Global Policy Forum

Global Spread of Democracy

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by Donald K. Emmerson

YaleGlobal
January 29, 2003


The globalization of democracy, long a staple of American foreign policy, has created nations who no longer are willing to simply follow the lead of the United States in foreign affairs. In such a global environment, the United States finds itself acting in an increasingly undemocratic manner, pursuing actions that run contrary to the wishes of the international majority. To be fair, it must be noted that criticism of American actions hardly constitutes a revolt against American foreign policy; however, no longer can the United States be secure that its actions abroad will go unchallenged. - YaleGlobal

Among the least explored and most intriguing of globalization's many aspects is the globalization of democracy. By this I mean the spread of electoral politics to more and more countries. But I also want to highlight what I take to be a rising desire for more democratic or consultative relations among countries, including especially the United States.

The two phenomena are not necessarily related. An autocratic government can advocate multipolarity in world politics. China's rulers have been a case in point. Opponents of globalization who attack the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for being undemocratic do not always practice democracy inside their own organizations or in their dealings with others. I know this from personal experience as a journalist covering the "battle of Seattle" in 1999. Unelected activist leaders on that occasion successfully violated the democratic right of assembly of the delegates who had come to attend meetings of the World Trade Organization.

The United States represents a different sort of disconnect between national and international democracy. For Americans committed to democracy at home, it hardly follows that American foreign policies should be approved in advance by a majority of other countries. Nor have I noticed the American government abiding by international majorities when it comes to slowing global warming or prosecuting crimes against humanity.

"The course of this nation does not depend on the decisions of others," said U.S. President George W. Bush in his State of the Union message on 28 January 2003. As he spoke, globalizers and anti-globalists were returning home from, respectively, the World Economic Forum in Davos and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre - mirror-image meetings that annually frame the pros and cons of international democracy.

In the presently unipolar world, democracy among countries seems utopian. Yet the pressure against American unilateralism is real. Witness January's demonstrations, in Washington and other democratic capitals, against a war in Iraq "made in USA." Those rallies did not merely pit the street against the state. With few exceptions, democratic states, too, would rather give peace - and the UN inspectors - another chance.

Below the radar screens of most observers, the proliferation of electoral democracies around the world is beginning to give shape to an ironic proposition: The spread of democracy within countries, itself an explicit goal of U.S. foreign policy, could increasingly limit America's ability to act unilaterally in world affairs.

Never have there been more electoral democracies - 121 today, by Freedom House's latest count, up from 66 in 1987. So far, this trend has been cause mainly for American celebration. Viewed from the United States, democratization has been easy to construe as imitation - the sincerest form of flattery. American politicians routinely project American democratic values as not just humane but human: what, deep in their hearts, everyone thinks and wants or, at any rate, would if they knew what was best.

Whatever the accuracy of this presumption, it is at least less fantastic than the idea that being a democracy should necessarily imply sympathy for American foreign policy - what Washington does as opposed to what Americans may believe.

It is no coincidence that recently elected governments in Turkey and South Korea should have resisted abetting American attacks, respectively, on Iraq and North Korea. Living adjacent to the latter members of the "axis of evil" makes Turks and South Koreans uniquely vulnerable to the consequences of American belligerence. Their electoral democracies assure that public fears based on this vulnerability cannot be ignored. As a senior adviser to Turkey's new prime minister has observed, "Everybody knows that 80 to 85 percent of the Turkish people would say no to war in Iraq. As a democratic country, how can we say yes?" Gerhard Schrí¶der's decision to comply with such logic in Germany's latest election is a main reason he remains chancellor of that country. And these countries are American allies. (Ankara and Berlin may, in the end, say "yes" to an American attack on Baghdad, but if they do, it will be through at least partially gritted teeth.)

Irony of Global Democracy

Pakistan offers more evidence for the irony of global democracy. What if General Pervez Musharraf had not seized power in a military coup in 1999 and declared himself president in June 2001, just months before Al Qaeda attacked the United States? What if Pakistan had been, and still were, a democracy led by civilian politicians? Would Al Qaeda's Taliban base in Afghanistan have been dismantled so quickly?

These questions have no certain answers. But when Musharraf did conform to Washington's democratic preference and hold an election in October 2002, the results were unhelpful to the freedom of American military movement against jihadist redoubts in northwestern Pakistan. There the balloting gave a plurality to an anti-American alliance of Islamist parties, which also won the third largest bloc of seats in the national assembly.

Indonesia further illustrates the idea that democracy in other countries need not always facilitate American ends. Could an Indonesian Musharraf have prevented the Islamist bombing in Bali that took nearly 200 lives on 12 October 2002, two days after Pakistanis went to the polls? What we do know is that the elected government in Jakarta had been reluctant to risk alienating Muslim opinion by even acknowledging that such a threat existed inside the country.

In mid-January the Bush administration decided to require all male Indonesian citizens aged 16 or older, excluding immigrants, asylum-seekers, and short-term visitors, to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a procedure that includes being fingerprinted and photographed. Indonesians were furious at being singled out. Far from making them more tolerant of Washington's presumed need to take such a step for security reasons, Indonesia's democracy, including its free press, intensified the nationalist expression of resentment. Meanwhile, the democratically elected Indonesian government continues to oppose American unilateral action to end Saddam's regime.

Democratization abroad need not impede U.S. foreign policies. But democratic divergence in a more and more democratic world has complicated the ability of American administrations to act unilaterally in ways that significantly threaten or burden other countries. What is an election, after all, if not a multilateral consultation, among voters rather than states?

Reluctant Allies

On 16 January in The New York Times, commenting on Turkish reluctance to back an American war in Iraq, columnist William Safire wrote: "Paradoxically, the growth of democracy in Turkey - which America cheers - has introduced an element of uncertainty" into the Turkish-American alliance. Paradoxically? Not by the logic of democratic divergence.

In an adjacent op-ed, former National Security Adviser Richard Allen bemoaned South Korea's dissent from an American policy of confronting North Korea. He called it "a serious breach of faith." Breach of faith? Not if one's faith is in democracy, including the right to disagree. In a democratizing world, even a superpower may discover that the compliance of allies is no longer an element of certainty or a matter of faith, but a condition to be earned.

Finally, for comic relief, I cannot resist quoting the riposte of the French defense minister, the first woman ever to fill that post, who said of her American counterpart's dismissal of Franco-German cold feet on Iraq: "We are no longer in prehistoric times when whoever had the biggest club would try to knock the other guy out so he could steal his mammoth skin."

Caveats are in order: Minister Michí¨le Alliot-Marie's distaste for Neanderthals notwithstanding, a dramatically successful American assault on Saddam could turn skeptics into believers. The UN could, in a second resolution, authorize force. Future terrorist attacks, in the U.S. and other democratic countries, could enlarge the global reservoir of good will toward America, reversing divergence. In the democratic ranks behind U.S. leadership, in any event, grumbling hardly presages revolt.

But if a collision is unlikely, a gradual erosion is not - erosion, that is, in the willingness of other democracies to give unilateralist America the benefit of the doubt.

On 3 January, President Bush said of Saddam Hussein that "he really doesn't care about the opinion of mankind." Three days later Bush urged his nemesis to "listen to what the world is saying." Whatever the outcome of this administration's obsession with finishing the earlier Gulf War by finishing off Saddam's regime, should American assertiveness persist and democratic divergence become more common, future custodians of American power may increasingly find themselves on the receiving end of such remarks.

*Donald K. Emmerson is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.


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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.