New Internationalist

US loves democracy

Issue 408

As the US presidential election motor shifts into gear, regular NI contributor, Jeremy Seabrook, reflects on the United States’ professed love of democracy.

Everyone knows of the love the United States bears for democracy. This passionate attachment is, however, something less than a concern that all the peoples of the world should enjoy the privileges America claims for itself. If the US is so keen on democracy, this is because it has candidates for high office in most countries of the world. This gives it a proprietary interest in the fate of its chosen, wherever elections take place; and it visits its wrath upon those dark places where its preferences are blocked.

If President Bush rushed to congratulate Mwai Kibaki on his ‘victory’ in Kenya, this was because he had been expected to fulfill the responsibilities which go with pre-selection by Washington. When Kibaki visited the US three years ago, he was hailed by George Bush as ‘building a modern, prosperous and peaceful future’, and congratulated for his ‘economic reforms’ and ‘rooting out corruption.’ The dispatch of Benazir Bhutto to her homeland as the bearer of democratic values was crafted in secret conclaves over many months between Washington, Dubai and Islamabad. Her function – an affirmation of secular democratic values – to embellish the threadbare dictatorship of Musharraf, was brutally abridged. A martyr to democracy, perhaps, but whose democracy?

In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai wears his Western urbanity with the same assurance he wears his authentic regalia of cloak and karakul hat, made from the skin of aborted lamb-foetuses. In November, the largest US-based investment business conference focussed on Afghanistan reviewed opportunities in construction and materials, mining, energy and infrastructure, agribusiness and food processing, IT and telecommunications. The US Geological Survey mineral resources assessment of Afghanistan is expected imminently. In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki manages the exhausted post-surge calm. In November he signed a deal for a ‘long-term US presence’ in Iraq, while the US re-affirmed its support for ‘a democratic regime in Iraq against domestic and external dangers.’

Yulia Timoshenko, the ‘fiery heroine’ of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, returned by the narrowest of margins as Prime Minister in December 2007. Described as a ‘Prime Minister we can deal with’ by the officials of the Bush administration, she wants Ukraine to join NATO and the European Union. In an article in Foreign Affairs, she urged the West to oppose Moscow’s efforts to restore its grip on its ‘lost empire.’ President Mikhail Saakashvili, victor of the rose revolution in Georgia was re-elected in January 2008. His ‘pro-Western’ government also had on the ballot-paper a referendum on joining NATO. Georgia also has 2,000 soldiers in Iraq – the third largest contingent after the US and Britain. A graduate of Columbia University, Saakashvili worked in a New York law firm before becoming candidate to the presidency.

In Bangladesh, the chief of the Caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, is a former World Bank official. India is led by economist Manmohan Singh, whose liberalizing credentials were won during his apprenticeship in globalization in the USA. In Algeria, the army which has created a precarious stability by crushing Islamists who were on the verge of winning a democratic election in 1991, is reported to be ‘stepping up’ its relations with the USA, and is ‘on board’ with Washington’s aspirations. Gloria Arroyo, economist president of the Philippines was, in the 1960s, a classmate of Bill Clinton, who has been quick to praise her handling of the economy.

America's love affair with universal democracy is not quite as it seems; it is, rather a narcissistic infatuation with its own destiny and its desire to project this onto the rest of the world.

Of course the ‘spread’ of such democracy appeals to the US. Its benevolent oversight of winning candidates ensures that US interests are going to be properly safeguarded, and will take priority over the fate of the people who have voted, sometimes unwittingly, for this noble ideal.

This is a continuation of the Reagan doctrine, for which the National Endowment for Democracy was set up in 1983. This was itself a reaction against the savage dictatorships which had sustained US priorities in the 1960s and 70s with such repression and violence.

There remain, of course, places the US cannot reach, undemocratic governments, ‘fragile’ or ‘failing’ states. Putin’s Russia has shown signs of reverting from the tutelage of Western democracy to an older authoritarianism. China remains, despite its economic power, unfree, since it does not have the institutions that ornament democracy. (There is a contradiction here. The US routinely advocates democracy as the surest way to economic success: China is the most glaring disconfirmation of this doctrine). Iran’s Ahmedinajad, although voted for, was not ‘properly’ elected.

According to the US narrative, Hugo Chávez maintains his power over the poor of Venezuela by bribery and by intimidating powerless media moguls and innocent oil interests. Of course democracy can also produce the wrong result – Hamas in the Palestinian territories for example. Such entities have to be disqualified in other ways, in this case by virtue of its being a ‘terrorist organization’. Clearly the will of the people is less sacrosanct than is sometimes claimed; it needs nurture and guidance, so that it does not appoint those which the US and its allies feel constrained subsequently to disappoint.

A candidate in every country’ is the ambition of the USA, so that it can count on the loyalty of its elect; preferably, the Opposition should be on-side also, so that no awkward flaws appear in the seamless garment of political freedom and economic necessity. Of course, in civilized – that is, rich – countries, there is no longer any need for the supervision of democracy, since all electable politicians have learned that it is their highest duty not to disturb the natural processes of global accumulation. In any case, the people can be trusted not to vote away their enjoyment of the modest privilege that have attained. It was not always so – after the Second World War, the USA used economic aid, support to non-Communist parties and covert actions to prevent Communist parties from coming to power in France and Italy. But those days are long gone.

With the experience of democracy in Kenya, Pakistan and Iraq in recent months, there has been a modification of the democratic rhetoric. The shallow electoralism preached by Bush for the past eight years as the sure sign of the ‘democratic process’ is no longer good enough. Clearly, all countries need ‘democratic institutions’, modelled on those of the USA or Europe. In other words, a more far-reaching transformation must take place than anything hitherto advocated. Every country must be re-shaped to this end; their customs, society and structures must all be moulded to create an easy transition between administrations, and the economy may run smoothly, unhindered by political interference, which, as everyone knows, is inimical to the wellbeing and prosperity of humanity.

If only it were so simple. There is another, serious obstacle to the realization of the US dream of universal democracy. Democracy in the West was established as a ritual to determine who gets what – that is to say, it was about the interaction between social forces and their relationship to the economy. In other words, it was based on class interests. The friction between social classes has been largely resolved in the West, and this is a further reason why distinctions between potential governing parties are marginal, and people see little difference between them.

When this model of democratic give-and-take is transferred to other parts of the world, particularly since the extinction of Socialism, it is no longer a question of temperate arguments between different strata in a clearly defined nation-state. Older, existential identities fill the vacuum left by the lapse of any other overriding ideological project – the establishment of socialism, for instance, or liberation from colonial rule. The main determinant becomes ethnic, tribal or religious affiliation. The struggle for justice between rich and poor mutates into more bitter rivalries for dominance, and takes on more ominous contours. These no longer set haves against have-nots within a national entity, but open up faults and fissures that are not defined by the boundaries of countries, but by ancient enmities. The elevation of sectarian or ethnic majorities into oppressors is sanctified by the mathematics of democracy; and majorities rarely exercise the theoretical forbearance towards their opponents which the theory of democracy advocates, since there is little danger that their captive minorities will ever outvote them.

The preachings of ‘democrats’ in Washington become empty slogans as they travel between the orderly arrangement of affairs in Washington or London and the shaky nation-states drawn by colonial pencils on trackless maps, or carved out of ancient crumbling empires, which have assigned this or that group to one country and their close kin to another, along with all their ancient jealousies, no longer submerged in wider social and economic visions.

America’s love affair with universal democracy is not quite as it seems; it is, rather a narcissistic infatuation with its own destiny and its desire to project this onto the rest of the world.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular NI contributor.

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