Democracy and Imperialism

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Posted Dec 1, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Democracy and Imperialism

Ishtiaq Ahmed

One wonders what comfort the Iraqi people can derive from the fact that two democratically elected governments attacked their country and reduced to rubble much of it and spilt innocent blood all over their country. I am convinced that the fall of Saddam Hussein is a good thing for the Iraqis, but removing him was not stipulated in the UN Security Council resolutions

The Butler Inquiry in the UK came to the conclusion that there were serious flaws in the intelligence reports upon which the Blair government based and justified its decision to join the Bush regime in ordering an invasion of Iraq. The CIA had earlier conceded that the reports about the possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) by Iraq were not reliable, and now the all-party 9/11 Congressional Commission has reaffirmed that the US did not have safe intelligence data to order the invasion of Iraq. To top it all, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, declared in a BBC World Service interview on September 16, 2004 that the invasion of Iraq had been unlawful.

The questions bothering many people are the following: what is so great about democratically elected governments if they do not respect the sovereignty of states as upheld by the UN Charter? How can democracy be consistent with imperialism? What is the relevance of international law in such situations?

If we begin with international law, the fact to note is that it has been quite effective in establishing norms that outlaw invasion and expansionism. Imperialism in the form of gunboat diplomacy is no longer possible. The UN has, as the main trouble-shooter and upholder of international law, played a very important role in preventing war in many situations. Also, the territorial integrity of states is now the rule. Powerful states such as the USA do break this rule once in a while, however. Even in the domestic sphere democracy does not obviate the abuse of power, but guilty governments do fall and heads of government can, in principle, be impeached. In the final analysis people can in an election throw out a government they believe has lost their confidence.

Prime Minister Blair has been upbraided by the British people in the recent local government elections. The Labour Party has been reduced to third position with the Conservatives and Liberals ahead of it. Hopefully when the elections are held for the presidency later this year President Bush will be taken to task by the American electorate. But who knows, Mr Bush may well be returned to the White House by those who believe that he is a great champion of freedom. The corrective mechanisms of democracy are therefore not fully capable of preventing unjust wars.

One can therefore wonder what comfort the Iraqi people can derive from the fact that two democratically elected governments attacked their country and reduced to rubble much of it and spilt innocent blood all over their country. I am convinced that the fall of Saddam Hussein is a good thing for the Iraqis, but removing him from power because he was a dictator was not stipulated in the UN Security Council Resolutions. This was added later, by both Bush and Blair, as a justification for invasion. Ironically Saddam Hussein enjoyed the patronage of the USA and UK when he attacked Iran, but began to be compared with Hitler when he invaded Kuwait.

We therefore need to look at the question of democracy in a more critical way. Although it is a matter of dispute when the USA and Britain became democracies, their adherence to constitutionalism within the internal domain does go back several centuries. Currently both are participatory democracies based on universal suffrage, although some people feel that the US electoral system is seriously flawed in that it allowed the candidate with less votes (Bush) to be elected.

From a historical point of view, one cannot but conclude that democracy at home does not preclude militarism in the international arena. During the last several centuries Britain was the major colonial power ruling the world. After World War II the United States assumed the role of the leader of the Western world. It brought the world to the brink of complete extinction by involving the Soviet Union in a nuclear arms race. It is sheer good luck that a war did not break out between them and the USSR disintegrated because of contradictions within its system.

Some people feel that the fall of the Soviet Union has removed the only deterrent to Western imperialism. Now the non-Western world is facing the true, rapacious nature of the Western civilisation or at least of its most powerful nations. Some go to the extent of suggesting that Western democracy thrives because imperialism makes sure that scarce resources, technological and military superiority and economic power remain unevenly distributed in the world - most of it staying with the Western nations which thus have great wealth at their disposal. This enables them to provide a high standard of living to their citizens as well as accommodate a great deal of individual freedom. Consequently the fact that the USA and Britain are democracies but violate international law in the pursuit of imperialist objectives to control foreign territories and their strategic raw materials is indeed troublesome from an intellectual and moral point of view.

I don’t think democracy in the West is dependent only on economic wealth (although it has been very helpful in consolidating it). If that was true Saudi Arabia and Iran should have been the first Muslim nations to become democracies. We have to appreciate that democracy was won by the rising middle classes and the workers only through long and bitter struggles.

But the hardcore realist perspective on international relations holds that efforts to democratise international relations are bound to fail because states do not recognise a higher morality than self-interest. They do form alliances when needed but ordinarily they are concerned with maximising their own security. Consequently preparation for war is intrinsic to the state system. An implication of such reasoning would be that democracy at home is perfectly compatible with militarism abroad.

Even if we grant that states have the right to maintain a credible deterrence, it should not be construed to mean that downright imperialist behaviour in the garb of security concerns can be condoned. It would therefore be wrong to believe that the only remaining superpower and its allies will now be able to ride roughshod over the rights and interests of other states. The firm resistance that the USA and UK and their allies are receiving in Iraq and the earlier worldwide protests against the war should be some indication of how the world has changed fundamentally after World War II. They should honestly hand over power to a representative Iraqi government and leave. There is no future for imperialism.

The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books.

You can read may of his articles on his site at