Notes on democracy

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 1 Apr 2021

Considering the way the world works

The concepts of “democracy” and the “democratic system” are far from new in human thought. They are as old as Greek philosophy, which classed systems of government in terms of numbers of participants, their wealth and how directly or indirectly they participated. The ancients did not look all that fondly on democracy, which they associated with the rule of the least educated commoners who were particularly amenable to demagogues.

It was not until modern times that democracy and the democratic system came to be regarded as the best, if only because no better system existed, as Winston Churchill said. The democratic idea and system propose that the most successful means to promote the common weal is through bodies of elected representatives who meet to deliberate, debate and arrive at conclusions regarding the nation’s best interests and the measures to achieve them, steering the nation to progress and prosperity. 

As these ideas evolved, they merged with other concepts, such as liberalism and capitalism. The result is that democracy has come to stand for a large bundle of concepts affirming human freedom, individualism and values that have acquired the status of eternal rights. After World War II, which was seen as a humanitarian struggle against fascism, the US arose as the greatest superpower in the world and, after the Cold War, the only superpower with its NATO ally, the EU, as its sidekick. These victories won the certificate of approval for democracy and the democratic system.

In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history.” The fight was over; no other system had the wherewithal to enter the ring. Eastern European countries rushed to embrace democracy and they were soon joined by many others until eventually “democratic” nations outnumbered “non-democratic” ones. The world was swept into a state of political, ideological, moral, as well as economic globalisation led by democratic nations. But much has changed in the two decades since the turn of the 21st century. The tide has reversed the balance between democratic nations and authoritarian ones in their dictatorial, autocratic and oligarchic shades.

What has happened over those two decades is that globalisation generated a state of moral, economic and demographic alienation in the world in general, and within the democratic nations in particular. People responded by recoiling inward around their particular identities, giving rise to waves of xenophobia. Trump and Trumpism in the US were but one manifestation of this, but similar phenomena can be seen across democratic Europe and elsewhere. Such forces have gained such momentum that, if they are not in government now, they are in the parliamentary opposition. 

Perhaps the root of this shift resides in the fact that democratic nations, despite their great technological and economic achievements, failed the test of political and strategic decisions, which ultimately backfired on the democratic system itself. In Dereliction of Duty, H R McMaster, who served as national security adviser under Trump, describes in great detail how severely remiss the US presidency, defence and security institutions were in their decision-making on matters of war and peace in Vietnam. Their foibles set into motion the strategic collapse in Indochina and a chain of lies and deceits to cover this up at home. Democracy was not in sterling condition at the time. Nor was wisdom at its height. The institutions failed in their duty to make the soundest decisions. 

US democratic institutions performed no better after the 11 September 2001 attacks. They fell into the thrall of such an intense instinct for revenge that the US plunged into two disastrous wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq. Not only have those wars failed to deliver democracy to these countries, they also ended up handing them to fascist and terrorist groups that threaten the US and international peace and security. In Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House, Peter Baker describes decision-making in Washington in the build up to the invasion of Iraq as follows: 

“There was blame enough to go around: A president who arrived in office ready to complete what his father left unfinished.” Bush Jr felt that his father should have proceeded to topple Saddam Hussein after the liberation of Kuwait in the Gulf War. “A vice-president so convinced of the dangers from Baghdad that he pressed for intelligence to back up his conclusions. A CIA that often overlooked dissenting voices to produce what it thought the nation’s leadership wanted. A Democratic opposition cowed by the political winds and too willing to believe the same ultimately flawed evidence.

Allied intelligence agencies like the British, Germans and Italians that passed along thinly supported assertions, fraudulent documents, and wholesale fabrications without fully sharing their sources. An Iraqi dictator who never came clean on the assumption that America would never follow through on its threat. And a news media that got caught up in the post–September 11 moment, trusted official sources too much, and gave prominence to indications of weapons while downplaying doubts.”

The democratic system was not at its competent or rational best when it came to other critical cases, despite always presenting itself as the beacon of truth and wisdom. In recent decades, many different models of government in the world have shown that, while they failed in some respects, they also made achievements and progress. Indeed, the dichotomy between the inherently successful democratic model and the inherently unsuccessful authoritarian model does considerable injustice to the abilities that diverse systems already possess in order to remedy the problems of the age, without having had others’ modes of political evolution forced on them.

In “Critical thinking versus constructive thinking,” in Al-Ahram of 25 March, Egyptian political scientist Gamal Abdel Gawad draws attention to the difference between the European-American model, which gives precedence to critical thinking as the cornerstone of the freedom of thought that propels societies forward, and the Asian model, in which criticism connotes difference, discord, division, destruction and obstruction, whereas a constructive attitude connotes communication, unity and harmony. Perhaps other countries could use more of those latter ingredients in order to move forward.

Last week in Cairo, a seminar convened to discuss the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” that President Joe Biden unveiled earlier this month. The document sets the guidelines for how he believes Washington should engage with the world and contend with the global changes that have occurred in recent years. It appears to identity “democracy” as the moral and ideological spearhead that, together with other factors, will restore the US to world leadership and provide other countries with happiness and hope for a better future.

The US experience is undoubtedly exciting and important. But it is not necessarily the right one for all other countries and societies to emulate. At the same time, that experience offers some lessons showing how much it could benefit from a little more humility. 

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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