23 October 2006

Where RGM talks about "the vision thing," part one

One of my favourite sayings is "something can only be a disappointment if it offers great hope." Life is full of disappointments for people who have high hopes for the world, their lives, and the lives of the people they know and care about. On a wide range of issues, I feel disappointment, largely because I have a conception of what a better world can and might one day look like. When I compare that with the reality around me, a letdown is inevitable.

The best example of this sense of disappointment is that I occasionally dream of a world in which every single adult--women and men over the age of 18 or whatever an individual country decides upon--has the right to choose their political leadership. Not "one person, one vote, one time," but regular exercises in democracy that occasionally result in turning over power with less outrage than an American Democrat still expresses over the 2000 presidential election (and tried to manufacture again in 2004). It's been 15 years since the Soviet Union disappeared, and the much-vaunted "end of history" has failed to materialize, as dictators still hold sway over large segments of the world. Their ideologies may be discredited and easily seen as thoroughly inferior to liberal democracy, yet they still maintain an iron grip on power throughout large segments of the world, including the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Perhaps it is inevitable that the rottenness of such regimes will be exposed, that these tyrants are living on borrowed time, and that they will ultimately rot and decay, paving the way for true democratic revolutions.
Yet we must also bear in mind the warning that backsliding is just as likely an occurrence as democratization. For young democracies still experimenting with the great project, there is still a danger: until a country has had at least three major votes and at least one major transfer of power, its institutions are not secure and are succeptible to the temptation of a popular figure--the elected leader for life. I believe that, as promoting democracy is a major pillar of Canada's foreign policy, we can, should, and must lend our support and expertise to these fledgling democracies. We should make a bigger deal out of the assistance we lent to places such as Ukraine during their Orange Revolution, sending hundreds of our people abroad to monitor and oversee the electoral process. We should trumpet our belief in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and make such contributions on a consistent and profound basis. Jean Chretien once said that "the world needs more Canada," and this is certainly one area where we can come in particularly useful.
The disappointment that registers in my head and on my face when I see Canadians demanding that we withdraw our Canadian Forces from Afghanistan is palpable. This is because the people making those demands fail to understand the importance of our contribution to a global effort, the absolute necessity that we get Afghanistan right and build its democratic and political institutions, to say nothing of the need to develop civil society there. They are saying that the lives of Afghan women and children, of the current and future generations, are not worth the sacrifice. That so many of these protestors are, themselves, young women is a cause for concern; women here have so much opportunity for excellence, and are the key to a successful society, why would they seek to deprive women in far-away lands of such opportunity and thus consign Afghanistan to further failure?
Without our support and a global effort, we know what the future holds for Afghan women. We know because we know (a "known known," to use Rumsfeldian parlance) the recent past of Afghanistan, where women were denied access to education, denied the right to vote and run for political office, and could be murdered in public executions by stoning for violations of religious law. With half the population effectively shut out of political life and forced to remain at home, Afghanistan under the Taliban was a miserable failure of a state. All that creative energy, intelligence, and perspective was forcibly and systemically suppressed, leaving that country mired in failure, poverty, illiteracy, and stagnancy.
Imagine a world where one day a female President of Afghanistan comes to Canada to thank us for our sacrifices, for building institutions where children are taught to read and write and think critically about the world around them, for giving them security for the first time in centuries, and the people are creative and innovative and hope for a better future. This is not some utopian vision that can never happen, this is absolutely within the realm of the possible. But it will not happen if we, as Canadians, and others in the so-called international community turn our backs on Afghanistan. What a disappointment that would be if we were to take away the hope that we inspire.


C. LaRoche said...

Rich: I like this post, but hold on, didn't you pay attention in Winham's class?

"It's been 15 years since the Soviet Union disappeared, and the much-vaunted "end of history" has failed to materialize, as dictators still hold sway over large segments of the world."

The End of History idea is not that all the world is a democracy. It's that we've stumbled on the perfect idea -- democracy -- thus ending the History of man's political/philosophical progress. The rest of what goes on now is simply post-History clashing with History (i.e. democracies clashing with non-democracies), and post-History nations trying to live up to the idea of democracy itself.

RGM said...

I'm fully aware of what the Fukuyama's End of History thesis entails.

Given the strength of anti-democratic elements in the Middle East, and that we are at the dawn of what will be a generational struggle for the future of that region, there is still a competition ongoing for what constitutes "the perfect idea" of governance. I believe that democracy is the best form of governance and that there are billions who would agree with me. But there are also many millions who reject the notion of democracy as we know it and hold it as a "Western value." Many believe that that the Koran's teachings represent "the perfect idea" and perfect ideals by which one should live his or her life. What we're seeing now is an ideological struggle that, hopefully, will prove that idea false and demonstrate again the superior power of freedom.

While I do believe that ultimately all roads will lead to liberal democracy and its attendant values, I think it is premature for us to assume that it is an inevitable fact. It is going to take a considerable amount of undermining governments and social engineering to get us there, and I'm not sold on whether the "international community" has the gumption for it.

C. LaRoche said...

Rich, still the point is that:

"It's been 15 years since the Soviet Union disappeared, and the much-vaunted "end of history" has failed to materialize, as dictators still hold sway over large segments of the world."

Doesn't exactly refute Fukuyama's thesis. Which is likely a problem with his thesis. We could be nowhere near anything resembling the universal acceptance of liberal democracy and Fukuyama would still be able to say we've reached the End of History regardless, and all humankind need do is accept this truth.


The Westernization vs. Modernization debate is interesting. I wonder if the invasion of Iraq would be going any better if the Japanese had done it -- or is Japan "The West" now too?

(The Chinese, then, perhaps?)

Rich -- you familiar with Nasserism? As much as the West might not like Nasser, the Middle East could use a focus on Nasserism over fundamentalism. That is, Arab nationalism that is focussed on independence, modernization, liberalization, but on Arab or Muslim terms, not Western ones. Seems a lost cause now...

RGM said...

Chris, you raise a good point with Fukuyama's thesis itself. It's a good idea, but there are still challenges to it by a very large segment of the world. If, a couple generations down the line, Islamist fundamentalism has been as thoroughly discredited as Soviet communism and there's liberal democracy everywhere in the Middle East (and the Kim dynasty has rotted away, etc.), then he'll likely do an updated version that starts off with "Nyah-nyah-nyah" told-you-so's.

I am mildly familiar with Nasserism as a result of endless Cold War-based courses, though certainly no expert. I wish that I knew more about it, as it held more pragmatic views on how to "deal" with the West (somewhat milder than seeking to kill 4 million Americans and put a severe economic squeeze on it). Of course, Saddam Hussein was partly inspired by Nasser, and expertly manipulated two out of the three key themes you mentioned (independence, modernization, liberalization...you can guess which one he left out), which no doubt contributes to the "lost cause" sentimentality of Nasserism.

It's a very hard road ahead for the people in that region, who are, of course, the ones ultimately responsible for their own destiny. The US, the West, and anybody else can have a role only as a midwife in whatever democratization occurs there.

C. LaRoche said...

Rich: right on. Nasserism is a poisonous rose at best... similar to post-colonial independence for states in Africa. It sounds like a great idea on paper, and if properly realized, it's the way to go ahead. By Nasser, like Saddam, was basically a dictator. So while he preached modernity, independence, industrialization, and secularism, his political system was not free.

(Albeit it was a lot better than Saddam's).

A not-so-small irony is that a lot of Nasser's modernization efforts actually caught on in post-Nasser Egypt. And then reversed themselves. One interesting thing I read in a "history of the middle east" course was that after allowing women to enrol in universities and wear whatever they want, a lot of women in Egypt reverted to the Burqua and became uncomfortable in what had been a man's world for eons. Shows you how these things must take time -- and be done on their own accord - rather than forced unwillingly onto a pre-existing society.