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".