Do Non-Western Cultures Prevent Democratization?

January 1, 2009

[First published April 4, 2006] AMARTYA SEN, the 1998 Nobel laureate in economics, and original proponent of the proposition that democracies never have famines, has an excellent article, “Democracy Isn’t ‘Western’ 
Cultural determinists should look beyond Ancient Greece,” that I want to bring to your attention. He says:

….The determinism of culture is increasingly used in contemporary global discussions to generate pessimism about the feasibility of a democratic state, or of a flourishing economy, or of a tolerant society, wherever these conditions do not already obtain.

Indeed, cultural stereotyping can have great effectiveness in fixing our way of thinking….

Many have observed that in the ’60s South Korea and Ghana had similar income per head, whereas within 30 years the former grew to be 15 times richer than the latter. This comparative history is immensely important to study and causally analyze, but the temptation to put much of the blame on Ghanaian or African culture (as is done by as astute an observer as Samuel Huntington) calls for some resistance. Mr. Huntington closes his contrast with a spectacular formula: “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization and discipline. Ghanaians had different values. In short, cultures count.” Ghanaians, and perhaps many other Africans, seem doomed to stagnate, according to this analysis.
In fact, that cultural story is extremely deceptive. There were many important differences, other than any differences in cultural predispositions, between Ghana and Korea in the 1960s….

The temptation of founding economic pessimism on cultural resistance is matched by the evident enchantment, even more common today, of basing political pessimism, particularly about democracy, on alleged cultural impossibilities….It is worth remembering that democracy has developed well enough in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and in the case of some, such as South Africa, even foreign assistance to local democratic movements (for example through economic boycott) has positively helped.

When it is asked whether Western countries can “impose” democracy on the non-Western world, even the language reflects a confusion centering on the idea of “imposition,” since it implies a proprietary belief that democracy “belongs” to the West, taking it to be a quintessentially “Western” idea which has originated and flourished exclusively in the West. This is a thoroughly misleading way of understanding the history and the contemporary prospects of democracy.
Democracy, to use the old Millian phrase, is “government by discussion,” and voting is only one part of a broader picture….

There can be no doubt at all that the modern concepts of democracy and of public reasoning have been very deeply influenced by European and American analyses and experiences over the last few centuries….

The belief in the allegedly “Western” nature of democracy is often linked to the early practice of voting and elections in Greece, especially in Athens. Democracy involves more than balloting, but even in the history of voting there would be a classificatory arbitrariness in defining civilizations in largely racial terms. In this way of looking at civilizational categories, no great difficulty is seen in considering the descendants of, say, Goths and Visigoths as proper inheritors of the Greek tradition (“they are all Europeans,” we are told). But there is reluctance in taking note of the Greek intellectual links with other civilizations to the east or south of Greece, despite the greater interest that the Greeks themselves showed in talking to Iranians, or Indians, or Egyptians (rather than in chatting up the Ostrogoths).

Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance….for democracy and freedom did not emerge from any Western “imposition.”
Similarly, the history of Muslims includes a variety of traditions, not all of which are just religious or “Islamic” in any obvious sense. The work of Arab and Iranian mathematicians, from the eighth century onward reflects a largely nonreligious tradition. Depending on politics, which varied between one Muslim ruler and another, there is also quite a history of tolerance and of public discussion, on which the pursuit of a modern democracy can draw….

Cultural dynamics does not have to build something from absolutely nothing, nor need the future be rigidly tied to majoritarian beliefs today or the power of the contemporary orthodoxy. To see Iranian dissidents who want a fully democratic Iran not as Iranian advocates but as “ambassadors of Western values” would be to add insult to injury, aside from neglecting parts of Iranian history (including the practice of democracy in Susa or Shushan in southwest Iran 2,000 years ago). The diversity of the human past and the freedoms of the contemporary world give us much more choice than cultural determinists acknowledge. This is particularly important to emphasize since the illusion of cultural destiny can extract a heavy price in the continued impoverishment of human lives and liberties.

RJR: I’m glad that he hit the “exporting democracy” line that has been taken by so many “realists” and those opposed to the Iraq War, although I take a different tack. To me, fostering democracy is fostering the freedom of people from their thug rulers, and is hardly different from freeing people from deadly concentration camps.

On Sen’s argument that culture is not as much an inhibiting factor in spreading democracy as is claimed, I agree. But one does not have to look at the distant past too show the fallacy of this argument. All one needs to do is look at the diverse nature of the cultures of current democracies (leaving out Western Europe and related nations). Representative regional-cultural representatives that are now democratic include Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan in North East Asia; India and Bhutan in South Asia, Thailand, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor in South East Asia; Albania, Greece, Poland, and Hungary in Eastern Europe; Turkey and Israel in the Middle East; Botswana Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, and Lesotho in Africa; Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts & Nevis in the West Indies; Argentina, Brazil, and Peru in South American; Mexico, Costa Rica, and Dominican Republic in Central American; and the Philippines, Palau, Marshall Islands, and Micronesia in the Pacific.

Surprised by this list, which if all democracies were included would number 121 out of 192 nations? Many people are, since they see democracies as mainly Western European or their historical derivatives, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. But, as can be seen, this is a distorted view.

One is almost tempted to say all major cultures are represented, but that is wrong—the Arab Muslim culture of North Africa and the Middle East is missing. But it is not an Islamic culture itself, since the Muslim nations (The) Gambia, Senegal, Mali, and Indonesia are democracies. There must be something within Arab culture itself that plays a role, whatever that is (I’m researching this at the moment and will write on it soon). In any case, with all the world’s major cultures but one having democratic representatives, it is foolish to argue that the one—the Arab culture— will prevent democratization.


The Ignored Iron Triangle of Power

January 1, 2009

[First published April 5, 2006] It was a prime strategic concept during the Cold War and helped carry us to victory. Once America was fully engaged in the Vietnam War, it became the prime justification for fighting to win. It is at the heart of peacekeeping. And it was ignored during the senior Bush and Clinton Administrations, with the predictable result that we ended up in a war against Iraq. Now, opponents of this war and democratization are destroying it, with dire consequences for the future.

This is about credibility, one of the elements in an Iron Triangle of Power and is so important in itself as to be enshrined within a strategic principle of action.

Its crucial importance is well revealed in Saddam Hussein’s official documents. Consider this revelation from Saddam’s official documents (see here):

Saddam never believed such war with the U.S. would ever occur—he believed that the United States was casualty-averse to an absolutely incredible degree. Saddam based that on several factors: the fact that he received only a diplomatic note after Iraqi Mirage fighters fired on the USS Stark in 1987, that the United States left Somalia after losing 19 troops, and its failure to commit ground troops early on in Kosovo.

And also there are the revelations of Georges Sada, one of Saddam’s top generals and insiders (see here):

In 1990, Saddam ordered a poison gas and chemical attack on Israel with 98 of Iraq’s best fighters. No warning would be given, nor would permission be requested to use Syrian and Jordanian airspace. He could not be dissuaded from this even when Georges argued that all 98 would be shot down before reaching Israel. Saddam was willing to gamble that at least 10 aircraft would be able to drop their bombs. He also ordered a similar attack on the capital of Saudi Arabia. The launching of the Gulf War by the United States caused him to cancel these plans.

As to what the U.S. would do if Israel were so attacked, “everyone” thought the U.S. would rattle its papers and do nothing. This estimate was based on Clinton’s weak response to attacks on American ships, bases, and citizens. Saddam believe that the Americans were afraid to fight.

The invasion of Kuwait was predicated on the belief that American Ambassador April Glaspie had given Saddam a free hand regarding Kuwait, or to do whatever else he planned. So, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, they thought the American military buildup in Saudi Arabia and threats were for show.

Then there is the interview with Bin Laden:

BIN LADEN: ….We believe that the defeat of America is possible, with the help of God, and is even easier for us, God permitting, than the defeat of the Soviet Union [in Afghanistan] was before.
Q: How can you explain that?
BIN LADEN: We experienced the Americans through our brothers who went into combat against them in Somalia, for example. We found they had no power worthy of mention. There was a huge aura over America — the United States — that terrified people even before they entered combat. Our brothers who were here in Afghanistan tested them, and together with some of the mujahedeen in Somalia, God granted them victory. America exited dragging its tails in failure, defeat, and ruin, caring for nothing.

President Bush and his top people understand the principle involved and have followed it. But, now, its incredible and strategically stupid violation by the American demagogic and “realist” opponents of the Iraq War and Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom are reaping the expected cost. The best gauge of this is what Amir Taheri wrote in his The Wall Street Journal article, “The Last Helicopter:

Hassan Abbasi…,”The Dr. Kissinger of Islam,”…is “professor of strategy” at the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard Corps University and, according to Tehran sources, the principal foreign policy voice in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s new radical administration. For the past several weeks Mr. Abbasi has been addressing crowds of Guard and Baseej Mustadafin (Mobilization of the Dispossessed) officers in Tehran with a simple theme: The U.S. does not have the stomach for a long conflict and will soon revert to its traditional policy of “running away,” leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed the whole of the Middle East, to be reshaped by Iran and its regional allies.

To hear Mr. Abbasi tell it the entire recent history of the U.S. could be narrated with the help of the image of “the last helicopter.” It was that image in Saigon that concluded the Vietnam War under Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter had five helicopters fleeing from the Iranian desert, leaving behind the charred corpses of eight American soldiers. Under Ronald Reagan the helicopters carried the corpses of 241 Marines murdered in their sleep in a Hezbollah suicide attack. Under the first President Bush, the helicopter flew from Safwan, in southern Iraq, with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf aboard, leaving behind Saddam Hussein’s generals, who could not believe why they had been allowed live to fight their domestic foes, and America, another day. Bill Clinton’s helicopter was a Black Hawk, downed in Mogadishu and delivering 16 American soldiers into the hands of a murderous crowd.

According to this theory, President George W. Bush is an “aberration,” a leader out of sync with his nation’s character and no more than a brief nightmare for those who oppose the creation of an “American Middle East.” Messrs. Abbasi and Ahmadinejad have concluded that there will be no helicopter as long as George W. Bush is in the White House. But they believe that whoever succeeds him, Democrat or Republican, will revive the helicopter image to extricate the U.S. from a complex situation that few Americans appear to understand. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s defiant rhetoric is based on a strategy known in Middle Eastern capitals as “waiting Bush out.” ….

He used that message to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to adopt a defiant position vis-à-vis the U.N. investigation of the murder of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon….According to sources in Tehran and Damascus, Mr. Assad had pondered the option of “doing a Gadhafi” by toning down his regime’s anti-American posture. Since last February, however, he has revived Syria’s militant rhetoric and dismissed those who advocated a rapprochement with Washington….

In recent visits to several regional capitals, this writer was struck by the popularity of this new game from Islamabad to Rabat. The general assumption is that Mr. Bush’s plan to help democratize the heartland of Islam is fading under an avalanche of partisan attacks inside the U.S. The effect of this assumption can be witnessed everywhere.

In Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf has shelved his plan, forged under pressure from Washington, to foster a popular front to fight terrorism by lifting restrictions against the country’s major political parties and allowing their exiled leaders to return…. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, arguably the most pro-American leader in the region, is cautiously shaping his post-Bush strategy by courting Tehran and playing the Pushtun ethnic card against his rivals.

In Turkey, the “moderate” Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slowly but surely putting the democratization process into reverse gear….

Even in Iraq the sentiment that the U.S. will not remain as committed as it has been under Mr. Bush is producing strange results. While Shiite politicians are rushing to Tehran to seek a reinsurance policy, some Sunni leaders are having second thoughts about their decision to join the democratization process. “What happens after Bush?” demands Salih al-Mutlak, a rising star of Iraqi Sunni leaders. The Iraqi Kurds have clearly decided to slow down all measures that would bind them closer to the Iraqi state. Again, they claim that they have to “take precautions in case the Americans run away.”

….Saudi Arabia has put its national dialogue program on hold and has decided to focus on economic rather than political reform. In Bahrain, too, the political reform machine has been put into rear-gear, while in Qatar all talk of a new democratic constitution to set up a constitutional monarchy has subsided. In Jordan the security services are making a spectacular comeback, putting an end to a brief moment of hopes for reform. As for Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has decided to indefinitely postpone local elections, a clear sign that the Bush-inspired scenario is in trouble. Tunisia and Morocco, too, have joined the game by stopping much-advertised reform projects while Islamist radicals are regrouping and testing the waters at all levels.

….Running away from Saigon, the Iranian desert, Beirut, Safwan and Mogadishu was not hard to sell to the average American, because he was sure that the story would end there; the enemies left behind would not pursue their campaign within the U.S. itself. The enemies that America is now facing in the jihadist archipelago, however, are dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. as the world knows it today.
Those who have based their strategy on waiting Mr. Bush out may find to their cost that they have, once again, misread not only American politics but the realities of a world far more complex than it was even a decade ago. Mr. Bush may be a uniquely decisive, some might say reckless, leader. But a visitor to the U.S. soon finds out that he represents the American mood much more than the polls suggest.

What is most important about this misreading of a post-Bush American foreign and defense policy, is the risk for more wars that it entails. Need I mention Iran, North Korea, and China over Taiwan?

The principle that opponents of Bush have not only ignored, but shredded in a time of war, is this:

Maintain or enhance one’s credibility for action.

Maintaining the credibility of America’s commitment to defense alliances and containment was what powered strategic support for the Vietnam War. Maintaining the credibility that we would respond in kind against a Soviet nuclear first strike against the United States was the strategic core of American Cold War defense policy. Now, in Iraq, Bush has signaled in many ways that the U.S. is committed to staying the course, to the defeat of terrorism, and to a democratic Iraq. He has bolstered the credibility of this by putting the lives of American soldiers at risk, spending billions of dollars on this war and the democratization of Iraq, and displaying his dedication through speech after speech.

But, his political opponents and those of the war have shown in many ways that if they gain power over Congress and the presidency, which our enemies who are unsophisticated in American politics, see as likely, they will not only force a last-helicopter-out-of-Vietnam defeat, but weaken the war on terror (or turn it over to the UN, which is the same thing) and return to a “realist” emphasis on supporting the thugs that promise political stability at the cost of democracy.

Credibility is part of the peacekeeping triangle of power, which is capability for action, interest, and will (or credibility/resolution). Capability is not only military, but also involves the people’s morale, the type of political system, leadership qualities, and so on). The interest of the leadership and public is equally important. If one loses or does not have interest in a certain action, then this affects one’s power to do something about it, such as the lack of interest in stopping the Rwandan genocide, or the current one in Sudan. Then there is will power, or the will to use one’s capabilities when one’s interests are threatened. It is that will that confers credibility, the most important element of this triangle.

To sum all this up by a political equation:

Power = capabilities X interest X will

If any of the elements on the right are zero, power is zero, no matter how strong the other elements. If interest and capabilities to defeat an enemy are great, but will appears weak, then so is power.