This is the third of a series of articles based on the assumption that in the foreseeable future the War on Terror will end or fade away, and that it is necessary to look beyond the current shadow of mistaken policies in international affairs. For the introductory article to this series, see “ Visions of a World without the War on Terror (Part I)” posted on 25/09/06.
By sending more troops to Iraq, the Bush administration is desperately trying to avoid leaving the White House in two years time covered by the dark clouds of defeat and failure that are currently hanging over this presidency. However, the obvious mistake of invading Iraq and subsequent errors are only examples of a more important underlying issue: the increasingly uncertain future of democratization and – whisper it – democracy itself. Even if one leaves the War on Terror (WoT) – which is likely to go down in history as a mere tool for neoconservatives in search of the “American Century” – out of the analysis, the attempt to spread liberal democracy around the globe seems to be in its last throes. The neoconservative and derivative agendas only have a year or two left to show that their school of thought has some practical merit, and that sending 21,000 more troops to Iraq is not its last stand in defending an already lost cause.
When all the excitement about the WoT subsides, the real question of our time will come to the fore once again: is liberal, Hegelian democracy the deterministic end of mankind’s political evolution? Although the dust around Fukuyama’s musings from the 1990s has settled, there is still a lingering belief among the public and – consequently – policy makers that our democratic destiny is clear, and that some day the rest of the world will naturally have to follow the same path. Moreover, it is seen as our enlightened – or evangelical – obligation to steer backward societies toward the light of elections, responsive politicians, and big-industry lobbyists.
All of this is old-news; over the last decade there have been countless books written on the subject, and nowadays there seems to be more interest in neo-Huntingtonian analyses which pit Judeo-Christian values against selective readings of the Koran. There is even a return to the past understanding that elections might actually bring undemocratic results, and that they are therefore undesirable in the case of uncooperative societies. Last year’s Hamas victory was a warning shot, and has been heeded in London and Washington: The House of Saud is once again left alone to do as it pleases within its fiefdom.
Nonetheless, the implicit assumption behind almost all international politics by Western nations is that their enlightened system represents the future of mankind, and as such they believe to have a morally superior position in any type of negotiation with lesser, backward nations. Perhaps some corrupt leaders are a necessary evil to control islamo-fascist tendencies of badly educated and angry masses – or so the thinking goes – but in the long run such misunderstandings will be solved by the incredible powers of our liberal heritage, capitalist resources, and Christian propensity to forgive and embrace. This monolithic attitude has deeply penetrated Western culture, making it very difficult to challenge the basic assumptions that guide its leaders.
On a – perhaps superfluous – side note, it is not the goal of this article to criticize democracy as such. Being a proper, well-behaved son of liberal enlightenment myself, I would prefer our current Western political system any day over anything that history has thrown at us thus far. However, some moderation – if not modesty – and better understanding of the non-deterministic nature of democracy seems in order. In historical terms, the present liberal democratic establishment has been in place for a very limited period of time, and is constantly threatened by external and, especially, internal forces. The fact that there is no better alternative at the moment does not mean that democracy is the future’s default position, and it is time we start behaving accordingly.
Instead of using Churchill’s quote that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried” – a damning indictment if there ever was one – perhaps we should pay more attention to his belief that “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. Given its very nature and the clear limitations of the individual voter, democracy has the obvious tendency to turn plutocratic over time. Even if its underlying mechanisms keep the political elite responsive to society as a whole, it is unlikely that democracy remains viable when it no longer seems to serve “the people” in the long run: the increasing divide between “haves” and “have-nots” in Western societies – not to mention interregional comparisons – is seriously threatening to undermine the foundations of the current system. Aristotle’s idea that “in a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme” seems overly optimistic in the face of Roosevelt’s warning that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself”. How can one reasonably expect alienated voters to form an obstacle against processes in which “ democracy passes into despotism” (Plato)?
With these questions hanging like a Damoclesian sword above our political mechanisms, it is worthwhile reconsidering the emphasis we place on spreading democracy worldwide as it if were manifest destiny. There may be other, benign alternatives on the horizon that Churchill could not foresee. Globalization and technology are increasingly offering individuals choice, freedom and protection through informal networks and individualized services. This is slowly eating away from centralized power structures. In many ways, the WoT – officially a defensive mechanism fighting for individual freedoms – is damaging the very thing it supposedly needs to preserve. In such an intriguing match-up between centralized democracy and personal liberties, it stands to reason that without the WoT the latter will more easily prevail.
In many ways, the neoconservative project has had the role of hitman for our respectable family business: Although most Westerners never really liked the faces of this aggressive movement with their fundamentalist ideals about democratic imposition around the globe, they did seem to do the necessary dirty jobs. In secret, many were grateful for their illiberal action against threats to our precious system. This duality – or hypocrisy – has proved unsustainable.
John Adams wrote that “democracy…while it lasts is more bloody than either aristocracy or monarchy. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide”. If this is so, the neoconservatives’ dramatic exit needs to be followed-up by a cleaning of our own democratic house and a better preparation for the next thing that the unforgiving path of history throws at our existence. After all, “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” (Abraham Lincoln).