‘Imposing democracy’

Eric Hobsbawm has a piece in the Guardian today responding to Bush’s inaugural address and he makes a number of interesting points for discussion but I shall focus briefly on just one, because it is an opinion I’ve heard from a few people in the past days.

The rhetoric implies that democracy is applicable in a standardised (western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it can remedy today’s transnational dilemmas, and that it can bring peace, rather than sow disorder. It cannot.

But is anyone actually suggesting that democracy can be spread in a standardised (western) form?

I realise there is a limit to analyising rhetorical speeches such as Bush’s this week but I felt this passage from him (or probably his speechmaker) answers Hobsbawm’s point well:

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

It will be interesting to see as countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan “make their own way” whether critics of the interventions in those two countries will be able to accept that their political systems “may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own” or whether they will insist on comparisons with the ‘western model’.

I read the American position at the moment as being one of encouraging and assisting people’s to liberate themselves – and as Gene has pointed out on several occassions we will have to see if the reality lives up to the promise of the rhetoric.

Iraq in that sense is exceptional in that the US has directly intervened and has (contrary to the predictions of many critics) insisted upon a democratic route. (It did not appoint Chalabi or Allawi is a dictator but has instead pushed ahead with plans for an election).

But in another sense what is happening in Iraq is not against the spirit of what Bush was talking about. No version of democracy can flourish without being chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.

The upcoming elections are part of that process. The participation of the masses in the vote, their refusal to be intimidated by terrorists and death squads, is an active choice and sadly it seems likely that democracy will very quickly need to be defended.

Such actions by the masses can never be imposed by anyone, not even a superpower – they are by their very nature voluntary and liberating.