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Let's force them to be free

By Gary Brown - posted Monday, 7 February 2005

It was the 18th century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, via a remarkably dubious piece of convoluted logic, argued that people can be "forced to be free". Is this what the United States, with its apparent zeal for the forcible export of democracy, is doing?

In the 1960s the noted American satirist Tom Lehrer penned a little ditty called Send the Marines which includes these lines:

They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
Till someone we like can be elected.


I happen to agree with Winston Churchill's 1947 comment, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". This I take to be the literal truth. There is of course a vast literature on the shortcomings of democratic government, some by advocates of one form or another of authoritarian rule, more by those who have seen for themselves how elections can by won by the more plausible liars, how majorities in democracies can tyrannise minorities, how democratic politicians often lack any vision beyond the next election, how incumbent governments can misuse public money (for example, so-called "government" advertising intended to benefit the ruling party or parties). Democracy is by no means a flawless form of government.

Yet for all of democracy's undoubted sins, its core values of pluralism, tolerance and free speech can and have spared millions the rigours of oppression, torture, concentration camps, covert or overt political, ethnic or religious murder and all the rest of the horrid authoritarian menu. Even more important, democracies have the invaluable capacity to change a government or government policy peacefully, and not by slaughtering people in the streets. These things we tend to take for granted, but remember Tiananmen Square, the North Korean slave camps, the agony of East Timor or the lives lost in overthrowing Ceausescu in Rumania.

It is often characteristic of empires that they tend to export their favoured form of government. The Romans characteristically imposed a form of republican oligarchy on city-states as they conquered them. Many former members of the British Empire (like Australia) are governed by variants of Westminster democracy. Where they allowed any separate government at all, the Nazis imposed fascist-style puppet regimes. The Soviets exported Moscow-line communism and maintained it by force wherever they could. Now we find the latest hegemon, the United States, seeking to impose forms of government similar to its own, even if, as in Iraq, force must be used. Only those unacquainted with history will be surprised by this.

However, as Lehrer's ditty implies, exporting democracy involves particular problems not shared by those who export their pet forms of authoritarianism. What if the people of a particular country do not like US-style democracy or, if they do, support foreign or economic policies not in American or western interests? History again gives us some clues. When the people of Chile freely elected a socialist (not authoritarian communist) government under Salvador Allende, the Nixon US administration set about the covert destabilisation of the regime and, after Pinochet's coup, supported his right-wing dictatorship. Consider also the equivocal (to say the least) American attitude to the Chavez government in Venezuela. Is the US commitment to democracy really only to conservative or pliable democracies?

Iraq will be an acid test of this. Leaving aside the immense practical difficulties of running a credible poll at present, consider what sort of government any credible poll is likely to produce. No conceivable popularly supported government of Iraq could pursue a pro-American foreign policy, or do other than support the Palestinian cause. It would obviously benefit from high oil prices. Nor could it consent to the long-term presence of US forces on Iraqi territory. If the US desires semi-permanent bases in Iraq and a politically friendly regime, it will have no option but to prop up that regime with an army and extensive financial support: even then, an ongoing insurgency would seem inevitable.

However, the test may be a while coming. The chances of the recent Iraqi vote being credible are small, both because of the parlous physical security environment in many parts of the country and because the minority Sunni community appears to have boycotted the vote in large numbers. The government emerging from this poll will have serious legitimacy problems and faces ongoing insurgency.


The forcible ousting of Saddam Hussein was justified pre-war by the discredited weapons of mass destruction story and, as this disintegrated, by the post-war argument that Iraqis are better off with Saddam's tyranny destroyed. What price this argument if Iraq founders in civil war and ethnic (Kurdish) Balkanisation once the US forces now propping up the Iraqi government are withdrawn?

In the Iraqi case at least it would appear that imposing western democracy at the barrel of a gun faces serious challenges. But in any event Washington has always been most selective in its choices. No effort was made to bring democracy to Kuwait after the Iraqis were evicted in 1991: instead the Emir's ancien regime was restored. The regimes in Saudi Arabia and other repressive oil-rich Gulf states need not fear forcible demands for democracy from Washington. It will of course be replied that these states have no cultural democratic traditions and that a forcible transplant would not "take". Reference might also be made to Putin's increasingly authoritarian tendencies in Russia, which likewise has no successful liberal democratic tradition.

This may even be true. But it highlights a key issue. Democracy is only exportable where enough of the people will accept it and its values - especially pluralism and tolerance - to make it work. Rousseau notwithstanding (though to be fair he was speaking of individuals, not states), it appears that a state cannot be forced to be free. If "freedom" means that one cannot oppress or murder Sunnis, Shias, Tutsis, Hutus (insert desired target group), or get rich by stealing public money, maybe too many people in some countries would prefer not to be "free" but to retain instead the freedom to murder, torture and steal. Even if one is being oppressed, the authoritarian environment legitimises armed resistance to the oppressor. It is much more difficult to resist a democratic-style tyranny or proto-tyranny like the regimes in Malaysia, Fiji, apartheid South Africa or even Bjelke-Petersen's Queensland because they have (or had) a more or less plausible cloak of democratic legitimacy.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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