THE QUESTION OF (LIBERAL) DEMOCRACY
A disclaimer: I love chaotic, democratic Australia. There is much to be said for the ideals of Democracy, but as Churchill hinted, Democracy is not perfect, and it is Democracy’s dysfunctionality that deserves deeper analysis and consideration.
In 1947 Winston Churchill declared that “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all of those other forms which have been tried from time to time”. That was hardly an unqualified endorsement and can barely justify the messianic zeal with which the West in general, and the United States, in particular pursues democracy promotion. Churchill was only half right as democracy remains the least-worst option for many, but not for everyone. The 21stcentury is seeing Western democracy confronted by rival political systems so that Democracy is no longer the only game in town.
Today, pragmatic authoritarianism presents a real alternative for many. The biggest success of the Chinese state has been its ability to take decisive action. That system projects itself as meritocratic in which its politicians rise on the basis of complex tests and experience which value competence over charisma. Jason Brennan, a 21st century philosopher argues that we took a chance on democracy, waiting to see how it would turn out, and he asks, why do we assume that democracy is the only experiment we are allowed to run, even when it has run out of steam.[i]
Governance is a government’s ability to make and enforce rules and to deliver services for its people, but effective government is not the exclusive domain of democracy. Many scholars suggest that there is something functionally superior about “meritocratic”, even authoritarian regimes, and democratic systems may be incapable of addressing contemporary problems. They can learn from their non-democratic Asian counterparts.[ii]
North and East Asia
Western interpretations claim that China’s “authoritarian” system is the opposite of liberal democracy. However, others welcome the idea of “post-democracy”, freed from the curse of “free and fair” elections and showbiz democracy. John Keane[iii] quotes Voltaire 250 years ago: “The great misunderstanding of Chinese rites sprang from our judging their practices in light of ours.” It is possible that “democracy made in China” will survive, and even thrive, confounding those who claim it is an authoritarian regime in need of liberal democracy.
According to Keane, China is infused with elements of democracy “made in China”, what he describes as “phantom democracy”. Millions of its citizens see their rulers as protecting their best interests. The China model could turn out to be better functioning than the Western model which seems bogged down in dysfunction. The world may be witnessing the birth of a post-democratic future.
In 1942, Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy as a competition between teams of salesmen to get the voters to buy their product. Plato warned that democracy was the rule of the mob (Trump?), and he considered the best form of ruler to be a “philosopher king”. Despite Western anxieties, China has no plans to undermine or overthrow democracy. On the other hand, many Americans believe they have a moral responsibility to overthrow a “tyrannical” Communist Party system and to liberate the Chinese people from oppression. They imagine America to be a “shining city on the hill” with a duty to promote human rights in China, even as they fail to implement these values in practice. The American government has tortured and killed thousands of innocent Muslims since 9/11 and has dropped thousands of bombs on Islamic countries, killing many innocent civilians.[iv]
Democracy is not a one size fits all proposition. While it is not conceivable in the West for a party to remain in power for several decades, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has effectively run Japan for more than five decades and the People’s Action Party of Singapore has been in office for more than 60 years. East Asian societies are more comfortable with political continuity and China’s progress over the last four decades has shown that the Western model is not the only one.
Escapees from Nazi Germany
Hitler was a Democrat who climbed to Germany’s highest office through electoral, and legal methods. Democracy could not prevent catastrophe. Kissinger, along with Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and Hans Morgenthou were all German Jews who escaped to America from the horrors of Nazi Germany. Each emerged as a major public intellectual. They were freethinking individuals who opposed tyranny but, with their Nazi experience, nurtured a deep suspicion of democracy. They have been called “anti-democratic” although, in the case of Strauss and Arendt, it would be more accurate to call them “non-democratic”. They watched democracy facilitate the rise of a tyrant, and they could never become conviction Democrats. Arguably, the real anti-Democrat was Morgenthou who contended that when diplomacy requires compromise and accommodation, democratic public opinion polls call for crusading. While the US seeks to promote its democratic “Wilsonian” values with missionary zeal, seeing US as a “force for good”, China does not proselytise. Instead, its major concern is to maintain internal stability, believing that democracy would be a recipe in China for disorder and chaos.[v]
USA and Liberalism
The US has spent the last quarter century pursuing an ambitious, unrealistic, and mostly unsuccessful foreign policy of “liberal hegemony”, seeking to spread liberal principles of democratic governance while identifying itself as the “indispensable nation”. The strategy is flawed, and it has led to costly quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, squandering trillions of dollars, and costing thousands of lives. Liberal democracy is in retreat in many places and democracy may be losing some of its appeal. The US has grown more dysfunctional, while authoritarian regimes have proved to be resilient. China continues to enjoy impressive economic growth while Russia has regained its status as a great power. Quasi-Democrats such as Erdogan in Turkey and Orban in Hungary remain popular.[vi]
George Kennan, a former US ambassador to the Soviet Union asserted that democracy was not necessarily the future of all mankind and he urged restraint. However, during the Cold War the US pursued intervention, conducting one operation after another to overthrow foreign governments, assassinate foreign leaders and invade foreign countries. From 1947 to 1989, there were 72 attempts by the US to change the governments of other nations. Elections were interfered with, governments overthrown, and democratically elected leaders assassinated.[vii]
Containment of communism was brutal. The US waged war, laying waste to parts of the Korean peninsula and later to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Millions were killed. In Vietnam, 13 million gallons of Agent Orange were dropped. The Vietnam War was one of the most significant (failed) attempts at world ordering undertaken by an American government. George W Bush failed to understand that by invading Afghanistan and Iraq, America was effectively acting as a recruiting agent for the jihadist movement. Bush tried to reform the Middle East by “liberating” its citizens through force and installing a democratic model. His belief that overthrowing Saddam would lead to democracy in the Middle East was an abject failure.[viii]
Both the Democratic and Republican Parties are wedded to promoting liberalism abroad even though the policy has been a failure at almost every turn. The US targeted Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria thinking they could install stable democracies, friendly to the US. Instead, they brought killing and destruction to the greater Middle East and committed the US to endless wars. Liberal democracy is not perfect, and in the realm of international politics it is a source of endless trouble, with liberal states using force attempting to turn autocracies into liberal democracies.[ix]
However, this is likely to change as the international system moves towards multipolarity due to China’s rise, the resurrection of Russian power, and the emergence of other powers.
Shortly before the final takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in August 2021, British writer, Tom Fowdy reported in RT how decades of propping up Afghanistan had arguably been the biggest humiliation of Washington since the Vietnam war. Washington believed that building a democracy in Afghanistan would somehow defeat international terrorism, but the US occupation did not change Afghanistan. It merely brushed that country’s problems under the carpet for 20 years and those years have seen tens of thousands of lives lost and $2 trillion spent, all for naught.
The Asia Times reported how the seamless Taliban victory undermined American’s credibility, raising questions about its long-term commitment to its allies elsewhere, especially in Asia. Images of US choppers rescuing desperately stranded diplomats and residents in Kabul revived dark memories of the “Fall of Saigon” in 1975.
The following appeared on 21 August 2021 in the South China Morning Post: “If you ever feel useless, just remember that the United States took four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years, to replace Taliban with Taliban”. The article continued, “After the fall of the Kabul regime, the Taiwan authorities must be trembling.” Following its abandonment of Afghanistan, US allies and the rest of the world will find it harder to believe in Biden’s pledge that “America Is Back”. America, it seems has turned its back!
In 2015, President 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, B.R. Ambredkar who drafted the new Indian Constitution warned that democracy in India was only “top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic”. When asked in a BBC interview if he thought that democracy would work in India, he replied “NO”, adding that democracy would not work because “we have got a social structure which is totally incompatible with Parliamentary democracy”.
To Kill A Democracy[x]describes how the Western world, especially the US, speaks effusively of India’s commitment to liberal democracy and yet, tragically, page after page describes how Indian democracy has been a failure. In 2019, The Economist described India as a “flawed democracy”, and in 2020, a Freedom in the World report ranked India amongst the least free democracies. Under Modi it seems that Indian democracy is experiencing “social death”, leading to despotism.
According to the authors, democracies include freedom from hunger, humiliation, and violence, the rejection of religious bigotry, and respect for women and tenderness for children, as well as hygienic living conditions and freedom from fear. India fails to achieve any of those aspirations. After seven decades since Indian independence, massive social injustices threaten the story of India as the world’s largest and most successful new democracy. A Modi adviser declared that “too much” democracy in India keeps it from effecting meaningful reforms while others contend that most people want strong leadership which gets things done, and they do not care about freedom of speech or independent media, arguing that despotism is actually more democratic, giving the people what they want.
America’s unipolar moment in the sun has come and gone. The emergence of a multipolar world, applying Kissinger’s concepts of Realism and Détente, balance of power, compromise, accommodation, and the recognition of alternative systems of government holds out the prospect of a safer world. The US policy of containing China, an uncontainable adversary, sounds desperate and counterproductive. If Afghanistan cost trillions of dollars, the cost of this ongoing quixotic US adventure is unimaginable. It is in the overwhelming interests of the US (and the rest of the world) for America to work with, not against China.
After so many failures, there must surely be enough reasons for the US to seek a path of cooperation and collaboration rather than one of confrontation and containment.
[i] David Runciman (Professor of Politics at Cambridge University), How Democracy Ends, 2018
[ii] Mark Beeson (Prof of International Politics at University of Western Australia), Rethinking Global Governance, 2019 [iii] John Keane, Professor of Politics, Sydney University, When Trees Fall, Monkeys Scatter, 2018 [iv] Kishore Mahbubani (Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and former Singapore Ambassador to the UN), Has China Won? 2020 [v] Barry Gewen, The Inevitability of Tragedy-Henry Kissinger, and his World, 2020 [vi] Stephen M. Walt (Prof of International Affairs, Harvard University), The Hell of Good Intentions, 2018 [vii] Michael Pembroke (Former Judge of the Supreme Court, NSW), Play by the Rules, 2020 [viii] Dilip Hiro, After Empire, 2010 [ix] John Mearsheimer (Professor Political Science, University of Chicago), The Great Delusion, 2019 [x] J Keane & R Chowdhury, To Kill a Democracy, 2021