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Miliband reclaims democracy promotion from the dark side 15, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Foreign Policies.
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The British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband recently made an impassioned speech at Oxford University calling for the promotion, maintenance, and protection of democracy to be one of the central pillars of British Foreign Policy. Needless to say, this is a controversial topic. Few would disagree with the promulgation of such a noble goal: the disagreements begin when it comes to its implementation.

As Miliband points out, something strange happened a few years ago in American politics. Many of those on the right in America went from being conservative to being neo-conservative and with it an about face in their foreign policy. No longer was the right half of America bemoaning American forays into Somalia or Yugoslavia in the name of spreading democracy or indeed simply saving lives; indeed, now they were hawkish advocates of more extreme policies. The notion of regime change ‘for the better’ became a tenet of their policy, that is, however, only as and when dictated by their perceived national security requirements.

Miliband is, therefore, attempting to retrieve the cause of democracy promotion from it having being sullied and ridiculed under the stewardship of the neocons, as – the critics would argue – little more than a fig leaf for neo-colonial invasions. Just to make his stance suitably distance from the neocon position, he opens his speech acknowledging that Iraq and the issues surrounding it have ‘clouded’ the debate and continues by maintaining that democratic norms ‘cannot be imposed’ and that ‘without hubris or sanctimony’ we must support democratic trends wherever possible.

Becoming of an Oxford PPE graduate with a first, he goes on to set out his plans, point by point, issue by issue, taking on the criticisms and countering them largely effectively.

Setting the scene he points out that democracy has come about in waves. In the third wave, from the 1970’s onwards, there have been groups of convertees to the democratic way: Portugal, Greece and Spain in the 1970’s; those from after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and various countries in Latin America and Africa in the 1990’s. However, the hubris encapsulated and exemplified by Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ (the notion that liberal democracy has ‘won’ and is now the inevitable future of all societies) has now been thoroughly discredited with the drying up of conversions to democracy from the Millennium onwards, he maintains. Indeed, Miliband makes a prescient point by suggesting that China and their staggering economic success offer an alternative version of development, which, obviously, does not include democratisation to any meaningful degree. Therefore, more steps are needed to be taken to make sure that democracy is seen once again – to dismember Churchill’s dictum – as the best worst alternative for a government.  

Further separating himself from the neocons on this issue, Milliband suggests five ways of promoting democracy, none of which include shock and awe. Firstly, he trumpets technology and its ability to disseminate ‘impartial’ news, to facilitate social discussions via blogging, and the opportunities it affords a country to disseminate its soft power (i.e. the UK spreading its cultural ideas etc via the British Council or BBC Farsi). Secondly, the globalizing raw power of finance and economics, not only ties countries together thereby making wars less likely but can also increase social mobility and with that usually comes a desire for more governmental accountability. Furthermore, the introduction of China, for example, into the world economy means that their society necessarily becomes more open and transparent because of the exigencies of countless international institutions, bodies and mechanisms. Thirdly, he sees aid as a weapon which can promote democracy. He cites the examples of money given to women in Pakistan and Bangladesh being used to help them stand as candidates in local elections as just one such instance. Fourthly, the promise of joining international institutions such as the EU or the World Bank can act, as Vaclav Havel said, as ‘an engine that drives democratisation.’ Fifthly, Miliband concedes that hard power will play some kind of roll. Targeted sanctions or security guarantees, for example, could be used to penalise backsliding or to promote democratisation, as argued by Paul Collier.

All of this sounds good, plausible and the morally correct thing to do. However, there are those who see democracy as an insidious form of cultural imperialism, as summed up in the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed’s notion of ‘Asian Values’. Or indeed those who see the initially often destructive nature of democracy and thus relent from its implementation. In answering these charges, Miliband perceptively point towards Amartya Sen’s work which shows that well before the Italian city states were beginning their experiments, peoples of all cultures across the world frequently came together to discuss communal affairs. This is, of course, the essence of democracy and an effective counter point to the distasteful notion of Asian Values.

As for the question of assuaging the initial democratic convulsions, all Miliband can come up with is platitudes: “In countries such as China seeking a stable path to political reform it’s important to recognise that democracy is not a threat to stability but a way to guarantee it.” Really? If China held elections tomorrow Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong would probably vote for independence, not to mention calls for significant autonomy for the various minorities in parts of Southern China and Xinjiang, and how would the rest of the 1.2 billion Han Chinese react to the break up of the motherland?

History has shown that time and again the birth of democracy is initially a painful experience but that it is undoubtedly the best of the worst. The question is whether Miliband has proposed enough carrots and has enough sticks to help persuade countries to follow the path.