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Exporting Democracy

The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea

by Bob Rae

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list price: $29.99
also available: Paperback
published: 2010
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The way most Western politicians talk, democracy is the pinnacle of civilization, the best political system there is. Many think it's the system the rest of the world ought to adopt. Bob Rae is not one of them. He is too well informed about the difficulties and dangers of implanting democracy in foreign lands. Exporting Democracy is an eloquently argued book in which Rae brings his lively, nuanced understanding to bear on the history and current fortunes of this powerful idea. He shows how it and the related ideas of freedom, human rights, and federalism have been pushed to centre stage by the collapse of Soviet communism and by ongoing wars to topple secular and religious dictatorships in the Middle East. He's also witnessed attempts to implant democracy in three countries riven by tribal and ethnic divisions, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, and offers readers a cool appraisal of the effort.

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Chapter 1
The Challenge of Sharing Democracy and Human Rights
Today it’s possible for people in almost half the countries of the world to say, “We’re democrats now.” This does not mean that democracy can be taken for granted, that history is over, or that different people mean the same things when they say these words. But it does mean that what was, for much of the last two hundred years, a Western idea has become widely adopted as the political gold standard. From Indonesia to Estonia, from Chile to Iraq, people have claimed the democratic idea as their own. As I write these words, people are in the streets of Thailand campaigning for democratic accountability. In Afghanistan, women are worrying that “reconciliation” will mean their rights are abandoned. In Russia, demonstrators hold simultaneous rallies across the country to reaffirm that they want their rights respected and their government held accountable. It would seem that Thomas Jefferson was right. Democracy is truly an infectious idea.
Many governments say they value democracy deeply, but their practices often fall far short of their ideals. What should the rest of the world do when countries flout human rights? Does the standard of what to do vary depending on whether that country is rich or poor, powerful or weak? Should cultural traditions trump equality rights?
These questions seem simple enough. But after listening to a wide range of opinions over the past several years, and working in a number of countries, I have learned that the answers are never easy.
If Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill were to meet today in a Highgate coffee shop in London, they would no doubt scratch their heads at the state of the world around them. Each in his own way – and using very different arguments – was convinced that a more rational world would lead to a decline in religious zealotry. In Marx’s view, a well-led proletariat, conscious of its economic role, would overthrow the institutions and prejudices of feudal and bourgeois societies. The result inevitably would be a better world, one of scientific production, material abundance, and general enlightenment, where the division of labour, which alienates man from his true self, would be no more. Mill’s view was less utopian, less grandiose, and more practical, but no less optimistic: progress would be steady, rational, and benign as the world became more prosperous, tolerant, open-minded, and liberal.
Their century, the nineteenth, was a time of radical and optimistic ideas, but it was also a time of expanding empires, of ideologies based on racial superiority and hatred. Nationalism arose from the need of communities to have their voice heard, but it came with a price – the harsh view that “my tribe is better than yours.” Ultimately, these competing empires and ideologies clashed in the first and second world wars.
The twentieth century was both the most liberal and the most barbaric in human history. Fanaticism, religious hatred, ideological zealotry, and an infinite capacity for cruelty proved to be deadly when combined with technological prowess and an insatiable appetite for empire and control. Hence Gandhi’s entirely apt response when asked what he thought of Western civilization: “It would be a good idea.”
Yet during these dark times other ideas emerged: the importance of international law in dealing with disputes between nations, and the creation of institutions to enforce these laws. The recognition of a community of nations in 1648 at Westphalia, which ended thirty years of religious warfare in Europe; the condemnation of slavery in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna; the creation of the Red Cross in 1863 and the signing of the first Geneva Convention a year later; the establishment of the World Court in 1908; the League of Nations in 1919, and in 1945 the founding of the United Nations; the judgement at Nuremberg; and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, followed three years later by the Convention on Genocide; in 2002 the International Criminal Court; and in 2006 the Security Council Resolution on the Responsibility to Protect – these are all the result of the effort to create an international order whose purpose is to express our common yearning for security, peace, and the chance to fulfill our ambitions as human beings in a co-operative world. None of these accomplishments has come easily, and these aspirations are frequently dashed by politics.
When we talk about democracy, what do we actually mean? The word means “rule of the people,” but it is only relatively recently that its meaning is complimentary. Few people today who aspire for public support would fail to describe themselves as democrats.” It has become the common working assumption of politics. For many thousands of years this was not the case. The citizens of ancient Greece were the first to adopt democracy, and Pericles of Athens was among the first recorded to sing its praises: “We Athenians decide public questions for ourselves or at least endeavour to arrive at a sound understanding of them. . . They want to be free and to rule.” (Dunn, 28-29)
But far from everyone in Athens was a citizen and entitled to these rights – women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded. And just a generation after Pericles, Plato insisted that the rule of virtue and of the virtuous was far preferable to the rule of the people. When Plato’s student Aristotle wrote of the demos, he meant the mob, the unruly majority who could be mobilized and swayed one way or the other by the unscrupulous. Democracy was not, for the ancients, the most desirable of systems, because it could lead to a world out of balance. The best government was one that encouraged the arts, prosperity, and the pursuit of learning. It required leaders who understood this, and who themselves accepted limits to their power.
The democratic idea went into hibernation after its earliest emergence some twenty-five hundred years ago. It would take the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment to give it new life, and the American and French revolutions to give it the vibrancy that is still with us today.
In the 1950s, C.B. Macpherson, the Canadian scholar and teacher of politics, wrote about “the real world of democracy,” in which different kinds of democracy competed with each other. Macpherson tried to make the case that the countries of both the Soviet bloc and the Third World had as much right to claim they were democracies as the liberal, capitalist democracies of the West. Liberal democrats should not, he argued, think their model is the only form of democracy.
Macpherson was way off the mark about the state of democracy in the Soviet Union and its satellites, to say nothing of China. Today, the idea that “non-liberal” systems like the Soviet Union had a “genuinely historical claim to the title democracy” seems perverse. Just because regimes use the word democracy doesn’t mean they are democratic. Poland in the 1950s was a communist dictatorship that called itself a “workers’ democracy.” The abuse of democracy is widespread, and no regime’s propaganda proves its own legitimacy.
Human rights, the rule of law, the independence of judges, and respect for constitutional order are all values that today seem intrinsic to liberty and democracy. Yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the workers’ movements that ultimately gave rise to social democracy were fighting for freedom. Freedom, they argued, didn’t just mean the right of employers to buy and sell labour. It had to mean the right of workers to form unions and to use the political process to force governments to ensure universal access to health care, pensions, a minimum standard of living for everyone.
There are other key elements to our sense of democracy. Freedom of speech and association mean little without a free press of diverse opinions and political parties able to mobilize oppositions as well as governments. It is not enough that there are courts. There also have to be judges at liberty to make rulings.
Democracy, freedom, and the rule of law may not be technically synonymous, but in the West they are intimately connected in our minds and political practice. Democracy means being able to choose our governments and our leaders. But it is about far more than elections. It’s about being fairly treated by the police and courts, about being able to make a living and keep something for ourselves as well as contribute to common services through taxes. It’s about being able to make our way without being told that the door of opportunity is barred because of the colour of our skin, or the language we speak, or the religion we practise, or our gender, or our sexual orientation. The equality we seek is not absolute equality of condition or outcome, but it is about being treated fairly and without discrimination.
The expansion of democracy to include everyone has meant several dramatic changes. Today, being a property owner is not a requirement for political participation. We take this for granted, but it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Fear of the demos was used to limit the franchise, to ensure that constitutional order and social privilege were protected by keeping most people down, out, and under control. Even as he was contemplating an expanded political and social order, John Stuart Mill was arguing that university graduates should have more than one vote, that the wise guidance of the more intelligent was needed to offset the risk of too much power in the hands of an unguided people.
Property qualifications limited the franchise throughout the industrialized world until well into the twentieth century. But property was not the only barrier. In the United States, for example, Thomas Jefferson, an architect of the Declaration of Independence and advocate of the revolutionary cause, was a slaveholder, as were George Washington and many of the “founding fathers.” Even those, like the great English reformer William Wilberforce, who argued against the injustice of slavery in the British Empire and around the world, would not have accepted non-whites as equal citizens and as voters. Lincoln came to sign the Proclamation that freed the slaves in the middle of the Civil War only when he saw that it was politically the wiser and necessary course. At its outset, the Civil War in the United States was not about freeing the slaves; it was about maintaining the union.
Slavery was widespread at the time of the Declaration of Independence, a fact that even today we gloss over when we talk of the “wisdom of the Founding Fathers.” The exclusion of slaves from citizenship was set out in detail in U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision for the majority in the Dred Scott case of 1857.
Dred Scott, his wife, Harriet, and their two daughters were slaves brought back from a “free state” (Illinois) to Missouri by their owner, John Emerson. After Emerson died, Dred Scott sued his widow for his freedom, on the grounds that he had gained his freedom and was no longer a slave. After the suit was dismissed, he sued again in federal court, this time against John Sandford, the executor of Emerson’s estate. The ultimate decision of the U.S. Supreme Court was that a “free negro of the African race,” whose ancestors were brought to the United States and sold as slaves, was not a citizen within the meaning of the Constitution. The decision of the court was delivered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney:
In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument. . . . This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion. . . . And, accordingly, a negro of the African race was regarded by them as an article of property, and held, and bought and sold as such, in every one of the thirteen colonies which united in the Declaration of Independence and afterwards formed the Constitution of the United States. (Supreme Court of the United States)
Taney exaggerates the unanimity of opinion about slavery in 1776. John Locke, one of the intellectual fathers of modern liberalism, was a critic of slavery, and the anti-slavery movement had its roots deep in British Protestant thought. Neither Thomas Paine nor Edmund Burke were supporters, and slavery was abolished in Upper Canada, for example, only twenty years after the Declaration of Independence. But the Taney judgment is important because it reminds us how deeply engrained slavery was in the first avowed democracy in the world.
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863 but it took another hundred years of struggle before the passage of civil rights and voting legislation ensured the minimum legal protection for African Americans seeking to exercise their franchise.
Racial exclusion was the rule in many countries at the time. The expectation of the conquerors of the Americas was that native populations would be either wiped out or completely assimilated, in rapid order. Throughout the hemisphere, European settlement was a brutal business. Disease and military adventure took a terrible toll, with deaths in the millions across both continents. The Beothuk of Newfoundland were annihilated by disease, and aboriginal populations everywhere were treated as savages to be converted, corralled into reservations, abused as workers, and disregarded as human beings until they assimilated. Grotesque efforts to “take the Indian out of the child” by governments and churches led to severe personal and cultural trauma, and have left a legacy of poverty and exclusion.
From Baffin Island in the north to Cape Horn in the south, every country in the Americas is wrestling with diversity and competing traditions and memories. Democracy in all of these countries has to deal with the terrible gap between peoples. New legal and constitutional structures are being created to come to terms with this world in a way that is respectful of human rights and different ways of life. But the pace of change is slow and uneven, and it is always those without power and resources who pay the price for delay.
This issue plays itself out in every part of the globe. The imperial experience has left huge scars. South Africa’s apartheid system enshrined different rights, different places to live, work and play, in a grim pyramid of inequality and prejudice whose relatively peaceful dismantlement has to be seen as one of the triumphs of our time.
We cannot understand the politics of China and India and so many other countries of the Third World unless we make the effort to imagine what the “opening up” of these countries was like when Europe, and later the United States, took it upon themselves to make the world over in their own images. The spread of “Western values” was not just about the rule of law and better education. It was about the subjugation of vast swaths of the world to the economic benefit of the imperial power. It was also, unavoidably, about racial superiority, keeping natives out, labelling people by race and colour, creating hierarchies of worth and wealth. That was as true for the British in Africa and Asia as it was for the Dutch in Indonesia and the Americans in the Philippines.
Property and race were not the only ways of keeping the people at bay. Sex and gender have also been a battleground for centuries, and overcoming these barriers has been at the heart of the long movement toward democracy.
One of the most trenchant critiques of Edmund Burke’s assault on the French Revolution (which we’ll come to in the next chapter) came from a remarkable woman, Mary Wollstonecraft. She followed her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) with her powerful Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which was at least as revolutionary a concept as the abolition of the monarchy.
The politics of most of history have been patriarchal, and in many places still are. Women were to be protected or abused, confined to the world of the home and family, denied the right to hold or inherit property, put on a pedestal of virtue or treated as sexual playthings – but never to be treated as equals. The battle for equality – which is still being waged – has taken many generations to make a difference. The Supreme Court of Canada in 1928 ruled that since women were not legally “persons” in 1867 – the time of Canadian Confederation – they were not eligible to be “summoned” to the Senate. The judges quoted at length from an 1868 English common law decision that “chiefly out of respect to women, and a sense of decorum, and not from their want of intellect, or their being for any other such reason unfit to take part in the government of the country, they have been excused from taking any share in this department of public affairs . . .”
The court’s logic was simple enough: “For the public offices thereby created women were, by the common law, ineligible and it would be dangerous to assume that by the use of the ambiguous term ‘persons’ the imperial Parliament meant in 1867 to bring about so vast a constitutional change affecting Canadian women, as would be involved in making them eligible for selection as Privy Councillors” (Supreme Court of Canada).
In rejecting this argument– “not eligible then, not eligible now” – Lord Sankey of the Imperial Privy Council in London, which was then Canada’s highest court of appeal, took a different view. “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours. . . . The British North America Act planted in Canada a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits,” he wrote (Judicial Committee). And so women were indeed persons, and the BNA was not a shackle to the emancipation of women.
In Western nations, women did not begin to get the vote until the second decade of the twentieth century. The reform of family and property laws was achingly slow, and even today glass ceilings, wage discrimination, and inadequate child care, to say nothing of never-ending “culture wars,” make women’s equality a goal but not yet a reality. Most institutions in the West, from governments to corporations, were set up by men to suit themselves. Altering their structures and processes to accommodate women will not happen overnight.
Democracy is the working assumption of modern politics in the West. But it has to be understood as having a range of meanings and a long history. It did not come without a long struggle. It is, without a doubt, a European idea, but it speaks to universal values.
The difficulty is that the sharing or exporting of democracy comes with heavy baggage, the baggage of imperialism. To a great extent, the history of the world is the history of empires, their rise, dominance, and fall, and of how they inevitably clash with other, competing empires. Intrinsic to the imperial idea is the assumption that the values of the centre of the empire are inherently universal and superior to others, that the conquering nation has both a right and an obligation to proselytize and impose these superior values, even by force.
If pluralism, the rule of law, and equality are simply grafted or imposed onto all societies as a kind of universal good, to be adopted quickly, or worse, to be swallowed with a gun to the head, the democratic exercise is bound to fail. Our own experience in embracing these ideas and making them work in the West has had a long, difficult, and often violent history. But these ideas now lie at the heart of what we understand democracy to be, so it is not possible for us to simply abandon them in a fit of misplaced relativism. This tension takes us down some difficult paths.
Take, for example, the question of homosexual rights, something not found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or most national constitutions. Over the last fifty years, most of the West has gone from criminalizing gay and lesbian sex between consenting adults to respecting sexual behaviour as a matter of privacy (“There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” in Trudeau’s words) and now to the understanding that expressing one’s sexuality is fundamental to being human, and that society should celebrate all consenting relationships and, indeed, according to many courts has a positive obligation to do so. While it is still vehemently opposed by a minority in the West, the right of homosexuals to marry is being extended by the courts in many jurisdictions.
This change has been dramatic, but in many parts of the world there is no progress.
When Iranian President Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2007, his assertion that “there are no gays in Iran” was greeted with laughter. But behind this stupid comment lies a dark reality: gays and lesbians are executed in Iran. Hitler’s regime was convinced that Jews were not human and therefore could be slaughtered without guilt. It treated homosexuals and the mentally disabled in the same way. Ahmadinejad’s argument takes us down the same path.
Prejudice and even hatred against gays are still widely prevalent, and rooted in the popular culture and legal structures of many countries throughout the world. People are being harassed and killed not because of what they say, but because of who they are.
The struggle to change this will take enormous effort. It will go against the political grain. It will offend many people who will see homosexuality as a Western depravity. But we know that homosexual identity is natural, that repressing it causes misery, and that failing to provide legal protections denies people the right to be themselves – and so we have no choice but to use what leverage and influence we have to argue that gay rights are human rights, period.
Breaking down the walls of prejudice will not happen quickly. Most of the constitutions in the world today are silent on this question. But from the Canadian experience (our Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not explicitly include sexual orientation under its equality rights), we know how quickly opinion can and does shift. But it doesn’t shift on its own. It requires that arguments be made, that issues be joined, that lies be exposed.
It is impossible to separate foreign policy from the issues of poverty, pollution, climate change, or of the migration of peoples in response to natural disasters, wars, ethnic conflict, and the personal desire for mobility and prosperity. Yet these issues have traditionally been treated as if they were separate from the world of diplomacy. That’s simply wrong-headed. So is the notion that we can usefully talk about foreign and domestic policies in separate compartments. This is not just quaint, it is dangerous.
In many countries of the West, and especially in Canada, it must be said that we are in the world, and the world is in us. We cannot live our lives with different needs and desires in watertight compartments. Our own basic needs – clean air to breathe, water to drink, food, security, shelter – do not start and stop behind a firewall of our own making. What we want for ourselves is not that complicated, although there will always be room for choice and argument. I know no one who chooses squalour and starvation, abuse and suffering, no work, no home, no money, no dignity, no relationships. No political architecture can make us all happy all the time. But politics can change things, can make things better, for ourselves and for others.
The tendency to isolate ourselves leads some to say that not much can be done for the poor, the starving, and the persecuted because their problems are as much about their character as they are about politics. But most people are poor or badly governed through no fault of their own. The creed of self-satisfaction is ultimately bankrupt, but not just because it is morally unedifying. It is worse. It is unwise. Sticking our collective head in the sand doesn’t make our problems go away.
This book is a discussion of the things we value: freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, pluralism, equality between men and women, to mention just a few – and the difficulty of defending and promoting them in the world. The central argument is that we need to think more strategically about how these values can take root in places where their absence is the source of much hardship and human suffering.
This conclusion may seem startlingly obvious, but the failure to apply it has caused much damage in the world. The military invasion of Iraq, led by the United States and the United Kingdom, and the subsequent civil war in that country, has proved a dangerous adventure. The failure to consider beyond the immediate justification for a policy to its practical consequences is always costly in human lives, dollars, and increasing insecurity. The refusal to put the question of whether a policy will work on an equal plane with the question of whether it is right will always lead to decisions that are surrounded by a self-righteous aura but have little prospect of eventual success.
As I write, Canadian and NATO troops in Afghanistan are fighting a difficult and dangerous insurgency. How do we better ensure success in that mission? What are the consequences of failure?
In subsequent chapters, I trace the history of both democratic ideas and institutions, and then look at some modern conflicts through the lens of a debate that dates back centuries. This book is not an academic or philosophical treatise, but a reflection by a practising politician who occasionally likes to think.

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Contributor notes

A former Rhodes Scholar, BOB RAE was born in Ottawa in 1948. A leading politician of his generation, he has been elected to federal and provincial parliaments eight times and served as Ontario's twenty-first premier in the early 1990s. In 1999, he helped found the international Forum of Federations and served as its chair for seven years. He has advised and worked on federalism and constitutional matters in Sri Lanka, Sudan and Iraq. Since 2006, Rae has been a prominent member of the federal Liberal Party. He is the party's foreign affairs critic, and is the author of three previous books.

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Editorial Review

"Widely read and richly experienced in the art of politics, Bob Rae puts all he has learned to excellent use in this humane, thoughtful -- and highly readable -- book on the perils and possibilities of exporting democracy. . . . Altogether, a splendid read!" 
— David Cameron

"In this erudite, judicious and lively book. . . . Rae offers a wise and compelling alternative vision." 
— Globe and Mail

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