28th July 2011,
Perhaps the strongest intellectual case made for the domestic benefits of democratic governance over authoritarianism was set out by the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994). Popper believed (see Popper by Bryan Magee, Fontana, 1973) that democracy was the best form of government because it allowed for the critical examination and correction of governments and their policies, and that it was therefore most able to correct previous policy mistakes, and more effectively address the social, political and economic problems a given society encounters than any other form of governance.
In order for this essential criticism to be assured, democracy must consist, not just of regular genuinely competitive elections, but critically also of the establishment and maintenance of “free institutions” (especially the rule of law), which enable the ruled to continue to criticize their rulers regardless of the government of the day.
Even in established democratic states, the threat from anti-democratic elements may remain considerable. Paradoxically therefore the free institutions which facilitate criticism must be protected from those who would use the very freedom they provide to destroy them. This is the responsibility of civil society, the media, an independent legal system, the police and security services. Many countries which formally claim to be democracies because they hold regular elections have weak institutions and therefore do not constitute democratic polities within the definition we are using here.
However, once institutional democracy has been established over a period of time, as noted by democratic peace theorists such as Michael Doyle, the democratization of formerly authoritarian states has proved beneficial for pre-existing democratic countries because democracies have very rarely (if ever) gone to war with one another. Entrenched internal democratization leads to increased international stability, and democratic countries therefore have an interest in the promotion of democratic governance.
Given the advantages outlined above, and the growing number of examples of relatively politically and economically successful democratic states over the past 70 years, as well as the current weakness of ideological alternatives, the democratic model has become an increasingly desirable one for many individuals and social movements in developing authoritarian states.
Recent examples of the trend towards democratization include the fall of communist regimes in 1989 and 1991, and revolutions in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Kyrgyzstan (2005), Moldova (2009), as well as the “great Arab Spring” of 2011. However, it is important to remember that revolutions by themselves by no means signal an automatic shift to democratization without an entrenchment of free institutions over a lengthy period, and indeed very many of the cases cited above have been witness to subsequent setbacks.
From a historical sociological perspective Democratist would suggest that this process of revolution and democratization has been partly one of attraction towards an ideal manifested externally (the relative political and economic success of a growing “core” of democratic states), and partly of internal economic, technological and social developments, and the inevitable social tensions capitalist modernity provokes.
But since specifically internal political and economic developments play a critical role in the spread of democracy, it is foolish for western states to believe that it is possible to export democracy at the barrel of a gun (as the US has attempted in Afghanistan and Iraq), or that they can have any overall control of the democratization process in developing countries. Instead, the West should try to carefully balance the gradualist facilitation of democratic development (through diplomatic, trade, media and other initiatives) with necessary realist policies so that when revolutions (almost inevitably) occur in developing authoritarian states, they can retain at least some influence with the social movements and political parties constituting the new regime, and can press for the introduction and development of the critical democratic institutions.