Democracy: you’re doing it wrong

Bernard Finel, newly arrived at Balloon Juice, on the difficulty liberals have when it comes to Arab Spring movements that result in elected fundamentalist governments:

The tension arises because I would argue that the three core tenets of a progressive foreign policy ought to be:

  1. A skepticism of the utility of military force, with a resultant anti-militarist orientation. (Not anti-military, but anti-militarism.)
  2. A deep respect for the concept of self-determination which often manifests itself through adherence to anti-imperialist principles.
  3. A commitment to promote fundamental human rights.

The third is less historically grounded in the progressive tradition than the first two, but it is becoming increasingly important. The notion of a “responsibility to protect” as a fundamental limitation on state sovereignty is increasingly broadly accepted, and I think it is, in any case, a logical corollary to a human-focused conception of “self-determination.”

There is a reason why “[t]he third is less historically grounded in the progressive tradition,” and that’s because it seems frequently to get wielded like a cudgel to pummel tenets one and two into submission. Speaking for myself, but I imagine most/all liberals would agree, human rights are a fantastic thing. We could use more of them here at home, come to think of it. Heck, probably most conservatives would agree that “human rights” are cool, as long as you defined “human” to exclude women, gays, atheists and practitioners of Other religions, and minorities, but whatever. Let’s stipulate that human rights are nice. I would think that most people would agree that “self determination” is one of those rights. So what happens when a population rises up to oust a dictatorship, as in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, maybe Syria soon enough, and then freely elects a government that will, in all likelihood, deny basic human rights to women, gays, religious sects, ethnic groups, and the like? What do we do if the Syrian people overthrow Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawi sect and a repressive thug if ever there was one, and the freely elected government that follows him decides to legalize the repression of Syria’s Alawi population as payback for Bashar’s excesses?

The “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, described here, is hard to argue with:

  1. States have the primary obligation to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. This responsibility also includes prevention of these crimes, including incitement.
  2. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility.
  3. The international community should support the UN in establishing an early warning capability.
  4. The international community also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means under Chapter VI and VIII of the UN Charter to help protect populations threatened by these crimes.
  5. When a state “manifestly fails” in its protection responsibilities, and peaceful means are inadequate, the international community must take stronger measures including Chapter VII measures under the UN Charter, including but not limited to the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council.

This is (obviously?) justifiable in clear cases of ethnic cleansing/genocide, because a government that engages in or permits such atrocities has almost certainly lost the consent of the governed anyway. But when R2P moves into areas that could be called “crimes against humanity,” in areas like women’s rights, gay rights, protection of religious freedoms, things that, let’s be honest, the United States of America doesn’t have all that great a handle on yet even if we’re better on them than the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems to me that there starts to be a problem. As horrendous as forced genital mutilation is, does it justify “the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council”? In our example above, if all a new Syrian government did was place oppressive economic and cultural burdens on the Alawi population rather than outright exterminating them, would that justify “the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council”? What if Alawis began dying in deprivation because of the government’s actions? These are arguably, if not definitively, crimes against humanity, but international military action does not seem as justifiable to me in either case. If a heinous situation is heinous, but doesn’t rise to the level of justifying the final stick in the R2P bag, can the international community realistically act and expect to achieve success?

(And, this is a digression but while I’m nitpicking, what happens when a situation reaches the point where R2P should be invoked, but one of the Great Powers on the UNSC vetoes any action? This last point is inevitable, and has certainly already happened, with the US vetoing resolutions over Israel’s actions in Gaza and Russia vetoing or threatening to veto any UNSC resolutions over the actions of the Syrian government or of Russia itself in Chechnya–something that would never even come to a vote on the UNSC because the veto would be so obviously coming.)

I think some historical context is in order. There seems to be an expectation on the part of Western powers that once non-western, in this case Arab, populations win the right to vote, we can expect them to vote The Right Way, for secular democracies that want close relations with the West and that will protect the rights of their most at-risk populations. But, of course, a brief stroll through our own Great Experiment in Self Rule would show that it took us from 1776 to 1865, including a frighteningly violent civil war, just to agree, or at least to force universal compliance, with the idea that some human beings should not be allowed to own other human beings as chattel property. The same population that was treated as property for the first ~89 years of this country’s existence then had to fight another full century to have something approaching normal voting rights in some parts of this country, and if the new push for voter ID laws tells us anything, it’s that the fight for voting rights still has not ended. Women were denied universal suffrage until 1920, and you still today can find conservative, um, “thinkers” who regret it. The point is not that, hey, we suck, but rather that, hey, it took us a long freaking time to figure out what The Right Way is or ought to be, and frankly we’re still figuring it out in a lot of respects. The demand that Egyptians, who, until this year, never in recorded human history had been given the chance to freely vote for their leadership, get everything “right” (according to our definition of what is “right”) from the get-go, is frankly ridiculous and carries more than a whiff of “white man’s burden” about it.

So let’s say that someday things get so bad for some segment of the population in hypothetical democratic Syria, or in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, or in bombed-into-FREEDOM Iraq, that the international community under R2P doctrine feels the need to intervene. This doesn’t mean military intervention, necessarily. Bush Administration policy toward Palestinian Authority, toward Yasser Arafat, really, included the demand for free elections in the territories. They got their wish with what were by all accounts free parliamentary elections in 2006, and…Hamas won and the Quartet (UN, US, EU, and Russia) immediately imposed severe economic sanctions on the Palestinians for voting The Wrong Way. I don’t suppose it occurs to any sage Western leaders that, when you go around the world demanding that non-western peoples institute democratic reforms and then, when they do, tell them “NO YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!” and slap sanctions on them for it, you look like a bunch of hypocritical assholes. But you do. And so when you start making the rounds demanding that non-western peoples protect the basic human rights of their populations, they’re as likely to tell you to cram it as they are to listen to what you’re saying.

There’s another consideration, which is the extent to which that kind of intervention actually works. The British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, 32 years before the 13th Amendment did so here in America. Imagine if the British had invaded America, or instituted a blockade on her shipping, on the pretext of doing away with chattel slavery. Do we suppose that Northerners, or even just abolitionists, would have rallied to the British cause and allied with the invaders or cooperated with the sanctions? Maybe some would have, but in all likelihood a heavy-handed British intervention would have damaged the cause of emancipation in this country as most Northerners made common cause with the South against the foreign meddling. For a recent real-world example of this hypothetical, witness all the cheering, rose-offering Iraqis who so warmly welcomed the American military into Iraq. You couldn’t have missed them; they were all over the place.

America has made itself the champion of democracy throughout the world, and for us to now start telling these people who just fought for their right to self-rule that they can only exercise that right if they do so according to America’s demands, even when America’s demands are for things that we can all agree are right and good, that kind of thing doesn’t play all that well. I am all in favor of a robust global human rights regime and of bringing as much light to rights abuses and as much pressure to bear on ending them as possible. But at some point, if we value self-determination as a good thing in and and of itself, we’re going to have to accept that sometimes people vote The Wrong Way and there’s not much we can do about it.


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