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June 04, 2009

Comments

Tom

So Nathan is advocating that we tell the international community that our intent is to impose Democracy all over the world? Don't ever become a diplomat, Nathan.

Nathan Smith

Nope. One could say that we *shouldn't* impose democracy on other countries, though it would put one in a bit of an awkward position with respect to the constitutions of Germany and Japan, the legitimacy of which would seem to be called into question by the disavowal of the process by which they were established. Or one could say that we should *only in exceptional cases* impose democracy on other countries, which would have the virtue of being true. One might also say that imposing democracy on other countries has a sufficiently limited track record of success that we can have little confidence that it will work in any particular case, and that it's costly and dangerous.

But a president of the United States should have more scruples than to state out-and-out falsehoods in major speeches, even if it were to our advantage diplomatically (which in this case it is not; it just makes us look weak and unprincipled). In Obama's case, I think he's just ignorant, not so much of the historical facts of what happened in Germany, Japan and Iraq, though he does seem to be rather incurious about things other than himself, but rather about the logical principle that something which has occurred cannot be impossible, or more generally, that there are such things as logical principles which affect the truth and falsehood of propositions.

Nathan Smith

Actually, I'm not sure it wouldn't be good *diplomacy* to make occasional noises about how imposing democracy was possible and sometimes a good idea. It would give dictators more of an incentive to get on our good side, and to treat their peoples tolerably, in order not to be the next Saddam Hussein. It would provoke the righteous indignation of amoralists at home and abroad, but they don't matter.

Nato

If Japan, Germany and especially Iraq are to *own* their democracies, then it cannot be imposed. And indeed, if people vote for dictators or other autocrats, there's little to be done. If Iraq decides it wants to be a democracy, then it will be. If not, it won't be. There are ways in which this is tautalogical, of course, but if the Iraqi example is to have any sway, it had best not be viewed in the light of an imposition.

Nathan Smith

Nope. It is quite possible that democracy be imposed by an outside power, and that the people on whom it is imposed then decide that they like it. That's what happened in Germany and Japan, and seems to be happening in Iraq.

It's like a parent who forces a kid to learn to read, and the kid later comes to love reading, or at least find it to his advantage. Reading was imposed on him. That doesn't mean he can't own it. Same with democracy.

It's time for the world to come to terms with these facts. Obama shouldn't pander to the romantic myth, thrice-disproven (at the least) by history, that democracy can only emerge spontaneously from the people.

Nato

"It is quite possible that democracy be imposed by an outside power, and that the people on whom it is imposed then decide that they like it. That's what happened in Germany and Japan, and seems to be happening in Iraq."

We didn't march all the Japanese, Germans and Iraqis to the ballot box and force them to cast votes. If large parts of the electorate decide that the process is illegitimate, there's little to be done. Sham 'democracies' can be imposed, but it's generally obvious that they aren't real. On the other hand, some polities decide to elect despots in fair elections and acquiesce in the erasure of their own rights. Lebanon just decided not to do so (apparently), and no one even needed to invade!

Nathan Smith

re: "We didn't march all the Japanese, Germans and Iraqis to the ballot box and force them to cast votes."

Ah, but there is no particular level of voter turnout that is necessary to constitute democracy. In the United States, sometiems 60% of the electorate stays home. Of course, if certain groups of voter boycott elections they do lose legitimacy, but the groups that do so forfeit power, so if the center can hold for a little while-- and that is a question of having enough force-- groups will find it in their interest to participate.

re: "Sham 'democracies' can be imposed, but it's generally obvious that they aren't real."

Care to give historical examples? Sham democracy occurs, certainly, but it is a result of leaders who don't want to see themselves as dispensable refusing to allow fair political competition to develop and thereby risk losing power. If the powers that be choose not to use their power to restrict political competition, democratic rules lead to democratic reality. In a sense, it doesn't matter what the people think. If they stay home, or vote for bad guys, neither of those actions makes democracy a sham.

re: "some polities decide to elect despots in fair elections and acquiesce in the erasure of their own rights"

Sure. What follows from that is not that democracy can't be imposed, but that you can't guarantee that it will stick. You might impose a transient democracy that gives way to dictatorship later, but you still imposed democracy. However, if Obama had made the more modest claim that "it's not always possible for one nation to impose democracy on another," this argument would certainly be sufficient to render his statement plausible and defensible. Unfortunately, he made a categorical statement that no system of government can be imposed on one nation by another, and thus put himself indubitably in the wrong. For, after all, sometimes liberated peoples *don't* decide to elect despots.

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