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A setback for the US is a setback to democracy

By Stephen Barton - posted Monday, 21 February 2005


History has shown us that democracy can be exported, that is not an issue. However what remains contentious is that more often than not, democracy’s midwife and godparent is the United States.

In his second inauguration address George W. Bush said, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.

The Guardian described the speech as a “fiery warning for the world”. When reading that headline it’s hard not to get the impression that it pits Bush and the United States against the world - and therefore Bush and the United States against us. The Guardian, the heroic anti-appeasing paper of the 1930s, somehow made a call for democracy a warning to the world, as if Bush’s address was a sinister threat.

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The Guardian’s headline underscores the extent to which cynicism towards Bush and the United States has coloured attitudes towards the spread of democracy.

In Australia this phenomena was captured on the ABC’s Enough Rope when Andrew Denton asked the then United States Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, “Islam is a religion which for a millennium hasn't leant towards democracy, and under that religion, laws are handed down from the spiritual leaders to the people as opposed to democracy, where laws come from the people. What if you find in the Middle East that they don't want democracy?”

Tom Schieffer replied, “I don't think you are going to find that. Democracy is something that is part of humankind. The same argument was made about the Japanese after World War II”.

You could spend hours pondering Denton’s question and observation, but perhaps one of the most striking elements is that on one level it is such a profoundly conservative position - who are we to impose our values on another established order? One could almost hear Enoch Powell ask the same question. Indeed, in the 19th century Tory opponents of Lord Macaulay’s “civilising” mission for Britain in India made similar arguments.

On another level, Denton is essentially arguing that democracy is a purely Western creature. Schieffer responded, “And to say that Muslims somehow are anti-democratic or there's an anti-democratic gene in the Islamic world, I think is just a soft prejudice that is unfounded and frankly is not helpful”.

The “soft prejudice” exists not because of any deep understanding of Islam or democracy, but because the experiment is American and its leading proponents are George W. Bush and a cabal of men they call neo-cons.

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This explains the churlish response to Iraq’s historic elections, a response best summed up by The Age’s front-page headline the following Monday, “Iraqi attacks deter voters”. So much so that 60 per cent of Iraqi’s voted, a truly astounding figure when one remembers that only just over 40 per cent of Poles voted in the historic first post-communism election. Mark Cornwall published a cartoon in On Line Opinion with George W. Bush pointing at a map of Iraq and proclaiming “Slaves to no tyrant,” before saying into a phone, “If that’s okay with Rupert”. Cute Cornwall! As if Murdoch was a greater tyrant than Saddam.

It’s almost as if opponents of the occupation want the election to fail, they want Iraq to dissolve into civil war, simply to say with breathless schadenfreude, “I told you so!” Certainly opponents of the invasion and occupation can find plenty of ammunition as to why democracy won’t work, but then again democracy has never been easy.

Even in continental Europe, with its tradition of the Enlightenment, democracy did not experience its final victory until 1989. The years between the world wars saw the complete and utter failure of democracy to take root and survive in much of Europe. In Germany in particular, its sonderweg, or "special path", had more than a dash of that famous “fear of freedom” and democracy and the democratic instinct were unpopular in much of Central Europe.

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About the Author

Stephen Barton teaches politics at Edith Cowan University and has been a political staffer at both a state and federal level. The views expressed here are his own.

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