The return of democracy to the global agenda

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Apr 9 2005, 06:23am hrs
Is there a democracy spring in the air Whether forced, subsidised, orga-nically discovered or arti- ficially contrived, the world is seeing a widespread assertion of democracy, at least in rhetoric, if not actual deed. First, there was Afghanistan, soon followed by Ukraine, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. And now, even Bhutan, with the tiny Himalayan kingdom all set for a historic swap between parliamentary democracy and monarchial power.

Anti-democracies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are still around and very much in business, cushioning any global pressure for the time being entirely due to some crude geopolitics. The fact is that those who stray, like Nepal, now have a lot of explaining to do to the outside world. There is even some visible movement on making the United Nations a more transparent and representative body.

Of course, a lot of all this combined momentum is nebulously applied and is still laced with varying, sometimes even questionable, shades of honesty and intent. But the fact is that democracy is back again as an intellectual peg, if not global pressure point.

In recent times, especially since Condoleeza Rice took over the US State Department, the Bush administration has elevated human rights and democracy as key foreign policy goals and is planning to start a Office of Democracy Movements and Transitions to act as a point of contact for democratic movements within individual countries.

Undoubtedly, American pressure and the resulting media attention are major triggers for the rather sudden pro-democracy shuffle. However, the real winds of change began just soon after the Iraq war. While we all noticed with bemusementperhaps even some relishthe bitter rhetoric and very public spat between America and Europe as a result of the action in Iraq, what we perhaps missed was an emerging common thread shared deeply on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the simple yet powerful notion that the great fault lines in the world are not along religious or cultural lines, but between societies that have either embraced or shunned knowledge, openness and progress.

This has now emerged as a mainstream western view and has been captured and articulated in a number of post-9/11 modern books and essays by influential writers. These include Robert Cooper, author of The Breaking Of Nations: Order & Chaos in the 21st Century, and a former special advisor on foreign affairs to Tony Blair, and Thomas PM Barnett, author of The Pentagons New Map, and a professor at the Naval War College in Washington, DC. Barnett defines the tensions in the modern world as a gap between a functioning core of nations that are connected to the modern age and those disconnected from it.

Similarly, Cooper discusses the hypothetical progress of nations along a civilising path. And along an increasing scale of embrace of the world of knowledge, though he doesnt quite call it that, from pre-modern to modern to post-modern. In essence, what these and other thinkers are advocating is a new moral order, based on the rule of law, democracy and accountability. And which should ideally shape behaviour within nations as much as relations between nations.

Democracy as an idea and practice has been around for over two millennia, at least since the time of Plato. But the concept is still tricky. In fact, the turf is getting more slippery all the time, what with competing adherence amongst the faithful to newer concepts like globalisation and multiculturism. Has globalisation made people more conscious of their rights or does it make them more complacent and distracted Are democracy and governance rooted in cultural values and social norms Is religion inherently at odds with democracy

Answers to these are not clear. However, what is clear is that democracy neither begins nor ends with the mere holding of elections. There is a dark and illiberal side to democracy, evidently manifest in the fact that some of the most repressive and undemocratic regimes of our times, including both the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy, were duly elected and voted to office by the people. No matter how you slice it, democracy cannot survive without human rights, rule of law and individual freedom. But these are profound social concepts, while democracy is a merely a political construct.

Moreover, a stable democracy needs a heavy dose of internal dialogue, public participation, good leadership and a tradition of fairness. We cannot choose among these virtues, they all have to coexist. In fact, true democracy survives and flourishes when there is no tradition or practice of patronage, clientilism, and pre-ordained power hierarchy. These traditions may not be as bad as authoritarianism, but are still anti-democratic in spirit.

What all this boils down to is what Alexis de Tocqueville called habits of the heart. Tocqueville was a 19th century French aristocrat-cum-intellectual, who elegantly chronicled early American life in his famous book, Democracy in America. His most profound observations relate to social groups and community action, where he writes: Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. In other words, while the political structures are the skeleton, the real flesh is provided by how people behave with each other. As Tocqueville might have said: democracy cannot be intellectualised, it must be experienced.

The writer is editor, India Focus