Friday, December 17, 2004

Promoting democracy

In his columns in the Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash has argued strongly that the west should promote democracy whereever it can. Today, in light of Ukraine's "orange revolution", he lays down some ground rules for that project. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first one is that

War is not justified simply to promote democracy. So, the Iraq war was wrong. [...] Using the promotion of democracy as the main justification for that war risks giving democracy a bad name.

Almost a corollary of this is the second rule: no spies. Both military force and covert government subversion in the name of democracy taint that ideal by turning it into a pretext for interested parties' geopolitical aims. Democracy becomes a means by which some other government can get what it wants (typically a more compliant local regime), rather than a means by which ordinary people can get what they want. Instead, Garton Ash suggests that assistance should be given by NGOs and other groups independent of state control, and that whereever possible it should be done in a transparent manner so that there can be no claim of secrecy or hidden agendas. He also suggests that it be "proportional", limited to promoting fair and democratic systems which allow citizens to exercise real choice, rather than the all too common attempts to undermine those choices in favour of a preferred candidate (as the US did with covert force in Iran and Chile, and as it is attempting to do with covert money in Iraq).

The underlying idea here is that expressed in his previous article: of helping people to find "their own path to freedom, in their own countries, in their own time... peacefully" - rather than imposing our version of freedom (and our policies) on them at gunpoint. Democracy grows from below, and while we can apply fertiliser, we must do so in a way which respects people's fundamental right to choose their own direction. Unfortunately, all too often the proponents of democracy forget this part, and act as if "democracy" means choosing the government they want...