Monday, 1 June 2020

Liberal Democracies Working Against Liberal Ideas

Updated: January 1, 2011 12:00 pm

After the end of the Second World War, the West was embroiled in an ideological Cold War against the Soviet bloc. Western powers focused on the spread of liberal democracies and free market systems. This led to an actualisation in the spread of liberal democracies, with “about 60 per cent of countries in the world system (towards the end of the 20th century) having democratic procedures, compared to about 28 per cent in 1950. Further, some commentators argued that the right to democracy was an emerging international norm (O’Laughlin et al 1998, 546)”. In the new, unipolar world order headed by the United States after the Cold War, liberal democracies were the only internationally acceptable form of rule. However, the working of liberal democracies differed from what liberal thinkers expected. Concerns like security interests and protection of their own economies have been prioritised, while a loss of sovereignty for citizens in a liberal democracy has been visible. “What we see emerging is a notion of democracy that is being steadily stripped of its popular component democracy without a demos (Mair 2006).” The democratic peace theory central to liberal analyses has had its critics, with some discounting it. Rosato explains the peace that exists is not due to the peaceful nature of democracies “American preponderance has underpinned stability and peace in both the Americas and Western Europe (Rosato 2003, 600)” by installing friendly regimes in the Americas and negating the possibility of a return to security competition in Europe. Western powers have frequently ignored human rights violations and the transportation of free-market ideas has not been universally applied. Through highlighting the loss of citizens’ sovereignty, criticism of the democratic peace theory and the failure to transport and implement liberal economic tenets, I will argue that liberal analyses of world politics has collapsed because the working of liberal democracies has frequently ignored liberal ideas.

                At the core of liberal analysis is the importance of the citizenry “Liberal theory rests on a ‘bottom-up’ view of politics in which the demands of individuals and societal groups are treated as analytically prior to politics (Moravcsik 1997, 517)”. In a liberal democracy, it is assumed that individual demands are prioritised since leaders are accountable to their electorate. But Mair argues that “citizens turn from being participants into spectators, while the elites gain more space in which to pursue their own shared interests (Mair 2006)”. Leaders have become entrenched in party structures and ensconced in a battle amongst each other and thereby distanced from their electorate. Mair criticises party politics, where the lines between parties have become blurred and left voters disengaged by showing lower voter participation levels in several European liberal democracies. Further, parties have now become more dependent on funds from the public purse and see their roles more as governing rather than representing. Interest group politics another central tenet of Western liberal democracies have not succeeded in Asia and the Middle East, where they are seen as “inadequate attempts to replicate Anglo-American models of democratic pluralism (Bianchi 1986, 509)”. Increasingly, liberal democracies have seen their citizens distanced from decision-making and “representatives act not as agents of the people but simply instead of them (Mair 2006)”. This gap between representatives and the citizenry emphasises the gap between liberal ideas and their enactment in liberal democracies.

                Liberal democracies have exhibited a penchant for providing their leaders with unquestionable decision-making power. In India, it was seen when Indira Gandhi declared a state Emergency between 1975 and 1977. In America, the executive has used this power to circumvent the constitutional process while taking military action. This has been done by either delaying the constitutional process, placing war under a different guise or by simply disobeying the constitution. “The US has taken military action abroad more than 200 times during its history, but only five of these wars were declared by the Congress, and most were authorised unilaterally by the President (Rosato 2003, 597).” Polk was guilty of this prior to the Mexican-American War and Roosevelt’s tactics before America’s entry into World War II fit this pattern, “while Nixon rejected the need for Congressional authority when he invaded Cambodia (Rosato 2003, 597)”. Liberal democracies have seen decision-making power concentrated in the hands of their leaders which seems to conflict with the interests of the citizenry, especially if as Mair suggests, voters have been distanced from their leaders. Demands of the citizenry are sidelined in contemporary liberal democracies and this runs contradictory to the liberal framework.

                Liberals have often championed the cause of the Democratic Peace Theory the claim that democracies rarely fight each other because they share common norms and institutions that constrain them to resort to war. The decline of interstate war is often attributed to the existence of “a zone of peace between democratic states (Barkawi and Laffey 1999, 403)”. At the heart of the theory is the idea that states externalise liberal norms of conflict resolution. These democracies did fight wars but they were largely popular ones or to protect their own territories or to intervene in a state guilty of human rights violations. Rosato points to the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 and the French invasion of Tunisia in 1881, which were clearly motivated by non-liberal concerns. Similarly, alleged wars of pacification against neighboring settlements were guised under the motive of protecting imperial possessions and “there is evidence that Europeans often provoked these attacks (Rosato 2003, 588)”. This assumption of externalising liberal norms requires an international framework that will police governments in observing these norms. The United Nations could be seen as a vehicle for this in recent times and the failure of most UN interventions supports the idea that democracies have been unable to successfully externalise liberal norms.

                While the Democratic Peace Theory stands by the belief that democracies do not go to war with one another, the definition of war has not adapted to recent global changes. Since the advent of the nuclear bomb, great powers did not confront each other because of their capacity to destroy one another and hence armed conflict was a non-starter. Instead, “the periphery took on central importance as the site of armed conflict (Barkawi and Laffey 1999, 410)”. In the Correlates of War study which was the basis for the Democratic Peace Theory, the definition of war was limited and “obscured historical shifts in the nature and conduct of war and the significance of these shifts for the development of Western democracy (Barkawi and Laffey 1999, 409)”. Interventions and proxy settings were not accounted for despite the popularity of interventions as a tool for the great powers since the end of World War II. Rosato accounts for American involvement in the removal of democratic leaders in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, British Guyana, Brazil, Chile and Nicaragua. “Washington’s commitment to containing the spread of communism overwhelmed any respect for fellow democracies (Rosato 2003, 590).” America was motivated by non-liberal concerns in their intervention efforts around the world. Washington refused to trust or respect their fellow democracies or use liberal forms of negotiation or international discussions. Liberal norms and peace formed remained secondary as Cold War security concerns were prioritised.

     Proponents of the democratic peace suggest that “democratic leaders are more readily punished if they lose a war, and hence they are more reluctant to engage in wars (Slantchev et al 2005, 461)”. Rosato uses Goemans’ dataset (Goemans 2000b) to show that 62 per cent of autocrats in costly wars were removed or punished, while only 34 per cent of democratic leaders in similar wars were punished (Rosato 2003, 594). While only 15 democracies were accounted for in costly wars and there were 77 autocracies in such wars, the difference in the figures indicates there is little evidence to suggest democratic leaders face more costs from engaging in costly wars. The fact that “pacific publics and antiwar groups rarely constrain policymakers’ decisions for war (Rosato 2003, 593),” democracies are not relatively slow to mobilise, and democratic leaders do not appear to be more accountable than their autocratic counterparts, discredit the Democratic Peace Theory and the liberal functioning of liberal democracies.

     International Organisations and liberal proponents continue to proceed on the assumption that free-market ideas, economic liberalisation and free trade are transferrable and transportable across the globe and would complement a situation of democracy and peace. However, “an apparent correlation between free markets, democracy and peace within developed countries tells us little about how less fortunate countries (Keen 2005, 73)” will react. At the cornerstone of these free-market ideas have been the spread of liberal ideas around the world and the “entrenchment of a liberal discipline in Africa and Latin America where economies around the world are directly exposed to the imperatives of capitalist competition and the discipline it imposes (Cammack 1998, 256)”. Free trade has often impacted poorer sections of the population adversely and left key domestic industries marginalised. In poorer, newly democratic, non-Western nations, liberal programs such as structural adjustment can have an “immediate and painful impact on people’s incomes, living standards, health and overall social conditions (Harsch 1993, 15)”. Such a situation can often destabilise democracies and enhance systems of patronage politics previously present in these political systems. Thus, “international economic liberalisation is intrinsically undemocratic in character and in the new universe of internationalisation and globalisation, domestic political movements tend to be sidelined (Cammack 1998, 256)”. The transportation of liberal ideas has proved difficult and it has served to fuel Robert McChesney’s view that “liberal democracy is the modern and unprecedented marriage of the most-sophisticated form of class-society capitalism with some semblance of formal democracy (Stolze 2005, 98)”.

                When liberal democracies embrace free markets and their domestic industries are impacted negatively, they are forced to impose tariffs and barriers to trade. While liberals maintain the optimum path through which “wealth will be maximised is through international specialisation (Strange 1985, 256)” and free trade, even great powers like the United States have employed protectionist policies to protect their steel and textiles sectors. The liberal explanation for the “persistence of illiberal commercial policies (like protectionism) is pressure from powerful domestic groups (Moravcsik 1997, 532)”. Strange argues that “the trade system is secondary to the security system and what it does or fails to do to maintain the peace and to keep the monetary system stable and credit flowing is what matters (Strange 1985, 257)”. Liberal concerns here appear to remain secondary in liberal democracies decision-making processes.

                At the heart of liberal thought is “its traditional moral foundation the belief in universal human rights (Lakoff 1990, 378)”. However, western powers and international institutions have seemed unwilling to act on this liberal commitment. Through genocides in Rwanda and Darfur in the last two decades, a commitment to human rights was largely ignored and even great powers have scarcely been involved. Though there has been progress on the formation of international human rights institutions and NGOs, their power to act and make a difference has rarely shone through. Universal human rights have been core to liberal ideas and the spreading of democracy, but in practice, it is catered to only when other priorities do not conflict with it. This highlights the gap between liberal thought and real world decision-making in liberal democracies.

     Over the course of recent history, the gap between liberal thought and the working of liberal democracies is evident. As leaders prioritise security interests and protection of their own economies, given the steady loss of sovereignty for their citizenry, it is difficult to suggest liberal democracies are truly liberal in their policy-making. Even the Democratic Peace Theory has been discounted and with the inability to transport liberal ideas of free-trade and observing human rights successfully, doubts are prevalent over a truly liberal world order with liberal ideas at the forefront. As the world enters a new phase and globalisation becomes more of a reality, the chosen governing system of liberal democracies has become diluted of its liberal intentions. It is clear that “modern liberal democratic theory has few defenses against redefinitions of democratic political practice in the real world, which substantially compromises its commitment to core democratic values (Cammack 1998, 255)”. As the gap between liberal thought and the actual working of liberal democracy persists, liberal analyses of world politics would collapse, when confronted with the reality of liberal democratic decision-making.

By Pritish Behuria

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