The international community must rediscover its zeal for democracy

March 12, 2014 1:55 pm

International relations nerds must be wondering whatever happened to Democratic Peace Theory. For the uninitiated, this is the simple idea that democracies tend not to go to war with one another and so the best way to solve global conflict is to ensure that as many nations as possible are democratically organised.

As a piece of political spin it has been uncommonly enduring. Woodrow Wilson invoked it first to advocate for America’s involvement in the First World War on the grounds that ”a steadfast concert for peace can never be maintained except by a partnership of democratic nations”. Nearly a century later you could barely get a cigarette paper between this and George Bush’s “Global Democratic Revolution” rhetoric prior to the intervention in Iraq.

Now, the international community seems to have exchanged the zealous language of democracy evangelisation for pom-poms to cheer in unelected leaders from Italy to the Ukraine.

It’s a dramatic shift in consensus, demoting democracy from its status as the most hallowed and unimpeachable weapon in the diplomatic arsenal, to something about which the international community couldn’t give a hoot, and all in the space of a few years.

Glancing at the Middle East, it’s not hard to see why. Few would argue that the imposition of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan had succeeded in bringing about a “democratic peace”. Tragically far from it, as president Hamid Karzai confirmed recently.

But there’s another, perhaps more pertinent explanation. People are increasingly sceptical about whether or not Western concern for other governments has anything to do with the democratic credentials of their leaders. Rather than being the principle employed to avert crises, democracy has successively been relegated to a bureaucratic box reluctantly ticked after the event.

Example par excellence is technocrat Mario Monti of Italy, prime minister for 18 months despite the fact that no one ever voted for him. Imposed by a European community who liked the look of him and judged that he could probably do the job. Perhaps more revealing of the general trend is the Ukraine, and the fascinating obstinacy of certain commenters on the left in calling Yanukovych’s government a regime. Reprehensibly bad it may have been, but a regime it was not.

Clearly, we have lost faith in democracy as a barometer for good government. That vacuum has been occupied by the Western media consensus which has appointed itself judge and jury of foreign governments regardless of their democratic legitimacy. Diplomats ought to be wary of this trend which is extremely dangerous and forgetful of history. In nations where there is little difference between competing parties or where there is a general consensus on governmental priorities, it’s all too easy to forget that the whole system rests upon democratic principle.

As North Korea’s sham election result on Monday reminds us, media consensus is not the way to avoid tyrannical government. A free democracy is prerequisite to a free press and the international community must rediscover its zeal for democracy and insist upon it. In 2011, I accompanied a delegation from North Korea to Prime Minister’s Questions. Afterwards, one of their number, utterly dumbfounded, asked me: “why does Cameron allow the opposition to speak to him that way”. Democracy, not the media, will protect us from ending up like this poor guy. If current patterns in global politics are anything to go by, this is a point we’re in danger of forgetting.

Luke de Pulford

March 12, 2014 1:55 pm

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