the democracy fallacy

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Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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  1. Avatar Roland Dodds
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    An interesting set of pieces E.D.; a “coming out” if you will, clearly on the side of realists like Walt in the foreign policy discussion. I am a student of the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M, one of the leading “Realist” centered policy programs in the country, so the ideas are not foreign to me. The school holds the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, which should tell you the basic outlook the program pursues. I have enjoyed it thoroughly, and the “realist’s” description of state power and how it operates throughout history (among other points) has been convincing.

    I do think you have an adopted the overly simplistic “realistic” position that Walt and other realists so willingly peddle however.

    First of all, the “meddling” the United States engages in is the very thing any unipolar (or hegemonic) power would pursue. If we are to believe Mearsheimer’s offensive realist argument in “The Tragedy of Great Powers,” then we accept that states will naturally and constantly push their influence and power as much as it is capable of doing (both through soft and hard power). Walt and his followers seem to believe that the US and Israel meddle too habitually, and yet also want to argue that states always act in a specific interest maximizing manner.

    Imposing democratic “values” may sound like a new and foreign exercise, but it is not, and there are successes to the policy even though it wasn’t referred to as democratic promotion at the time. Japan and Taiwan are clear example of this, but South Korea is an even better case. South Korea at the start of the 50s was poorer than Ghana (Ethiopia sent some of its citizens to help the struggling country, which goes to show how things have changed), and was an almost completely rural Confucian society, one that shared very little with the west and the democratic institutions that grew out of it. The US generally did not have the intention of making Korea a democratic alternative to the north when the war began, and the country lapsed into military rule more than once. Yet, with the continued support and protection provided by the American military, as well as the transformation of the society, Korea now stands as one of the most remarkable examples of how quickly traditional culture and superstition can be subverted. Does Korea look or sound like America (and I mean in the political sense)? Not really. But few could see Korea as anything but a remarkable transformation, brought upon by the continued aid and support of a unipolar power.
    Not long ago, it was an accepted rule among the IR community that the Catholic Southern European states could never have democratic societies; the institutions were simply too foreign to those cultures many reputable men claimed. The same was then said of Confucian societies. Then it was Eastern European states that were too connected to the Orthodox Church and superstition. So I am a bit skeptical when I am told that the Muslim lands are antithetical to democracy. In fact, I find that historical evidence is counter to your claim, I turn to a recent Fouad Ajami piece: “In 15 of the 29 democratic countries in 1970, democratic regimes were midwifed by foreign rule or had come into being right after independence from foreign occupation. In the ebb and flow of liberty, power always mattered, and liberty needed the protection of great powers.”
    The “realists” may have something to be said about tactics for bringing more democratic societies in those regions, but I don’t believe the neoconservatives are as idealistic as you believe them to be. Charles Krauthammer wrote something that I generally agree with in his “Democratic Realism” piece, where he said : “We will support democracy everywhere, but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity.” Perhaps that is closer to a realist end of the spectrum than the purer neoconservatives like Hitchens, but I think the idea that elections-mean-peace is a character created by its opponents more than an actual reflection of the ideas as a whole.

    Our cultural exports are tools in pushing for democracy overseas, but don’t assume they will succeed in all instances; in fact, North Korea is an excellent ying to the South’s yang. A society can block out and distort our cultural exports if it desires to do so, and thus in North Korea’s case, remains enslaved. I am thankful our nation did not cut off ties with China when they crushed democratic demonstrators in the late 80s; our continued cooperation has helped bring the country closer to democracy than if we had turned from them. But don’t assume such a strategy always works, and the force of the state is sometimes required to make it so.Report

  2. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Great comment, Roland. Your point about Korea is well taken. However, whether the outcome of the South Korean State justifies the foreign policy that got us involved in that conflict is another matter. The Southern European nations were democratized without any military intervention; the Eastern European nations that have democratized, did so after a policy of containment that never turned into a US intervention.

    Also, I would hesitate to compare Confucian society to Islamic society, not because one is more or less warlike, but because of the nature of the faiths themselves. Confucianism is a bit more lax, a bit more secular. It is a set of guidelines combined with some ancestor reverence and basic household roles (I know, I simplify); whereas Islam is a faith of extreme submission. Perhaps there is also something about the geographical quality of S. Korea–peninsular as it is, and cut off from much of the other nations in the region.

    In any case, I am specific to the Middle East in this piece because I do think it is a unique region in the world–though I might add Africa to the basket of military quagmires. Could the region become democratized? Yes, I think so, though not by military force save at too great a cost. And would that democracy truly benefit the West? Or Israel? That’s another question entirely, and I’m not so sure the answer is “yes.”

    That said, I think I fall in line with the Krauthammer piece you quote above, and I am not completely against intervention. I think that it has become over-used, however, with little cultural and historical understanding on the part of its advocates, and too much idealism.

    In any case, thanks very much for stopping by. I hope we can continue the debate!Report

  3. Avatar Satya
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    says:

    It’s a good piece in general, but I’m not sure why you feel the need to make a pretty weak dismissal of democratic peace theory. Yes, one democracy fought on the side of the axis in world war 2 – Finland, whose entire contribution to the war was in fighting against the Soviet Union, a totalitarian state. It isn’t much of an exception. Even if it were an exception, categorical rules about complex human behavior are always going to have occasional exceptions – and the rule in general is that democratic nations do not go to war with other democratic nations. Whether that rule is an absolute, iron clad rule that will never be violated or just an extremely predictive tendency doesn’t matter much from the perspective of a policy-maker.

    I think there are other valid criticisms of democratic peace theory – for example, I think defining democratic nations is an enormously complex problem. And there is obviously the danger of defining democracy as merely the presence of elections (as opposed to, say, the presence of elections, the rule of law, general respect for human rights and a stable civil society). But the general principle that nations that have evolved complex democracies (in this more broad sense) don’t go to war with each other is simply a fact, and the way war has become sub-rationally unthinkable between many democratic nations in Europe and Asia is more than a historical accident.Report

  4. Avatar Roland Dodds
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    says:

    E.D.:

    “The Southern European nations were democratized without any military intervention; the Eastern European nations that have democratized, did so after a policy of containment that never turned into a US intervention.”

    Yes that is correct, but my point was that it was a rule of thumb among many in the IR field that they simply would never have a functioning democratic state. I believe history has proved those critics wrong, and should then give folks pause who argue that a society is intrinsically un-democratic.Report

  5. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    True, Roland. And I don’t think that any society is intrinsically un-democratic. It’s all in the timing, though. And in the execution…Report

  6. Avatar E.D. Kain
    Ignored
    says:

    Satya–

    Also good points. However I would say Germany was every bit a Democratic State when it went to war. Yes, a fascist party had taken control, but it had done so through the democratic system. That democracies may be less likely to go to war with one another is true, but I would say that is more due to trade than to shared electoral process…Report

  7. “In other words, the very premise for invading countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan in order to democratize them and thereby impose peace through war, is a false premise.”

    That is suspect.

    Every threat to internat’l order after the Cold War involved a government that fell short of Western and economic standards. Every security problem that the American government felt called upon to address would be alleviated, if not solved altogether, if the regimes responsible for them could be remade to American specs: Tolerant, egalitarian societies with a penchant for periodic, transparent elections, a free, uncensored press, a nat’l treasury under public scrutiny, a military under civie control, an independent judiciary under elected Gov oversight

    Many critics of neoconservatism amazingly (or perhaps on purpose) fail to include Dr Rice’s caveat that such a correct manuever in the new millennium …

    “Is a generational commitment. But it is not a generational commitment in military terms; it is a commitment of our support to them, our political support and an understanding that democracy takes time.”

    Smokescreen aside – what is the alternative?

    In an age of WMD crunk caliphates that tend to torment their own people, their neighbors and fiddle about with WMD?

    Hope for the best?
    Isolationism?
    Realpolitik era treaties with known oathbreakers?Report

  8. Avatar Freddie
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    says:

    Tolerant, egalitarian societies with a penchant for periodic, transparent elections, a free, uncensored press, a nat’l treasury under public scrutiny, a military under civie control, an independent judiciary under elected Gov oversight

    Jesus.

    And a pony. I mean, seriously– if your preference for interventionism requires one to believe that it can create conditions that are met in a vanishingly small number of countries and that have absolutely no chance of being met by the current “bad actors” in the world, that is weak brew indeed. The idea that the United States can cause that kind of change is literally jaw-dropping, by which I mean that I literally sit here with my mouth hanging open. This faith in the omnipotence of the United States despite all evidence demonstrating its nonexistence is truly cognitive dissonance on an incredible level. Incredible.

    Smokescreen aside – what is the alternative?

    Hey, I know– not invading other countries under self-defeating “democracy by force” adventures that leave the world less stable, the people less free and more dead, and our own country less capable of providing for its own defense? What a crazy notion.Report

  9. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Courtney–

    “Is a generational commitment. But it is not a generational commitment in military terms; it is a commitment of our support to them, our political support and an understanding that democracy takes time.”

    First of all, generational commitments of this nature do end up becoming military commitments. Our interference in the Middle East has lasted longer than my entire lifespan. They began before I was born, and have continued up to this day. I see no reason that they won’t continue on through to the next generation and the generation after that. Good lord, the Middle East has been in a state of near-perpetual war for centuries. To think we can end all that…?

    And yes, Dr. Rice is correct–democracy does take time. It takes generations. Civil order over centuries, failed governments, a steady increase in the sort of minds and coalitions that can make democracy a reality have to be fostered organically from within. The conditions necessary for true, stable democracy cannot–simply cannot–be forced down a nation’s throat.

    What is the alternative?

    Leave them be. Set up trade. Keep the world as open as possible. Live by example. Encourage liberalism where we find it. Publicly discourage tyrannical behavior. Keep trading. Help create a world where the flow of goods can be realized. Democracy sprouts where we see strong middle-classes develop, where the eventual rule of law takes hold.

    The fact is, post-Nazi Germany was a much more likely candidate for democracy than Iraq ever was, not because Hussein was worse than Hitler–far from it–but because Germany had the proper historical conditions to evolve into a democratic nation–it had already been a democratic nation. Iraq? I see faux-elections there, and the steady rise of a Shiite authoritarian State.

    The alternative is not isolation, not by a far cry. It is looking to our own interests first and foremost, and that does not include turning thorny bushes into trees, as Michael Yon so recently, and eloquently, put it….Report

  10. Freddie,

    “vanishingly small number of countries and that have absolutely no chance of being met by the current “bad actors” in the world”

    Yes! Annihilating creepy time traveling intolerants or semi secular leaders for life that retard – in the classic sense no less – the timely development of values like fun and free choice or as Uncle Tony put it, “the Universal Values of the Human Spirit” is well within any of the League of Hot! Democrazies and their fully crunk 30 year in the future militaries.

    Again, in the age of WMD – why even tolerate them? Many illegit, unelected, nigh unhinged regimes can be taken out – all the way out over a long week end.

    “not invading other countries under self-defeating “democracy by force” adventures that leave the world less stable, the people less free and more dead, and our own country less capable of providing for its own defense?”

    Totally incorrect on all three counts – and sooo 2003, btw.Report

  11. E.D.,

    Generational commitments of the last millennium had military commitments that totally dwarf anything in the ME – including the 1st Gulf War.

    Like NATO.

    Recent SOFA agreements totally fulfill Dr Rice’s pronouncement

    “Leave them be.”
    Dangerously wishful and illogical.

    Despots and tyrants are the cause of instability – and historically that instability is never confined to their own borders. Add WMD in the mix – it could be said the Free World is just asking for it.

    ” Set up trade. Keep the world as open as possible. Live by example. Encourage liberalism where we find it. Publicly discourage tyrannical behavior. Keep trading. Help create a world where the flow of goods can be realized.”

    Realpolitik, nicht war? The faux school played ideas like stability, deterrence, and containment are suspect since 911.

    A case could be made that Realpolitik’s ammoral corrupt cult of stability, a history of genocide, terrorism and wars, that sucked up to any despot horrid or benign actually created the age of Regime Change.

    Closed societies – Like Syria, that fear Facebook, abuse Palestinians as strategic resources and literally bomb a sovereign semi democratic member of the UN’s political cadre out of existence do NOT merit trade, friendly dialogue or lectures. They need to be regime changed and put out of biz.

    “Looking to our own interests first and foremost” is perfectly correctReport

  12. Avatar Roland Dodds
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    says:

    “Many illegit, unelected, nigh unhinged regimes can be taken out – all the way out over a long week end.”

    Even as a supporter of interventionism Courtney, I find that highly unlikely and unrealistic. I believe it is a moral duty to support democratic regimes and liberals putting themselves on the line against totalitarian structures they face in less free states, but our ability to confront all of them is restricted.Report

  13. Avatar Roland Dodds
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    says:

    I don’t know if your site picks it up E.D., but Andrew Sullivan has quoted this piece on his blog.

    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/02/a-false-premise.html

    And of course, the man reminds me why I don’t take him seriously these days.

    “The closer you examine it, the clearer it is that neoconservatism, in large part, is simply about enabling the most irredentist elements in Israel and sustaining a permanent war against anyone or any country who disagrees with the Israeli right.”

    Oh vey.Report

  14. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    I think it really depends on the neocon. As I’m full aware, as with any project, the motivations of neocons range across a wide spectrum…

    More on this later…Report

  15. Roland,

    Check IISS’s Military Balance 2009 here:

    http://www.iiss.org/

    It’s going to happen sooner or later and 44’s current neocons in humanitarian clothing like Dr Samantha Power and UN ambassador Dr Susan Rice actually look forward to trashing certain regimes.

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/africa/july-dec06/darfur_11-17.html

    Also check Dr Rice’s bit about using R2P to kill state or militia sanctioned killers anytime anywhere.

    http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2007/1024darfur_rice_Opp08.aspx

    Unlikely? Unrealistic?

    Au contraire’Report

  16. Avatar Gene
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    says:

    Re. Islam is a faith of extreme submission, you might find this of interest.Report

  17. Avatar Paul Dennett
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    says:

    Erik, I have a question:

    If Rod Blagojevich got up a private army and seized military control of Peoria, then set himself up as President of the Republic of Peoria (and then started firing rockets at Bloomington or somewhere), would he still have democratic legitimacy?

    I would have thought not.

    And neither does Hamas.

    And neither did Nazi Germany.

    Democracy is about more than just elections.Report

  18. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    Paul, that example if you’ll pardon my bluntness, is rather awful. I mean, you’ve failed to add into the mix all the other necessary similarities one would need to compare the two situations.

    For instance, if Peoria was an internationally recognized pseudo-sovereign nation which was supposed to belong to the Peorians instead of the Americans, and then the Americans pushed the Peorians to host elections, and then got in a huge fuss when the results landed Blago in power, and then claimed they were totally null and void, well then there we might have a good analogy. But Peoria, unlike Palestine, was never supposed to be a separate nation. Palestine, however, was and everyone (or nearly everyone) claims a desire for a two-state solution. So, I guess I’m just completely lost as to where you’re going with that comment….

    As to your second point, no democracy is most certainly not only about elections, which is why I’m playing the skeptic in regards to the recent Iraqi elections. Democracy is the natural extension of a long history of the rule of law, and quite frankly that is not a description that fits Iraq. So they had elections, so what? As far as I can tell it’s just a giant Gaza with oil…Report

  19. Avatar E.D. Kain
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    says:

    That said, Paul, thanks very much for stopping over and commenting! It’s very much appreciated!Report

  20. Avatar Paul Dennett
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    says:

    Hi Erik, I wasn’t really interested in the specifics of the case in re: Peoria and Gaza. My point really is that we have the rule of law, constitutions etc which you need to abide by in order to hold onto whatever democratic legitimacy an election may confer upon you. The Nazis and Hamas both stepped outside of that in different ways, as did President Blago in my not very serious example. In my view it’s important to hold onto this concept – if not then it’s possible to make excuses for anybody: even the Nazis.

    I’m not sure your comment about Iraq is quite fair. Yes it was daft to think that a democracy could just be plonked into Iraq without the necessary spadework (rule of law, institutions of civil society etc), all of which takes years. That Iraq is still having elections with participation from all sides is surely positive, even though there’s still a long road still to travel.Report

  21. Avatar Walt
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    says:

    What democracies made war on each other in WWII? On the axis side there was Germany, Italy, & Japan. What am I missing here?
    While HAMAS may have won one election, they are hardly a democracy.Report

  22. Avatar Jibran ghani
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    says:

    A very unbiased and objective opinion. I believe that way to true peace is accepting the difference in socio-religious environment between the west and the Muslim world and try to build bridges on commonalities and not try to infuse western beliefs and norms into a totally different society.
    both west and east have their own set of cultural , social and political beliefs and both should respect and embrace the diversity in each other.
    It is the double standards that cause all the hate . One can win minds and hearts of a people when you are dropping bombs on their heads. After every war small or big , peace (no matter how short lived it was) was achieved when both sides sat on the table.Report

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