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  • Writer's pictureMike Lyons


Victorious Democracy?

The ideals and aspirations of Democracy are beyond reproach: freedom of speech; human rights; equality for all; freedom to vote and freedom to choose. However, implementation and execution of these ideals is often flawed.

In 1990, millions watched Nelson Mandela’s speech: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Following the collapse of the Soviet empire, Freedom House reported that the ideal of “liberal democracy” was within reach of the whole world and the “20th Century had become the Democratic Century”. Francis Fukuyama talked of the “End of History” - the ideals of liberal representative democracy and free and fair elections had crushed their competitors.

However, instead of the end of history, humanity was experiencing the return of history, the return of Asia and the return of the world’s most populous societies, China and India. The period since 1945 has witnessed many setbacks for democracy. By the mid-1970s, the number of military dictatorships had nearly tripled to 38.


Hugh Mackay talks of Australia’s system leaving voters disillusioned and disenchanted, stuck with a Westminster-style of Parliament which builds adversarialism and triumphalism into the process. Instead of working together, politicians are more interested in furthering their own careers. Mackay suggested a strategy of electing more independent members. With the Australian Federal election on 21 May 2022, that is exactly what has happened!

Thanks in large part to the success of the Independent “Teals”, the Morrison led LNP has been swept from power, replaced by a Labor government. For the most part, this outcome is a welcome and refreshing change but not entirely without cost. In the process, the nation has suffered the loss of an outstanding, highly effective Treasurer, and potential future leader, Josh Frydenberg and it is instead exposed to the possibility of Peter Dutton becoming the next leader of the LNP.

Under new leadership, there is a real opportunity for a reset of Australia’s major trade relationship with China. That does not mean that they need to kiss and make up, but it is surely time for a different, more nuanced tone, and for diplomacy to take centre stage instead of Australia’s increasingly shrill and ideological framing of the “China threat”. This not only harms Australia’s national interests, but also undermines its position in South-east Asia where governments do not wish to choose sides and instead pursue expansion of their economic relationships with China.

Democratic India

In 1947, India became the world’s “largest democracy”, but it was no “liberal” democracy. A 2019 Economist report classified India as a “flawed democracy”. A 2020 Freedom in the World report ranked India amongst the least free democracies. In his 2021 book, To Kill a Democracy (the entire book is about India), John Keane (Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney, a prolific author, and globally respected for his writings about democracy) 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”. Later, Ambedkar observed that democracy was not going to work in India because “We have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with parliamentary democracy”. Keane talked of India becoming the world’s largest failing democracy.

“Monitory Democracy”

In The Shortest History of Democracy (2022), Keane describes a new species of democracy, called “monitory democracy”. This is a variant of liberal democracy. It is defined by the emergence of extra-Parliamentary power-scrutinising mechanisms, so that those who wield power are routinely subject to public monitoring, accountability, and restraint.

However, only weeks before the Australian Federal election, then PM Morrison dumped an earlier promise to create a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, referring instead to the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) as a “kangaroo court”. He argued that giving too much influence to such an organisation risked handing sweeping powers to unelected officials!

China’s “Phantom Democracy”

In his book, When Trees Fall Monkeys Scatter (2018), Keane explores China’s political system, describing it as a “phantom democracy or “democracy made in China” or even a “post-democracy”. China contends that its model is a higher form of democracy because its leaders are selected on merit, and they get things done. Keane suggests that the world might witness the birth of a post-democratic future as an alternative to monitory democracy, and he adds, “The China model could turn out to be a better functioning image of Western democracies which are bogged down in dysfunction.”

In tiny Singapore, Finance Minister, Lawrence Wong appears to have been anointed by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) as its next prime minister. He is expected to succeed current Prime Minister, Lee who has served as Prime Minister since 2004, and has recently turned 70. Lee is the son of the Nation’s founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew who was Prime Minister (1959-1990). It seems inconceivable in the West for a political party to remain in power for decades. However, the PAP has governed without interruption since 1959 and has proved to be highly successful, and popular. Its leaders are selected on merit. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has run Japan for more than five decades. East Asian societies are more comfortable with political continuity.

China’s progress over the last four decades shows that the Western model is not the only one.

Since 2000, China has experienced growth unlike any in human history. Why should the West think China should change and become more like the it? Had the West been willing to open its eyes, and to comprehend what was happening in China, this may have protected it from its daily diet of shock and panic about China’s ever looming presence.

Democracies V Autocracies

Liberal democracies face global competition in countries such as Turkey, Russia, Hungary, Iran, and China, all of which have the capacity to win the loyalty of their subjects. Chinese critics are scathing in their attack on American-style liberal democracy, arguing that the “democracy trap” produces social divisions, political strife, instability, and weak and feeble governments. Liberal democracy neither puts the people in charge, nor their interests uppermost, and it ultimately serves the interests of only a tiny minority. Order and strong government is what is offered by the rulers of so-called “despotisms” as alternatives to democracy, strengthened by their belief that Western democracy is falling apart.

Donald Trump’s presidency set the pace, spreading disinformation, undermining the rule of law, even accelerating the drift towards armed rule. One of the most commonly advanced arguments for democracy is the ability of democracies to change their leaders by frequent elections. While that may be true, one need only consider the US switch from Obama to Trump, and then from Trump to Biden. Arguably, the United States of America (and the rest of the world) would have been better off and safer, had it (“Asia style”) found and stuck with a competent and effective leader. Instead, it lurches from one hostile political party to the next.

Democracy Promotes Peace – Not True!

As Jimmy Carter said at 94 years of age, “The US is the most warlike nation in the history of the world.” The US has spent decades pursuing an unsuccessful foreign policy of “liberal hegemony”. This has led to disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, costing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Efforts to contain communism have been brutal. The US waged war, laying waste to parts of the Korean Peninsula and later to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Millions were killed. The policy of promoting liberalism abroad has been a failure at almost every turn. While the US seeks to promote its democratic values with missionary zeal, China does not proselytise, and (despite Western propaganda) it has no plans to overthrow democracy.

Now, in 2022, America is at it again, seeking to undermine, weaken, and potentially destroy Russia, using Ukraine as its “proxy”. This paper is not about the Ukrainian war (about which more is to be written). However, a recent opinion piece published on 16 May 2022 by Quincy Institute[i] argues that the Ukraine war has also become America’s war, a proxy conflict between the US and Russia. The US and NATO engagement in this conflict is palpable, even without “boots on the ground”. In response to the question whether the US would be open to accepting Ukraine as an unaligned neutral nation, Secretary of State, Blinken was at best ambivalent. Direct Russia-Ukrainian talks had taken place in March 2022 on the basis of Ukrainian neutrality, security guarantees, and territorial settlements over the Donbass, but those negotiations broke down. Without US supporting a diplomatic solution, there is little chance that Ukraine alone can find its way to a reasonable compromise. Instead, as US Congressman, Dan Crenshaw stated, “Investing in the destruction of our adversary’s military, without losing a single American troop, strikes me as a good idea.”

The US Role

The US could and should have intervened to prevent this disastrous conflict. It should and could have taken urgent steps to mediate a settlement. Instead, while countries such as France, Turkey, Hungary, and Israel have endeavoured to mediate, the US (and NATO) have unashamedly aided and abetted this war, pouring billions of dollars into the conflict.

After NATO opened the door to membership for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008, respected US commentator, Tom Friedman said, “There is one thing future historians will surely remark upon, and that is the utter poverty of imagination that characterised US foreign policy in the late 1990s. One of the seminal events of this century took place between 1989 and 1992 – The Soviet Empire collapsed without a shot, spawning a democratic Russia, setting free the former Soviet republics, and leading to unprecedented arms control agreements with the US. And what was America’s response? It was to expand the NATO Cold-War alliance against Russia and bring it closer to Russia’s borders.”

The world may now be closer to nuclear catastrophe than ever before. It is impossible to predict the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, but if the past is any predictor of the future, it is worth recalling Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

[i] The mission of the Quincy Institute is to promote ideas which move US foreign policy away from endless war and towards vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace.

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