Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Hammer of Democracy

The Asia Times columnists known as Spengler comes out against the notion that the spread democracy leads to peace.
The trouble is that entire peoples frequently find themselves faced with probable or inevitable ruin, such that no peaceful solution can be found. ... A people facing cultural extinction typically will choose war, if war offers even a slim chance of survival.

Paradoxically, it is possible for wars of annihilation to stem from rational choice, for the range of choices always must be bounded by the supposition that the chooser will continue to exist. Existential criteria, that is, trump the ordinary calculus of success and failure. If one or more of the
parties knows that peace implies the end of its existence, there exists no motive to return to peace.

While I won't go into a detailed critique of his argument, broadly speaking I think he is onto something. We tend to confuse Western, liberal, secular democracy as it currently exists with Democracy as culturally neutral political mechanism. Modern Western democracy is much more than simply a way to select leaders.

We can and are exporting Democracy as a political system but we cannot export the nexus of cultural values and assumptions that support and sustain the Western democratic tradition. We can and are teaching others how to hold elections, build legislative coalitions, peacefully transfer power between governments, and all the other technical functions of a formally democratic system. We cannot export to non-Western cultures such values as individualism, civil rights, the freedoms of speech and of religion, female equality, etc. These must grow organically from the culture itself.

Spreading formal democracy to cultures without robust traditions of individual freedom, secularism, rule of law, etc, is a very dangerous proposition. Egypt, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Authority are contemporary cases in point. Democratically elected governments would certainly be more inclined to war against other democracies (India and Israel) than the current autocracies.

Why then do we do it? Why do we insist on spreading democracy to alien cultures across the globe, some with a few of the sustaining values mentioned above, others with none at all?

  • We were impressed by the outbreak of democracy in Europe after the implosion of communism. Here were oppressed peoples who had never known democracy but who embraced it with enthusiasm. However, we forgot that, despite the interlude of the Cold War, these were European nations that shared our cultural patrimony.
  • After 9/11 we no longer trust autocracies, especially Arab autocracies, even those we have helped keep in power for nearly 30 years, like Egypt.
  • And it's all we know to do. Democracy is the worst form of government except for all others but this is a very low standard. Life is filled with bad choices and we have tried to select the least bad option.

In our toolbox we have a hammer labeled Democracy. The world is filled with problems. Until a better tool comes along, we are going to call these problems "nails".


Pastorius said...

My friend, you are a very good writer, but I have to ask you, how did we export Democracy to Japan?

The answer is, by being as ruthless to their ideology after the war, as we were to their military, and government during the course of the war.

For instance, we mandated that the Japanese would no longer be able to worhip their Emperor.

That's the kind of thing we need to do in the ME. We can win, if we handle it correctly.

Pastorius said...

That being said, I am very happy that we have so many great writers with varying opinions here at IBA. These issues need to be debated.

Oscar in Kansas said...

Pastorius - Thanks. I was going to post an appendix about Japan on my blog but I'll drop it in here since you asked.

For example, we can persuade nations to codify equality for women into their Constitutions but if the culture does not accept this as a value then it will never be implemented. Take Japan for instance. In many ways Japan is a spectacular success in creating a democratic system in a non-Western nation. The exception that proves the rule some would say.

But among other things Japanese culture has only partially accepted the value of female equality and women's rights (and guess which part accepted it and which didn't). This is not an abstract issue. Japanese men, and by extension Japanese businesses, government, and academia, still value women in the traditional role of wife/mother/servant.

Women, however, chafe under these constrains. Two of the most damaging results of this are the lack of economic opportunity for educated and ambitious women to contribute to the stagnant Japanese economy; and the abyssmal birthrate as women prefer to remain single and childless rather than suffer in a marriage to what they see as a paleo-traditional Japanese man. Democracy, yes. Successful society? With a birthrate around 1.29 and no immigration the future does not look good. It looks old and frail and shrinking.

Oscar in Kansas said...

And that's just a small example. When I lived in Japan 10 years ago I met a 60ish man in my neighborhood. A soldier from Iowa taught him English as a teenageer after the war. When I knew him he ran a school that taught English. He told me many interesting things about Japan but the best soundbite was this. "Japan has a veneer of modernism over a feudal society." The more I saw of Japan both in person and through my in-laws, the more I saw this as an essential truth.

Japan is a formal democracy. The political system obeys and respects democratic procedures but the culture and society at large is a kind of benign neo-feudal order. Big corporations, big unions, and big government run the nation with the passive acceptance of the populace.

A nice place to visit but neither I nor my wife want to live there.

Pastorius said...

Well, good point. I hardly know what to say.

But, here's the interesting thing. Japan has been peaceful for 60 years, and the fact that women refuse to participate in the older traditions indicates that there will likely be change.

Think about it this way, women here in Ameruca put up with inequality for a very long time, and they did so passively. The Japanese women are taking action by not marrying.

And why are they taking action? Because they have America as an example.

If we could just improve life of women in the ME half as much as we improved the lives of women in Japan, then we would have done a very good thing.

As for the neo-feudal style of Japanes life, I think you mean something along the lines of, their lives are basically birth-school-work-death. They are enslaved to corporations by a system of honor. There is little individual life.

Is that what you mean? Certainly, we can see that is true. However, I also see, in the whole anime phenomenon, and the music of Shonen Knife, and Pizzicato Five, that there is a birth of creativity going on among the young people in Japan.

You must have observed the beginnings of that.

What do you say?

Oscar in Kansas said...

No doubt the Japanese are quite creative. However most of what Americans see as Japanese culture is ignored in Japan. I used to ask people if they watched Kirosawa films. Huh? Who? He is all but unknown in the under-40 crowd. Mishima? Same thing. Shonen Knife, Cibo Matto, same. Sort of how Woody Allen is more popular in France but to a greater extreme.

Japan has been radically transformed by the US. I am not saying that. But we should in no way confuse the Japanese system with a Western democracy. Even in a purely formal sense their democracy is very different from our. One party lead, the LDP, every government for something like 40 or 45 years.

And Japan and Korea both exist inside the American security umbrella. This tends to restrain nationalist sentiment. Without this, the chances of conflict in East Asia would greatly increase.

I think my larger point is the Japan is a special case and one not likely to be duplicated in Iraq or anywhere else in the MidEast. We have tens of thousands of troops in Japan 60 years after WW2. We won't have 10 platoons in Iraq 6 years from now.