Thursday, September 16, 2004

The dangerous move to Democracy

This article is timely in light of what is happening in Iraq as that country makes the transition from dictatorship to democracy: Delving Into Democracy's Shadows
The problem, says Mr. Mann, comes from a fateful ambiguity at the heart of democracy -- "rule by the people," as the Greek source of the term has it. But within a nation-state, "the people" tends not to mean simply "the ordinary citizens," but those sharing a distinct culture -- an "ethnos." In a nation-state that is authoritarian but stable, ethnic violence may be routine, but it tends not to involve struggle for control of political power.

With democratization, however, the stakes increase. Ethnic nationalism proves strongest, and most deadly, when one group feels economically exploited or threatened by another. (In Rwanda, for example, Tutsis tended to be more prosperous than the Hutus.) Mr. Mann lists a series of steps through which the tensions may reach a brink -- at which point, in the name of democracy, ordinary people seek to purify the nation-state of any ethnic "contamination."
Yugoslavia was another example of this process and Russia looks likely to be another. In nations with complex ethnic/religious histories, the move to democracy may unleash brutal dynamics. It appears sadly to be pretty much inevitable.

It is worth considering what would have happened in Iraq had the US not intervened. At some point the authoritarian system of Saddam would have collapsed and, just as in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, the repressed ethnic and religious diversions would have surfaced with murderous result. Perhaps this scenario would not have resulted in as much suffering as the US intervention has caused but given Rwanda and Chechnya that is unlikely.

Also, given that in Yugoslavia it was outside intervention that forced the ethnic groups to stop fighting and that in Rwanda external intervention would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives one can argue that having US and British troops in Iraq has prevented worse than what is happening now.


Blogger Greyshade said...

It's a fair point that democracy is not the same thing as liberty (much less equality and fraternity) - it is merely a mechanism for removing or keeping out the worst forms of tyranny without undue bloodshed. It's also a fair point that a tyrant (eg Tito) may sometimes hold an "explosive" multi-ethnic / religious mixture together.

There are, however, many instances of democratic nations (USA, Brazil, South Africa, Canada, France, Germany, Britain to name a few) where mixtures of different ethnic groups coexist peacefully. Some of these nations have quite chequered histories with horrific religious or ethnic wars but the worst of these wars were before democratization (France and Germany) or under imperfect (Great Britain - Jacobite rebellion) or lapsed (Germany - Adolf Hitler) democracy. I don't accept that there is anything inevitable about a descent into chaos on democratisation.

Sometimes the only solution may be partition - but what's wrong with that. It worked (more or less) when India and Pakistan were separated on independence, when Singapore separated from Malaysia and (more recently)when Czechoslovakia split up. Slovenia separated from Yugoslavia with little bloodshed, Croatia and Bosnia could have done the same if Milosevich had let them - do we consider Milosevich a democrat?

Chechnya (or Dagestan) could also be an independent state. That is clearly the wish of its people. That the Russian government denies this independence is a black spot on democracy but the unfortunate history of that region goes back to Stalin and Czar Nicholas.

I suspect Iraq will eventually become a federation (if only because its neighbours would not accept independent Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish nations. Your theory that the US/UK occupation is avoiding suffering that would have happened had Saddam been removed by "natural causes" is interesting. Certainly very different to the official line that "we are saving Iraq from a brutal regime and bringing them democracy".

If, however, the ethnic/religious tensions in Iraq really are as bad as you fear (none of the violence to date appears to be ethnic or sectarian) then imho the bomb is still ticking. The explosion will simply happen when the occupying forces leave rather than when Saddam went.

16 September 2004 at 11:19 AM  
Blogger Sock Thief said...

All very valid points. I tend to agree with Iraq turning ultimately into a federation. I imagine that in 100 years Israel/Palestine will go that way as well. It seems ethnic groups have to first of all claim their identity and independence before realsing that there are advantages in loosing some of that.

16 September 2004 at 11:28 AM  

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