Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Democracy spreads because of its virtues. Right?

At least one of the editors at The Economist thinks that democracy has spread because it's been imposed. What do you think?

If I ruled the world: Being in charge is hard work, but it has its perks
Americans would be entirely sensible to ask themselves whether taking on the job of being the biggest power in an ungrateful world is worth the effort. Why should they pay to protect shipping in the Strait of Malacca or punish the dictator of some far-off country when they have their own medical bills and the federal deficit to worry about?

To answer that, you need to look at the rules-based system the victors created after the second world war. It still benefits Americans today in lots of ways. It also benefits many other people, whether they like America or loathe it…

Primacy is to geopolitics what a full card is to a game of bingo. As a prize for scoring in all the other sorts of power, a country may get the chance to set the agenda. Primacy makes a state attractive. Other states want to win its favour and to benefit from its goodwill. Their support is a form of consent which gives the system legitimacy…

America has advantages in the primacy game. First is geography… Europeans warily eyeing nearby Russia, or Asians fearful of China, can ask Americans for help, safe in the knowledge that they have a home to go back to on the other side of the world.

Second is history. America built today’s system out of the rubble of the second world war… [F]or Roosevelt and… Truman… the defeated countries had to be turned into democracies and bound into the peace, not shut out. They accomplished this, outside the communist bloc, through a system of open trade, alliances and collective security in which everyone stood to thrive, with America as its guarantor.

America also benefits from its distinctive political ideology and institutions. Founded on Enlightenment ideals rather than a conqueror’s battle lines or a monarch’s bloodlines…

However disconcerting it is to be on the receiving end, this attitude means that America has neither the desire nor the ability to conquer and administer other people’s countries. The hegemon’s necessarily modest ambitions help the system command widespread consent abroad. Reflecting political traditions at home, America has created an embryonic separation of powers for the world at large as well. Instead of running everything from Washington, it set up institutions such as the UN, the WTO and the IMF to spread power.

This international machinery is a forum for its members, not a world government. It is highly imperfect… But it binds the system together, because it gives other states a voice and offers a ready-made mechanism for collaboration when agreement is possible…

America, too, has enjoyed enduring benefits from primacy. It was spared yet another great-power war in either Europe or, after Korea in 1950-53, in Asia. Germany and Japan became markets for the United States and an important part of the defence against communism…

Indeed, the economic and philosophical liberalism that underpins America’s beliefs has become so familiar that, to many in the West, it hardly seems like an ideology at all. After the Soviet collapse a sort of liberal determinism took hold. The idea was that capitalism raised living standards, which paid for education, leading to gains in productivity and, eventually, popular demand for democracy. The promise of this “democratic convergence” was that the international arena would tend to bring peace and prosperity of its own accord…

Yet if you examine the spread of democracy… a different picture emerges. Democracy flourished under British hegemony and then retreated as fascism took root… In 1941 the world contained only a dozen democracies. As Samuel Huntington, a political scientist, has explained, the system then spread in waves, partly because America used its influence to help democracy take root in countries like Taiwan and Poland, and to protect young democracies in countries like Bolivia, South Korea and the Philippines… the fallacy is to think that the liberal order rests on the triumph of its ideals. “International order is not an evolution,” writes Robert Kagan, an American historian, “it is an imposition.”

Americans have many reasons to feel that primacy benefits them. Being able to set the agenda and shape coalitions is an exorbitant privilege…. However, world leadership takes constant maintenance. “Democracy and open markets have spread so widely in part because they have been defended by US aircraft-carriers,” notes Charles Kupchan, an American academic. This is especially true when the balance of power is shifting, as it is today. A number of emerging powers are looking at a system made in Washington to see what is in it for them. Ahead of the pack is China.

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