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Democracy is always exported, but most frequently without success

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 14 February 2005

Daniel Ross’ recently published book, Violent Democracy, includes this intriguing passage:

Never coming “from the people themselves”, democracy is always and must always be given from the outside. No foundation of democracy from the inside, by a member, is possible. Democracy is only exportable.

The point is a salient one in the context of the recent elections in Iraq, which has enabled the Bush Administration and its allies to finally get onto the front foot and proclaim the two-year mission a “success”.


That democracy was imposed from the outside in the case of Iraq is undoubted, but Ross also notes that Australia’s democracy was equally so imposed. In the latter case it was another imperial power - the British - that enabled Australia, and for that matter Canada, to become the democracies they are today.

Of course, there are potential exceptions to Ross’ somewhat sweeping certainty. The dismantling of apartheid and statist control by the white ruling elite allowed for democracy to emerge within South Africa, for example.

But if we accept Ross’ thesis has a very large sense of legitimacy then the question is not, should democracy be exported, but what are the conditions under which democracy will take root and flourish in a society?

Why is it that the traditional exporters of democracy, imperial powers such as Britain and now the US have rarely succeeded in their efforts? It can be said that India, an extraordinarily chaotic but thriving democracy, is probably the paragon of the British Empire’s efforts in this regard.

But it is hard to point to a US counterpart. The export of democracy to Vietnam produced feeble regimes that eventually succumbed to the communist insurgency. A Central American country such as El Salvador, where the US intervened during the 1980s on a similar pre-text to Vietnam has an enfeebled and corrupt democracy at best.

Perhaps the lesson is this - that for societies to properly allow the “import” of democracy the right conditions and climate must be in place. As historian Eric Hobsbawm noted in The Guardian on January 22 this year,


The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). "Spreading democracy" aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989.

Of course, one of the reasons that export of democracy exercises fail so abysmally is because there is little consideration given by the exporting group or entity to whether or not the conditions to which Hobsbawn refers are in place in the society in question.

The Bush Administration is a painfully patent example of this observation, using territorial and societal intervention for motives that have little to do with the noble and humane system that is democracy. For Bush Administration neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith and Donald Rumsfeld, the export of democracy is a ruse - a sugar coated skin thinly covering the bitter pill of American self-interest.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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