way than compulsory regime change.

I would like to be helpful, reminding Mr Rogers that the last accountancy report of Foreign Policy magazine lists fifty “failed states”. Really a lot of work to do! Particularly because not all of them are dictatorships and some tyrannies are indeed powerful states. So, what plans for the future; nation-building, Iraq-style?

In real international life, there are many options between doing nothing and waging war to overthrow regimes. My article mentions several, which Mr Rogers dismisses as a "litany".

Many governments – particularly the most powerful – give direct or indirect support to repressive regimes. Perhaps Mr Rogers has heard about the support given by the US government to the Uzbekistan dictatorship in return for its use of airfields for operations in Afghanistan, or its and its British ally’s silence over Russian massacres in Chechnya.

Then there is the perverse use of concepts like "military intervention". Powerful states are generally reluctant to intervene in failed states, or when massive violations of human rights occur or are threatened. Military intervention may be close to the idea of “humanitarian intervention” I mentioned in my article, but they are not the same. Rogers and Ignatieff are talking about war to overthrow regimes; I’m referring to an international system that could and should intervene in some situations to save lives, prevent genocide and maintain peace for a certain period.

The operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are not military/humanitarian intervention; they are wars, and they were made mostly for internal and geopolitical reasons, not for democracy. Mr Rogers follows the same line as Ignatieff: a strong critique of the "mismanagement" of the war in Iraq, everything was "wrong", but given that the US "has a commitment", then we must support it. The important thing is that "a tyrant is in a cell".

Also by Mariano Aguirre in openDemocracy:

“America underneath New York” (December 2004)

“The many cities of Buenos Aires” (January 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

As Habermas says, after Iraq many people surrendered to the pragmatic argument that even if the rules are violated and the international system is destroyed, an immediate good result (the fall of Saddam Hussein) is the justification for the reversal of the entire rule of law. They were wrong.

America and torture

On torture, Steven Rogers confirms Michael Ignatieff’s position. There are "right" and moral arguments against torture, but "the real answer" is to liberalise the market of violence in order to feel protected against imminent threats, the tic-tac syndrome. "Are threats, humiliation, or sleep deprivation torture?" he asks rhetorically.

Yes, Mr Rogers, they are. It seems that theoriticians of the "normalisation of torture" like Ignatieff and Alan Dershowitz, and readers like Mr Rogers never think that tomorrow they could by mistake be in a secret jail fearing that their jailers could cross "the thin line" they are now safely promoting from afar (see the arguments in Sanford Levinson, editor, Torture: a collection, Oxford University Press, 2004 – with contributions by Ariel Dorfman, Alan Dershowitz, Michael Walzer and others).

At last Mr Rogers plainly says that America "must not retreat", should correct some mistakes, and must lead the promotion of democracy. The world needs US leadership to restore failed states and fight tyranny worldwide. This mission must be done by "multilateral action when it’s possible" and unilaterally if the "Euro-weenies" are not helpful. The same song: a long reply to my critique, only to reach the same fallacious conclusions as Michael Ignatieff.

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