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.