DEMOCRACY WEARS A COAT OF MANY COLOURS
Some Background about Democracy
In 1947, Winston Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” 75 years later, that may no longer be true. In ancient Greece Plato was opposed to democratic governance, arguing that it was conducive to mass ignorance, hysteria, and tyranny. He believed expertise to be the critical attribute of a leader and he argued that we should seek out the most knowledgeable candidate.
According to modern criteria for “democracy” the U.S. is regarded as the oldest democracy (and the only country with continuous democracy for more than 200 years), New Zealand ranks third, the United Kingdom fifth and Australia tenth.
The Inevitability of Tragedy[i] describes four American intellectuals, all escapees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Henry Kissinger, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Morgenthau. All were freethinking individuals who opposed tyranny but nurtured a deep suspicion of democracy. They had seen Hitler climb to Germany’s highest office. Not only did democracy fail to prevent the rise of Hitler but it facilitated his rise. Morgenthau considered democracy to be an enemy of diplomacy and an opponent of peace. Where diplomacy requires compromise and accommodation, democratic public opinion polls call for crusades. Strauss and Arendt have been called “antidemocratic” but the author considers them to be “non-democratic”. The real anti-democrat was Morgenthau.
Summit for Democracy
“Democracy needs champions” proclaimed US president Joe Biden in December 2021, welcoming leaders from more than 100 countries to his virtual Summit for Democracy. Some of the invited countries such as India, Brazil, Poland, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Nigeria hardly meet the criteria of “healthy” democracies, flirting instead with autocracy. Unsurprisingly, neither China nor Russia made the guest list, while surprisingly, Singapore was also left out. Egypt, Turkey, and Hungary were not invited. Taiwan was. It came as no surprise when China released a paper arguing that democracy is not measured by elections, but by addressing the concerns of its people. China insists that they deliver better outcomes for their people than Western democracies and that its political system operates as a democracy because it incorporates the voices of all groups in its society through “consultative democracy”.
According to Stephen Walt of Harvard University, the best way to sell democracy is to show that democratic societies outperform autocratic alternatives by delivering citizens a more prosperous, secure, and satisfying life, but the US is in no position to lead this argument. The Economist Intelligence Unit had downgraded the US to a “flawed democracy”. That was before Donald Trump was elected. The bottom line is that effective governance is not the exclusive domain of democratic forms of government. A number of scholars argue that there is something functionally superior about meritocratic, even authoritarian regimes, while democracies may be incapable of addressing all contemporary problems, and they can learn from their non-democratic Asian counterparts.
China’s President Xi’s address to the UN scaled new heights when he said: “Let us unite more closely to create a mutually beneficial partnership and community of a shared future for mankind - a world free of war and enjoying lasting peace. Let development, prosperity, fairness, and justice spread across the world.”[ii]
US Democracy in Crisis
It is time for US policymakers to recognise the growing interdependence of both liberal and non-liberal states in the emerging multipolar world. The great powers have no choice but to coexist. When young Americans look at the country which they will inherit they see a democracy in peril with Washington more interested in confrontation than compromise. According to a recent poll at the Harvard Kennedy School, 52% of respondents aged between 18 and 29 believe that democracy in the US is either in trouble or failing. There is widespread discussion in America about a “red-blue” divide and talk of civil war has become common. A mood of near despair prevails.
In August 2022, Foreign-Policy[iii] noted that Washington was again playing an important role in two major arenas. In Ukraine, the US military supports (arguably drives) Kyiv’s endeavors to repel Moscow, and in Asia it is increasingly focused on containing the rise and influence of China. In discussions with FP, Stephen Wertheim draws attention to the risks undertaken by the US in the hope of securing a strategic defeat of Russia while, in the meantime tensions escalate with China. Wertheim argues that the US is pursuing a very similar foreign policy to that pursued under Donald Trump. While the US has assembled a broad coalition of democracies to impose sanctions against Russia, there are many nations which refuse to participate. They include India, Indonesia, Nigeria, China, and many others. Most are not democracies, and quite a few are proving to be successful and effective autocracies.
What about Australia
There was an air of genuine expectation when the new Australian Labor government led by Anthony Albanese took power following the Federal election in May 2022. However, despite the improved tone, and the launch of a Strategic Review of Australian Defence, the new government appears to be largely following the foreign-policy approach of the ousted Morrison government, particularly with regard to defence and security issues.[iv] The analogy of Biden following Trump is unavoidable! The Australian leadership seems intent on mobilising its forces to join with the US in confronting China. There is growing justification for the view that Australia has abrogated its sovereignty to the US.
All of this ignores the reality that a new world order is rapidly emerging led primarily by “autocratic” nations such as China, India, Brazil, and others who represent the vast majority of the world’s population. How far should Australia go in support of America despite its obvious decline. This approach exposes Australia to a catastrophic conflict with China.
Does Democracy Promote Peace? NO IT DOES NOT!
The often-repeated suggestion that democracy promotes peace is a myth. It guarantees neither peace nor stability. In a paper published only days ago by renowned American author, Jeffrey Sachs, he draws attention to a new database published by Tufts University showing that the US has engaged in more than 100 military interventions since 1991. In fact, the Tufts Military Intervention Project (MIP) reports that the US has undertaken more than 500 international military interventions since 1776. Jimmy Carter was not exaggerating when he said, “The US is the most warlike nation in the history of the world.”
It is worth setting out in detail what Jeffrey Sachs said: The war in Ukraine could and should have been avoided through diplomacy. For years, Putin was saying “Do not expand NATO into the Black Sea, not to Ukraine, much less to Georgia. This will surround us. This will jeopardise our security. Let us have diplomacy.” The United States rejected diplomacy. Sachs continues - despite explicit promises made to Gorbachev and to Yeltsin, the US proceeded. Clinton started the expansion of NATO with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Then George W Bush added Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states – right up to Russia’s border. Then, in 2008, despite opposition from European leaders Bush said NATO would expand to Ukraine and to Georgia. The US created much of what is happening now. US arrogance has brought the world to where we are today!
Western Style Democracy is Not the Only Way
There is a global shift away from the US policy of dividing the world into Western liberal democracies (the “free world”) on one side and “autocracies” on the other. There are other legitimate forms of governance which involve public participation in different ways. In a recent survey of 15 countries in Africa, 53% of respondents said that Western-style democracy was not suitable in the African context. There is no “one-size-fits-all”.
While the Western world, especially the US speaks effusively of India’s commitment to “shared values”, particularly liberal democracy, it ignores the fact that India, the world’s “largest democracy” is no “liberal democracy”. In 2015, Pres Obama said “The world will be a safer and a more just place when our two democracies-the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy, stand together.” However, in To Kill a Democracy, John Keane refers to B.R. Ambedkar who, when drafting the new Indian constitution warned that democracy in India was only “top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic”. He later observed that democracy would not work in India because “We have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with Parliamentary democracy”. In 2019, the Economist described India as a “flawed democracy”. In 2020, the Freedom in the World report ranked India amongst the least free democracies. Despite that, Wikipedia reports that according to a July 2022 opinion poll, Modi enjoys an approval rating of 75% globally and 67% in India, eye watering percentages which leaders in the west can only hope for. India and China (representing more than 35% of the world’s population) refuse to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and they, with many other nations refuse to support US sanctions against Russia.
In the Asian region, the liberal world order appears to be falling apart. The region faces a resurgent China whose one-party rule is dismissive of western liberalism. China’s rulers confidently embrace values which include economic pragmatism and traditional Chinese values. Strong executive-led governments are better at providing services for their people in East Asia, including in China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.
The 10 nations making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with an aggregate population of 683 million people deserves special mention. Each of these nations has its own form of government: Myanmar has a military government; Indonesia has a multiparty Republic; Singapore is a “Semi-democracy” (with its leadership being selected on meritocratic principles); Thailand is a Constitutional Monarchy; Philippines is a Democratic Constitutional Republic, with a Presidential system; Cambodia is a de facto One-party State; Malaysia is a Federal Constitutional Elective Monarchy; Vietnam is a Unitary Marxist-Leninist One-party Socialist Republic; Brunei is an Islamic Sultanate where ultimate authority rests with the Sultan who is both head of state and head of government; Laos is a One-party Socialist Communist State.
Kishore Mahbubani describes ASEAN as the most successful Asian bloc.[v] The different member states have adopted a culture of consultation and consensus leading to harmony, peace, and prosperity, and ultimately producing “geopolitical miracles”. One such miracle was the ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed in 2020 by the 10 member states as well as Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and South Korea. China’s engagement with ASEAN is deep and broad. High-speed railways are being built by China in Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and Thailand and, despite distrust between Hanoi and Beijing, the Metro system in Hanoi is also being built by China. Notably, Australia has a middle-class of 25 million people. ASEAN will soon have a middle-class of several hundred million people. Mahbubani concludes: “Don’t focus on selling submarines. Focus on encouraging US investment and trade in the Indo-Pacific. It’s the economy, stupid.”
Kerry Brown[vi] asks why the West continues to think that China needs to become more like us in the West. Had we observed what was happening before our eyes in China – a viable form of modernity, radically different from the West, we may have been better prepared to cope with the cultural chasm that now exists between China and the liberal west. This may have protected us from the daily diet of shock and panic about China and its success under one-party rule.
Some welcome a trend towards a type of “post-democracy” freed from the curse of “free and fair” elections. China argues that its model is a higher form of democracy, mainly because its leaders are selected on merit rather than through voting (Think Plato), and they get things done. The China model could turn out to be a better functioning image of Western democracies which are now bogged down in dysfunction. Might this be the future of “democracy”.[vii] Singapore has a meritocracy where the People’s Action Party has governed without interruption since 1959. Its leaders are selected, not elected.
A World Order in Disarray
The UN Charter no longer reflects the new world, and this has led to calls for the Security Council to be modernised, and reformed. It consists of five permanent members (P5), and 10 elected members (who serve two-year non-consecutive terms but without a veto). This has remained unaltered since inception in 1945. The five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have the power of “veto” over any Resolution. UN members are bound to accept the decisions of the Security Council. In 1993, then Secretary General, Kofi Annan called for radical reform of the system saying that the time was ripe for structural change, but that has not yet happened. No one setting up the UN today would give veto power and permanent membership of the Security Council to middle ranking powers such as Britain and France, but not to India, Japan, or Germany. The UN is undemocratic rather than democratic.
According to Kishore Mahbubani, the G-7 is dictatorial, while the G-20 (which contains 63% of the world’s people) is democratic. While the G-7 countries are democratic domestically, they are dictatorial globally whereas, although the G-20 has autocratic regimes amongst its membership, it is more representative of the world’s population, and therefore more democratic. Some western leaders threaten to boycott the next G-20 meeting scheduled for November 2022, if Russia’s president Putin attends. Mahbubani concludes, “Ultimately, all eight billion people on Planet Earth are now in the same boat. We will sink or sail together. Let’s use the forthcoming G-20 meeting in Bali wisely to steer this common boat of ours.”
The rules- based world order refers to a set of international arrangements (the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO) maintained by the US and its allies. However, the liberal world order is fraying with the decline in America’s relative power, and the rise of China. Authoritarianism is on the rise, not only in China and Russia but also in Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.[viii] All will demand change and participation in reshaping the “rules-based world order”.
[i] Barry Gewen, 2020 [ii] Rethinking Global Governance by Mark Beeson 2019 [iii] Foreign Policy – Is America Overextending Itself [iv] Various reports in Pearls & Irritations in September 2022 [v] Foreign Policy 12 December 2021 [vi] Brown is Professor of Chinese studies at King’s College, London [vii] When Trees Fall Monkeys Scatter by John Keane 2018 [viii] The World by Richard Haass 2020