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Debate: Imposition of democracy

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Can, and should, democracy ever be imposed on countries?

Background and context

The idea of democracy, although a modern touchstone in Western countries, is a relatively recent development: a legacy of historical revolutions both within and against former colonial powers. At present 120 of the world’s 190 states have fair claims to being democracies (covering over fifty percent of the world’s population). It should be remembered that, whilst democracy in the strictest sense has regard to free, fair, and regular elections, it needs the wider support of the rule of law and respect for the rights of its citizens. Countries in transition, not yet secure in all these areas, include Indonesia and Uganda; more complex are Peru and Haiti (where America intervened to restore democracy in 1994) which need democratic credentials to secure IMF funding. By contrast, Fiji and the Solomon Islands prove that democracy is not necessarily permanent. Here, the proposition cannot expect the opposition to argue for dictatorship, but must argue for the coercive imposition of democracy rather than ‘soft power’ and influence alone. The proposition must decide whether to argue for unilateral (most likely American) action as well as multilateral intervention (by the UN); and, if the former case, must prove that this is a realistic possibility as well as arguing on moral grounds. Examples In 1945, the Allied powers insisted upon the establishment of democratic regimes in West Germany and Japan; American willingness to engage in foreign nation building was largely destroyed by the Viet Nam war. In the 1950s to 1970s, the establishment of democracy was contested in internal and external action in South America, after Roosevelt’s extension of the Monroe Doctrine (arguing that America should intervene in Latin America to pre-empt European involvement). The doctrine of interventionism has been most hotly debated since the end of the Cold War, beginning with the Gulf War in the early 1990s, which vindicated Western military might whilst refraining from toppling Saddam Hussein. In December 1992, George Bush Sr launched ‘Operation Restore Hope’ in Somalia, in response to reports of famine worsened by soldiers stealing food. Intervention in civil war turned into a disaster first for the UN, which lost 151 soldiers and four civilians in attacks on its compounds; and then for the USA, whose helicopter attack on Aideed in 1993 resulted in eighteen deaths. If Somalia demonstrated the problems of intervention, in 1994 ethnic massacres in Rwanda proved the dangers of isolationism, as countries were slow to respond to reports of genocide, wary of invoking their duties according to the 1949 Convention. The question of intervention is largely dependent upon the power of domestic opposition. In Romania, popular uprisings after 1989 overturned the government of Nicolae Ceausescu; whilst in Zimbabwe today the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) attempts to use popular strikes and growing discontent to remove Robert Mugabe from power. In the Middle East, opposition to longstanding governments from the ‘Arab Street’ is treated with caution by American; in favour of democracy yet fearing the popularity of theocratic leaders. Secular governments in Jordan, Syria, and Egypt have, however, demonstrated remarkable staying power. Attitudes to intervention are categorised largely in American terminology. Of those authors mentioned below, Mead divides attitudes into ‘Jacksonian’ (concerned with American prosperity and security), ‘Hamiltonian’ (favouring economic integration), ‘Jeffersonian’ (wary of intervention), and ‘Wilsonian’ (emphasising the moral obligation to promote worldwide democracy). Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institute divides interventionists into ‘assertive nationalists’ and ‘democratic imperialists’ or neoconservatives; the latter including men such as Robert Cooper and Michael Ignatieff. Krauthammer argues that the US is powerful enough to forge its own path in the world; by contrast Nye argues that American supremacy is purely military, that it must cooperate to maintain economic strength, and that there is a third level of economic and international power relations which are not organised by governments.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Merely seeking to influence dictatorships in the direction of democracy is not enough, and internal opposition is often too weak to gain freedom for itself. Countries shrouding themselves in the pretence of elections in order to prevent invasion or to gain international funding must not be allowed to play the system.

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No

It is acceptable to encourage the pursuit of democracy, but this is not the same as imposing it. The desire for, and fight for, democracy must come from within; otherwise the system created will be unable to withstand pressures for long.

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Argument #1

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Yes

History has shown that democratic regimes are the best form of government. Countries have not only the right but also the duty to intervene to liberate others to enjoy their human rights. Furthermore, as war between two true democracies is rare, world peace is enhanced by the removal of repressive regimes.

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No

It is a contradiction in terms to argue that democracy can successfully be imposed. Democracy relies on the rule of law (undermined by military imposition), freedom of choice and independence (destroyed by external determination), and on accountability (impossible when a foreign power chooses one’s rulers).

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Argument #3

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Yes

During the Cold War, Western powers often supported illiberal regimes for reasons of realpolitik. After 1989, there can no longer be an excuse for this. It could be argued that past western complicity in dictatorship requires us to make amends by promoting democracy more aggressively in future.

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No

The hypocrisy of turning on a regime once maintained is morally reprehensible. The new world order cannot be accepted as necessarily a safer place; stability may be safer than universal democracy bought with many lives and a great deal of resentment. The concept of democracy itself may be degraded in the eyes of many if it comes to be associated with invasions undertaken for suspect (e.g. economic) motives.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The worldwide threat from terrorism would be reduced by limiting those states willing to harbour and trade with terrorist groups, as the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security argued. Pre-emptive attacks on illiberal regimes serve to prevent later threats and act as a deterrent against bad behaviour.

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No

The doctrine of pre-emption depends on analysing unclear evidence, and undertaking potentially unjustified invasions. Terrorist groups will merely find greater levels of popular support, and receive funding from citizens in democratic nations. ‘Security’ is merely an excuse for intervening in oil- or resource-rich areas, whilst poorer nations are left to suffer.

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Argument #5

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Yes

It is a fallacy to suggest that the rule of law, or protection for civil rights, is unacceptable in different regions. There are enough types of democracy to allow for social and historical variations – illiberal political parties can always stand for election.

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No

To impose democracy is to foist a set of Western values onto populations with different cultural backgrounds (e.g Islamic, tribal, Confucian). Cultural imperialism must not be armed. To permit the election of former dictators leaves dangerous loopholes for the future. Additionally, according to Fareed Zakaria and his Future of Freedom:Illiberal democracy home and abroad, democracy is not viable in a country that is not economically stable, because during the times of instability and social unrest, people tend to vote for extremist parties (be it religious, economic, or social extremes) that in turn are likely to overthrow democratically elected representatives and impose an authoritarian regime.

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Argument #6

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Yes

When a country is already engaged in conflict or civil war, to bring international power to bear is a way of conflict-resolution. To wait, as occurred in Rwanda, will only do more damage.

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No

To intervene may mean that conflict escalates. Democracy may be encouraged after a war has ended; or dictatorships undermined by economic and cultural sanctions without military action, which is costly in terms of money and lives on all sides.

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Argument #7

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Yes

To rely on multilateral action is utopian. The UN doctrine of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of independent nations means that unilateral or bi-lateral actions are the only realistic possibilities. This is especially important given that China has a veto on the Security Council and other SC regular members are not themselves democracies.

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No

Unilateral action is burdensome, and dangerously dependent upon the political whim of foreign electorates – often unwilling to commit the troops and money for long-term rebuilding of nations. The worst of all scenarios may be a bloody invasion and regime change, followed by anarchy when the external power swiftly withdraws. Even when invaders remain to oversee the installation of a new regime, they may choose pliant appointees rather than risk the uncertainty of true democracy.

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