The democracy question

In light of the quashing of the “Saffron Revolution” in Burma and the Japanese government’s feeble response to the violence, which took the life of a Japanese citizen, it is probably safe to declare MOFA’s “value oriented diplomacy” to create an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” dead.

But with Japan’s following behind Washington in backtracking on democracy promotion, it is worth asking whether there is a danger of going too far in the other direction. Should the developed democracies be in the business of bolstering nascent democracies and goading authoritarian states to democratize? If so, how can they deliver concrete results?

To the former, Stanley Fish writes in the New York Times about participating the making of a BBC program called “Why Democracy,” for which he answered ten questions about democracy in the contemporary world. Some of the questions Fish rightly dismisses as fatuous, but there are several questions that get to the heart of the problem when considering whether developed democracies can help others along the same path. Indeed, Fish wonders whether Fukuyama’s “End of History” democratic teleology is accurate, and wonders whether perhaps other peoples might value other things above democracy. In other words, it’s not that some nations are anti-democratic but rather that they simply value other things more (religiously ordered society, traditional ways of living, etc.). I think this is an appropriate question in light of Japan’s own democratic experience. Do the Japanese people value democracy more than the range of “myths” that constitute modern Japanese nationhood?

(This, of course, transforms that perennial topic of bulletin board discussions about Japan — is Japan a democracy? — into a different matter entirely. Democracy isn’t a matter of steps on a ladder but shades along a gradient.)

Accordingly, if democratization means not pulling a people up a ladder in the direction of “democracy” but something messier, more rooted in culture and tradition, what can be done about the fifty-eight and forty-five countries classified by Freedom House in 2007 as partly free and not free respectively? Presumably Iraq has, for the moment, discredited the idea of armed democratization — “The End of History” on horseback — although, as Tony Judt notes, the “liberal hawks” of 2003 are finding their voice again and their colleagues on the right are probably only slightly chastened by the Iraq disaster. But are there policy tools short of outright war capable of instigating a transition to democracy?

I’m personally partial to initiatives like those managed by the semi-public US National Endowment for Democracies (NED) and partner organizations, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) (the latter two are loosely affiliated with the Democratic and Republican parties). These organizations are focused on capacity-building for democracies, training participants (mainly but not only parties) in how to function in a democracy and helping to strengthen public and private institutions necessary for a liberal democracy. Their approach is less visible than high-profile official initiatives and more cognizant of the challenges associated with democratization, acknowledging the time it takes for a society to democratize, the need for robust civil society institutions, and the necessity of adapting institutions to local conditions. It also recognizes that democracy has to come from within; the citizens of a country have to want it themselves. Democracy cannot be a gift given from abroad, but material and intellectual support for those who want to democratize can.

The key may be, as Noah Feldman argues in the New York Times (apologies for this NYT-heavy post), toning down the rhetoric of democratization — used heavily by the Bush administration — that exposes the US to charges of hypocrisy or impotence for failing to live up to its rhetorical commitments, but not abandoning the cause of democratization. Like Feldman, I think there is value to developed democracies using their wealth and power to support democratization, which, as he notes, is unique for great powers: “Empires inevitably fall, and when they do, history judges them for the legacies they leave behind. It would be both sacrilegious and ahistorical to believe that our power will last for eternity. If liberty and self-government are among our legacies, then our strength will not have been squandered.”

But the developed democracies need to be aware of their own limits, both material and strategic, and not let their rhetoric run ahead of those limits. There can be no hard and fast rules for when to lean on authoritarian governments and when to cooperate with them — it will take prudence and wisdom on the part of developed governments, coupled with long-term, low-level support for the forces of democratization in non-democratic states.

To return to Japan’s “value diplomacy,” Tokyo might, in fact, be quite good at this quieter, more patient democratization. Perhaps the DPJ should set up its own version of the National Democratic Institute and expose the hollowness of the government’s rhetoric.

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