DEMOCRACY is taking a bashing. On almost every continent, attempts to extend the right of people to choose their own government is running into deep trouble. In Iraq, Egypt, Ukraine, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other countries, democracy is being overwhelmed by despotism and despair.
A commonly heard response is that Western democracy is not for everyone, that what works in our society does not automatically work elsewhere. Another is to suggest that we should not try to spread democracy to the rest of the world; it is none of our business.
Both views are mean and short-sighted.
It was 25 years ago, prompted by the collapse of Soviet communism, that Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached “the end of history” and that liberal democracy and free market capitalism was its final phase. It was now only a matter of time, he said, before the rest of the world caught up with the US and Western Europe and ran their affairs along democratic lines.
At first he appeared to be right. Under the final Communist leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia abandoned Marxism-Leninism and the Eastern European vassal states it had oppressed since the Second World War liberated themselves. For the first time, countries like Poland and Ukraine voted freely. The onward rush toward democracy soon spread, culminating in a great wave of democratisation in the Arab nations of North Africa and the Middle East.
Now, that grand vision looks hopelessly naïve. Russia soon reverted to its default position: rule by despot. Under the pretext he needed to restore order to a gangster nation, Vladimir Putin imposed a regime both oppressive and xenophobic. Human rights have been abandoned, Putin’s opponents are arbitrarily jailed, and elections have become a farce.
The old Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe fared better for a while, but even there true democracy often proved elusive. As a condition of joining the European Union, former Soviet vassal states had to hold free elections, guarantee the rule of law and safeguard individual human rights.
As soon as they were EU members, some governments (of both left and right) reneged on their commitments and retreated into “managed democracies” or “electoral autocracies”. Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Romania, among others, abandoned true democracy and returned to a form of dictatorship. Despite efforts by the EU to promote democracy, many Eastern European leaders have played the West off against Russia.
What happened in Ukraine is typical. Having struggled for years to become democratic, the regime in Kiev was told it could not join the EU until it had set up a system of justice that would free political prisoners, among them former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko.
It was during this hard bargaining with the EU that Putin made a counter-offer larded with rubles that the then Ukrainian premier, Viktor Yanukovich, quickly accepted, setting off the coup and the country’s present troubles.
Elsewhere, the Arab Spring has sprung. Egypt set the tone for its Arab neighbours by in 2011 ousting dictator Hosni Mubarak and electing Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, who dismantled democratic safeguards and imposed Islamist restrictions on the country’s West-leaning population. Egypt’s failed experiment in democracy was overturned by the military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who earlier this month was elected president in Morsi’s place. Events in Libya and elsewhere echo this trend.
In the West, there is endless hand-wringing over the failure of Iraq’s democratically elected prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to keep his splintered nation together. Those singled out for blame are: US president Barack Obama, for not pressing Maliki to permanently station US troops in the country and for not prodding him hard enough to involve the Sunni minority; President George W Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair for overthrowing the tyrant, Saddam Hussein; and even François Georges-Picot, Mark Sykes, and Gertrude Bell, who drew the borders of Iraq a century ago.
Voters have gone to the polls in Afghanistan to elect a new president, but there is little hope that once American and Allied troops leave the country it will not be torn apart by the Taliban and the warring tribal chiefs who run the territory beyond the capital. Again, Western attempts to introduce democracy appear to have been a waste of lives and money.
Beyond those who are using the turmoil in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Ukraine for domestic political purposes, there is a general feeling among Americans that, having fought two wars for 10 years, it is time for the US to pull back from the world. Neo-isolationism (the modern iteration of the movement that kept America out of the Second World War for three years) is on the rise and leaders both right and left are happy to ride the wave.
If only those abandoning the quest for democracy abroad would spend as much energy ensuring that democracy here is in good shape. Instead, it is often the very people who are calling for America to withdraw behind its borders and let the rest of the world hang who are helping the retreat of democracy in the US. But democracy is not just under threat in the Middle East and Europe, but also in America, which has tried more than most to foster it in other countries, with varying degrees of success. The gerrymandering of constituency boundaries to ensure one-party rule; widespread attempts to alter rules governing who can vote and when on the pretext of non-existent voter fraud; and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United to allow corporations to give vast amounts of money to the campaigns of those who will do their bidding on Capitol Hill; all make a mockery of American democracy.
With the very notion of democracy at risk, even in America, it is worth recalling the words of Winston Churchill, who for six long years urged free people to rise up against tyranny. “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise,” he said. “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government — except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Democracy, like a marriage, takes work if it is to survive and prosper. Amid the clamour for America to abandon its efforts to help democracy flourish around the world, it must be constantly nurtured both at home and abroad.