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The US is suffering a chronic deficit of legitimacy

Article by James Page

September 15, 2006

The international spread of democracy began in the 1970s but came to an end in the 1990s. Why? Because with the cold war over, America’s moral mission is no longer so clear.

In 1940, faced with the threat of Hitler’s Germany, Franklin D Roosevelt called on the United States to be “the great arsenal of democracy”. The context has changed, but the evangelical spirit remains. Indeed, the agenda has been widened, particularly under the aegis of the neoconservative movement, to encompass the aggressive promotion and protection of democracy.

The philosophy is boldly optimistic. It asserts that democracy is a universal value that the west should use its position of power to spread. George W Bush and Tony Blair are both believers and they have linked the war on terror directly to the wider case for democratising the Middle East. As Blair asserted in his address to the US Congress last year: “We promised Iraq democratic government. We will deliver it.” Critics argue that democracy cannot simply be “delivered” and that such declarations smack of imperial hubris. While the optimists are right that democracy can be exported, they fail to grasp that the task is more complex now than in previous eras as force becomes increasingly inadequate.

There is much to support Bush and Blair’s passionately held optimism. Democracy can and has been exported in the past, beginning with its spread from Athens to other city states around the Aegean basin – “like frogs around a pond”, as Plato eloquently described them. More recently, Freedom House, a non-partisan organisation that evaluates the state of liberty within nations, has praised the 20th century as the “century of democracy” due to democracy’s unprecedented expansion across the planet. The Freedom House figures show that, at the turn of the millennium, more than half the world’s population, living in 120 states, enjoyed regular access to the ballot box.

The end of the cold war is frequently identified as the most significant turning point yet. Two major consequences are commonly cited. The first is summed up in Francis Fukuyama’s now infamous 1989 article “The End of History?”: the belief that the real victory of the cold war was ideological and that democracy finally stands peerless on the world stage after despatching the last of its rivals. He writes: “What we are witnessing is . . . the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

The second consequence relates explicitly to power. The fall of the Soviet bloc left a world with just one economic and military superpower. As Blair and others have put it, a “unipolar world” emerged. Indeed, many commentators have suggested that the US is so dominant that it deserves the new title of “hyperpower”. Far from hyperbole, the term is an expression of the unique historical position that America holds as the first truly global hegemon. As the neo-con Robert Kagan argues, now that the “lingering mirage of European global power” appears to be fading, there is no remaining counterbalance to the United States. In the Pentagon’s own words, from the 2002 US National Security Strategy: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States.”

Thus, the events of 1989 led to a conjunction of power and ideological imperative that many see as irresistible. Recent works such as Niall Ferguson’s Colossus illustrate the point. Ferguson notes the successful democratisation of Germany and Japan after the Second World War as a simple prelude to his main argument. He claims the US should now look to carve a worldwide democratic empire from rogue regimes and failed states. Optimists and neo-cons are more confident than ever that democracy can be spread and that the process can be galvanised with an even greater application of force.

Ironically, however, this has become more contentious since 1989. The long-term strategic challenges thrown up by the conclusion of the cold war have been obscured by the sheer number of democracies established during and immediately after it. Freedom House statistics show that although the “third wave” of democratisation (which began in 1974) was the most prolific in history, the total number of democratic nation states has remained virtually unchanged since 1995. In other words, the spread of democracy has faltered in the unipolar world.

The optimist’s approach is deeply myopic. Its singular focus on delivering democracy causes it to ignore the attitudes and beliefs of the intended recipients. This is a critical oversight, because even in its most minimal, Schumpeterian sense, democracy requires the active support of those who are being governed. Mahatma Gandhi once said that “the spirit of democracy cannot be imposed from without. It must come from within”, and without the democratic spirit its formal structures alone are like castles of sand. From Germany in the 1930s to Pakistan in 1999, this has been proven time and again. This is vital now because the democratic spirit – or “hearts and minds”, as it has been rebranded in the lexicon of the war on terror – is suddenly proving elusive.

The problem lies with the unparalleled concentration of what Joseph Nye calls “hard power” (military and economic), which is proving extremely difficult to reconcile with the promotion of “soft” democratic values. This is not just to repeat the oft-quoted and benign point that imposing freedom is an oxymoron. That has always been so and has proven less problematic in practice than in principle. Rather, it is that, in the new world order, the US is suffering a chronic deficit of legitimacy in the eyes of those it claims to be seeking to help. Its power has become an albatross around the neck of the US and its allies.

The reasons are not hard to find, nor, in principle, are the solutions. At the most basic level, hard power is unavoidably threatening, arousing suspicion and fear. Realpolitik, the canon of thought founded on Thucydides, Macchiavelli and Hobbes, may be overly cynical for some, but the suspicion that power, ultimately, will always be used for self-interest still resonates strongly. As Thucydides put it: “Right . . . is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

US and other western leaders frequently emphasise the primacy of values and ideals in their foreign policy – Bush constantly refers to “freedom”, “liberty” and “democracy”, for example. Yet such words ring hollow, for it is impossible to ignore the mighty iron fist inside the velvet glove.

Indeed, whereas it could once have been claimed that “moralpolitik” and realpolitik were closely aligned, the unipolar world has driven a wedge between them. Face to face with an aggressive and authoritarian Soviet Union, it was easier to believe that advancing US and western interests was equivalent to advancing the world’s interests. As Robert Cooper argues, “the cold war is one of those . . . wars in which both values and survival were at stake” and, as such, it validated the widespread use of hard power. Now that survival is no longer at stake and there is no remaining “other” or counterbalance, military intervention has become a choice rather than a necessity. Consequently, its legitimacy is less self-evident and its ethics hold greater importance than in previous eras.

In this context, even perceived duplicity can seriously undermine the moral authority that America and the west need to win hearts and minds. At worst, whole peoples can turn against democracy’s star-spangled champion if the Pentagon is seen to pursue its own interests at the expense of others. In practice, the war on terror has demonstrated both the central relation of morality to contemporary foreign policy and the problems caused by failing to establish a wide base of legitimacy. Bush’s and Blair’s governments have acted basely on any number of issues: using flawed and “sexed-up” intelligence, double standards over human rights abuses in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib jail, flouting international law and sidelining the United Nations, not to mention accusations over annexing Middle Eastern oil. The result has been relentless opposition to the US and the “coalition of the willing”.

Antagonism is not confined to any minority group that can easily be labelled radical or extremist. When the survey group Zogby International asked a sample of the Iraqi population last year whether, over the next five years, “the US would help or hurt Iraq”, half thought it would hurt while only a third thought it would help. Contrast this with corresponding figures of 7.5 per cent “hurt” and 61 per cent “help” for Saudi Arabia and the lack of trust is put into sharp relief. Basic distrust and outright hostility in Iraq and Afghanistan are turning hearts and minds firmly against the US. It is not surprising, therefore, that when the same survey inquired about democracy in Iraq, 51 per cent viewed it with suspicion, and said it was a “western way of doing things and will not work here”.

This abrupt confrontation with reality shows that addressing such views has become essential. Blair’s simplistic emphasis on delivering democracy needs to be underpinned by a more complex philosophy that recognises the necessity of fostering trust and belief in democratic values from within.

Fundamentally, hearts and minds must be converted before the architecture of government can be. Less direct methods will have the greater effect. In particular, increased familiarity and exchange between cultures, virtually guaranteed by globalisation, are likely to be central. First and foremost, however, genuine fears, especially those surrounding US and western imperialism, must be allayed. As Tom Bentley and Ian Hargreaves put it in The Moral Universe: “When we say that . . . just wars based upon values have superseded wars based upon territorial and resource interest, we still have a great deal to prove.”

The US is no Gulliver in Lilliput, but Swift’s satire does illustrate the uneasy relationships that accompany greatly magnified power differentials. Similarly, though the birth of a unipolar world has augmented the US’s position as the arsenal of democracy, it has also profoundly changed the way the US relates to the rest of the world. The struggle for hard power has been won decisively. The more immediate and subtle battle now facing the exporters of democracy is for the hearts and minds of those they seek to help.

James Page, a recent Leeds University graduate and a Demos researcher, is the winner of the Webb Essay Prize 2004, awarded by the Foreign Policy Centre in association with the New Statesman and the Webb Memorial Trust. The subject was: “Can democracy be exported?” The judges were Ahdaf Soueif, novelist; Mike O’Brien MP, minister of state, Foreign Office and Department of Trade and Industry; Ann Clwyd, Labour MP; Sir Menzies Campbell MP, Liberal Democrat shadow foreign secretary; Zainab Bangura, women’s activist; Richard Rawes of the Webb Memorial Trust; and Peter Wilby, NS editor

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Published in The New Statesman on 13 December 2004,

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