The Arrogance of Universal Democracy

February 19, 2013 Topic: Global Governance

The Arrogance of Universal Democracy

Perfect the open society at home—don't try to force it on the world.


Despite failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, some of the West’s most prominent intellectuals still operate under the assumption that liberal values are universal.

In his new magnum opus, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Harvard psychology professor and Renaissance man Steven Pinker highlights what he regards to be "the most important thing that has ever happened in human history." Violence has declined and today "we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species' existence."


But Pinker's decline-of-violence thesis reflects a more ambitious exercise: The professor aims to develop a grand theory, one that assumes that "we" or "humanity" or "our species" have all become part of "modernity," defined as the sense that the old foundations of societies—family, tribe, tradition and religion—are being eroded by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science.

In Pinker’s view, a global civilizing process is creating a new culture. This new way, which is more secular, more democratic, more commercial, more "feminized," is becoming dominant worldwide, and explains why our civilization has become more conducive to peaceful coexistence. Forget the bloodbaths of the twentieth century, including two world wars, civil wars and genocides, Pinker argues. We are entering into the era of the New Peace, where violence against the "Other" national, ethnic, and religious groups, against women, children and even animals, will become a taboo. History has indeed ended and we're all turning into one big, happy civilization.

If you have been residing for most of your life in the West and were educated and exposed to the dominant cultural currents, in places like the United States, Germany or Australia, the political civilization that Pinker is describing sounds familiar. Whether you are liberal or conservative, you would have to agree that our national societies have become less religious, more materialistic and effeminate—and that even (some) animals now enjoy legal protection.

To be sure, no one in his right mind would predict a war between the United States and Canada, or between Australia and New Zealand, or even between France and Germany anytime soon. Scotland may or may not secede from Britain in the near future. But the establishment of an independent Scotland (or Catalonia or Lombardy) will almost certainly not be preceded or followed by a civil war.

So if by "we," Pinker is describing the political and cultural transformation of what we refer to as "the West" in the period since the end of World War II and then the collapse of communism (when central and eastern Europe rejoined it), he makes some good points. He notes, for example, that notwithstanding the recent shooting in Newtown and other images of violence we are exposed to on a daily basis, rates of violence in the United States have been falling.

In a way, one could argue that Francis Fukuyama's vision of "The End of History" made some historical sense if you assume that the two-hundred-year-long violent civil war that had engulfed the West between the French Revolution (1789) and the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) has ended and that much of the changes in the political and economic systems in North America and Europe are occurring in the margins, and in a peaceful way.

After all, even the financial meltdown and the Great Recession have failed to give birth to new groundbreaking political movements, not to mention the kind of civil strife that had occurred in the United States and Western Europe in the 1960s.

Yet not unlike the liberal internationalists and their ideological clones on the political right, the neoconservatives (who have been influencing the the foreign policies of western governments since the end of the Cold War), Pinker has bought into the notion that the Enlightenment project or versions of it that have taken root in America and Europe would and should be promoted in the rest of the world. It assumes that if India (the "world's largest democracy") and South Africa (supposedly a successful experiment in multiculturalism) are close to being "like us," it was only a question of time before the civilizing process would transform the Muslim world and China into liberal democracies. Only backward and evil leaders in those countries are retarding this journey to enlightenment.

Whether all of that is true is not an academic issue. After all, costly policies promoted by Republican and Democratic administrations, including through the use of military force, were based on the expectations that with a gentle or heavy push from Washington, the principles of liberal democracy and its close cousins (capitalism, secularism, multiculturalism, feminism) could and should be applied on a universal level, with the United States having an interest and obligation to lead the way.

There is a political and intellectual consensus in Washington that the campaign launched by President George W. Bush to remake the Middle East along liberal-democratic lines as part of an ambitious Freedom Agenda has failed miserably, and if anything, led to the emergence of anti-Western political forces in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

Similar expectations in Washington and among Western politicians and intellectuals—that the so-called Arab Spring would end up looking like a rerun of the 1989 political spring in central and eastern Europe and usher in an era of a New Peace in the Middle East—proved to be wishful thinking. These movements have actually helped strengthen political forces that are opposed to the principles embodied in the Enlightenment project, including religious freedom and women's rights. The Muslim world is not being feminized.

China and India also provide interesting case studies in examining Pinker's thesis and the notion that liberal democracy is on the rise. China has embraced its unique form of capitalism in order to create wealth. But contrary to the expectations raised by Thomas Friedman, it has failed to create pressure in support of liberal democracy.

And while it is true that India does hold free elections and has a few impressive commercial centers, it still remains a society divided by membership in castes. The recent gang rape of a young woman there exposed a sociocultural reality where, according to a 2012 UNICEF opinion poll, 57 percent of male adolescents and 53 percent of female adolescents believe that a husband has the right to beat up his wife under certain conditions.

It would be an intellectual overreach to argue that the West (or the North as opposed to the South) is a unified political entity (or for that matter, to overlook political divisions inside Western nations). Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Turkey and Israel are imperfect liberal democracies (as is Greece). Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and some of the developed nations in Latin America have the attributes needed to move in that direction. The United States and its allies should respond to these changes through diplomacy and trade relationships, including by offering new liberal democracies membership in regional groups such as the EU.

But the time has come to recognize that the principles of liberal democracy are not universal. They are embedded in unique historical and cultural conditions and cannot be pressed on other national societies that are not ready and perhaps not even interested in adopting them. Instead of embracing a futile and counterproductive mission of making the world safe for democracy, the American people and their leaders should contribute to the Enlightenment project by applying and perfecting its principles at home.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.