Sunday, January 23, 2005
Bush's crusade is based on a dangerous illusion and will failEric Hobsbawm
Saturday January 22, 2005
Although President Bush's uncompromising second inaugural address does
not so much as mention the words Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on
terror, he and his supporters continue to engage in a planned
reordering of the world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are but one
part of a supposedly universal effort to create world order by
"spreading democracy". This idea is not merely quixotic - it is
dangerous. The rhetoric implies that democracy is applicable in a
standardised (western) form, that it can succeed everywhere, that it
can remedy today's transnational dilemmas, and that it can bring
peace, rather than sow disorder. It cannot.
Democracy is rightly popular. In 1647, the English Levellers broadcast
the powerful idea that "all government is in the free consent of the
people". They meant votes for all. Of course, universal suffrage does
not guarantee any particular political result, and elections cannot
even ensure their own perpetuation - witness the Weimar Republic.
Electoral democracy is also unlikely to produce outcomes convenient to
hegemonic or imperial powers. (If the Iraq war had depended on the
freely expressed consent of "the world community", it would not have
happened). But these uncertainties do not diminish its justified
Other factors besides democracy's popularity explain the dangerous
belief that its propagation by armies might actually be feasible.
Globalisation suggests that human affairs are evolving toward a
universal pattern. If gas stations, iPods, and computer geeks are the
same worldwide, why not political institutions? This view underrates
the world's complexity. The relapse into bloodshed and anarchy that
has occurred so visibly in much of the world has also made the idea of
spreading a new order more attractive. The Balkans seemed to show that
areas of turmoil required the intervention, military if need be, of
strong and stable states. In the absence of effective international
governance, some humanitarians are still ready to support a world
order imposed by US power. But one should always be suspicious when
military powers claim to be doing weaker states favours by occupying
Another factor may be the most important: the US has been ready with
the necessary combination of megalomania and messianism, derived from
its revolutionary origins. Today's US is unchallengeable in its
techno-military supremacy, convinced of the superiority of its social
system, and, since 1989, no longer reminded - as even the greatest
conquering empires always had been - that its material power has
limits. Like President Wilson, today's ideologues see a model society
already at work in the US: a combination of law, liberal freedoms,
competitive private enterprise and regular, contested elections with
universal suffrage. All that remains is to remake the world in the
image of this "free society".
This idea is dangerous whistling in the dark. Although great power
action may have morally or politically desirable consequences,
identifying with it is perilous because the logic and methods of state
action are not those of universal rights. All established states put
their own interests first. If they have the power, and the end is
considered sufficiently vital, states justify the means of achieving
it - particularly when they think God is on their side. Both good and
evil empires have produced the barbarisation of our era, to which the
"war against terror" has now contributed.
While threatening the integrity of universal values, the campaign to
spread democracy will not succeed. The 20th century demonstrated that
states could not simply remake the world or abbreviate historical
transformations. Nor can they easily effect social change by
transferring institutions across borders. The conditions for effective
democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy,
consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups.
Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and
therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this
consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in
Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or
society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka).
"Spreading democracy" aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the
disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions
after both 1918 and 1989.
The effort to spread standardised western democracy also suffers a
fundamental paradox. A growing part of human life now occurs beyond
the influence of voters - in transnational public and private entities
that have no electorates. And electoral democracy cannot function
effectively outside political units such as nation-states. The
powerful states are therefore trying to spread a system that even they
find inadequate to meet today's challenges.
Europe proves the point. A body such as the European Union could
develop into a powerful and effective structure precisely because it
has no electorate other than a small number of member governments. The
EU would be nowhere without its "democratic deficit", and there can be
no legitimacy for its parliament, for there is no "European people".
Unsurprisingly, problems arose as soon as the EU moved beyond
negotiations between governments and became the subject of democratic
campaigning in the member states.
The effort to spread democracy is also dangerous in a more indirect
way: it conveys to those who do not enjoy this form of government the
illusion that it actually governs those who do. But does it? We now
know something about how the actual decisions to go to war in Iraq
were taken in at least two states of unquestionable democratic bona
fides: the US and the UK. Other than creating complex problems of
deceit and concealment, electoral democracy and representative
assemblies had little to do with that process. Decisions were taken
among small groups of people in private, not very different from the
way they would have been taken in non-democratic countries.
Fortunately, media independence could not be so easily circumvented in
the UK. But it is not electoral democracy that necessarily ensures
effective freedom of the press, citizen rights and an independent
Eric Hobsbawm is professor emeritus of economic and social history
of the University of London at Birkbeck and author of The Age of
Extremes: The Short 20th Century 1914-1991; this is an edited version
of an article that first appeared in the journal Foreign Policy.
Guardian Unlimited - Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005