The challenge of democracy

Can there be democratization prior to the building of a strong state?

The challenge of democracy
I have written a number of articles in the past two years, in TFT and other publications, that relate in one way or another to what academics are now calling the “recession of democracy.” Most of these articles are specifically about Bangladesh. Some general articles also come to mind,such as the one on the Magna Carta, the article on the Doctrine of Necessity, which may have weakened the rule of law in Pakistan, and the article on the Pakistani government’s restrictions on Save The Children – a pattern used increasingly by leading authoritarian states. If these articles seem, at a first glance, to have little relationship to democratic recession, I will explain that later.

But first, let us survey the doctrines and strategies of modern authoritarianism. There are three main doctrinal arguments made by major authoritarian countries, those that play the lead in the authoritarian attack on liberal democracy – primarily Russia and China. First, the most powerful argument is that in the post 9/11 world, an emphasis on counterterrorism requires emphasizing security over individual liberty. Unfortunately, the United States and the West have done the same thing, though not in the extreme way of the authoritarians, but nonetheless to an extent that it is hard to counter this argument. For aspiring authoritarians (eg Bangladesh), however, it has become a tool to use against political foes. Also, it has spurred the use of parallel systems to try terrorists (viz the 21st Amendment) which weakens the rule of law and likely opens the door to increased human rights abuses.
The roots of Western democracy go back to the 13th century

The second authoritarian argument is “protection of civilizational diversity.” What this has led to is authoritarian regional organizations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which reject the values of liberal democracy and promote state sovereignty, and “the democratization of international relations,” which seems to mean weakening any project dealing with democracy.

The third doctrinal principle is “defense of traditional values”. This seems to overlap with the second, but is clearly focused on social issues, such as gender relations (equality), gay rights, and minority treatment in general. State sovereignty becomes almost sacred in all of the authoritarian doctrine, allowing them to hide their human rights abuses whether done as counterterrorism measures or for discrimination against minorities.

These days, the primary target of the authoritarians seems to be international NGOs. According to experts, the turnaround against these institutions came after the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the early 2000s – countries that had been part of the former Soviet Union. In Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, flawed elections and demonstrations ran their regimes out of power, and prompted the beginning of the canard that NGOs were being used by the West as political weapons. This has made international NGOs authoritarian targets throughout the world. This clampdown is growing and becoming more stringent. Russia recently required international NGOs receiving foreign funds to register as “foreign agents.” A number have chosen to close and depart rather than be labeled a foreign agent.

Sealing Magna Carta
Sealing Magna Carta

Much of the Russian ire, and that of some other countries which have a history of bad elections, is directed at those NGOs which promote democracy and monitor elections. It is these that Russia and others have concentrated on and in many cases forced out. Moreover, these governments have, at the same time, been creating stooge NGOs that monitor elections as the government wishes, by not noticing any of the funny stuff. These are now called government-organized non-government organizations (GONGOs), an oxymoron if there ever was one. To quote Alexander Cooley of Columbia University, “Unhappy with a civil society that independently monitors and challenges them, [authoritarians] have been busy building their own tame simulacrum of it that collaborates with power rather than criticizing it.”

The debate raging among academics who specialize in democracy is not about the facts of the democratic recession. The facts related above regarding the authoritarians’ doctrine or their behavior are pretty much generally agreed on. The debate is about the sequencing of democratization — can there be any democratization prior to the building of a strong state? A few academics maintain that democracy was only possible in the West after the 17th century when European states had become strong and centralized, had functioning bureaucracies, and healthy civil societies. This, of course, is music to the authoritarians’ ears, as they believe in strong states, just not democratic ones. And in the second decade of the 21st century, with the West in economic trouble and (they think) declining, the appeal of authoritarianism as opposed to democracy is more beguiling.

However, the consensus among most scholars of democratization is much more nuanced. Yes, democracy certainly came to full flower in the West after the 17th century when states were stronger, but the roots of present Western democracy go back at least to the 13th century, and maybe further (most experts count the Greeks as a one-off special case). Remember the Magna Carta, signed in 1215, and reissued several times throughout the century? It kept getting reissued and rewritten because the Plantagenet monarchy needed money and had to get the approval of more and more of the elite to raise taxes. There was a clause that required the King to call meetings of the elite when he needed money. These meetings turned at some point into regular meetings of a parliament. And these parliaments kept more and more of a check on the sovereign. These were representative institutions, though they represented only the few for centuries, but the custom that the King was subject to law and accountable to the parliament was key for later Englishmen to build on as representative government grew. In other parts of Europe, the same process was taking place. These representative institutions had permeated most of Europe by about 1500, and many included small as well as large landowners, mercantile as well as craft guilds, and occasionally a peasant representative.

So the democratic tree was well rooted by the end of the 17th century. It had grown leaf by leaf, branch by branch, for many centuries. It flowered in the latter part of that century because two brilliant British thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, broke through the intellectual barriers that stopped society short of democracy. Hobbes, the hero of current authoritarians, advanced the idea of the social contract as the fundamental foundation of society and reasoned that it required the sovereign to represent the entire society, not just a dynasty or a group. Locke used this to proclaim that the sovereign could only rule legitimately with the consent of the governed.

So a strong state is possibly necessary, but certainly not sufficient for democracy. Democracy and its tools, the rule of law and accountability, must grow with the state, in an interactive and interdependent relationship. Those who start a journey to democracy via a strong state rarely get there.

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.