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Democracy - an endpoint, not a starting point

January 27, 2011

Always a risk, blogging on something you’re reading about when you haven’t finished the book yet. The author may return to something a chapter down the line and utterly twist the original point on its head in the light of a new context. Particularly when the topic is something on which the average layman (like me) has opinion but no education – in this case democracy and international politics.

I’ve blogged before about Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable. It’s a book on international relations that, from the blurb, “puts forth a revolutionary new model for thinking about – and thriving in – the world of the unpredictable.” Complexity then – indeed revolutionary for many people, less so for readers of this parish.

In the book, Ramo talks about sociologist Dean Babst who applied statistical techniques from his day job (criminology) to international conflicts. And from that came to the conclusion that “No wars have been fought between independent nations with elective governments between 1789 and 1941.” So far, so reasonable.

It tied in with the thoughts of others, particularly those keen for a change in old-style pragmatic (i.e. non-idealistic) approaches to international relations. So, it twisted a little from a simple statement of perceived correlation into something altogether more dangerous: Democratic Peace Theory.

From which comes “the central premise of the foreign policy of the most powerful nation in history” (Ramo’s words, not mine) – that democracy equals peace. Once all countries are democratic, then wars will cease. Therefore, all countries must be democratic – whether by choice or by having it imposed on them.

It’s up there – in terms of mistaken conclusions – with the one I made when I first read Built to Last a decade ago. Successful companies have mythologies. Therefore building a mythology will create a successful company. (I know, but I have progressed somewhat since then.)

It strikes me that democracy is a state that occurs at the end of a process that a nation goes through – an emergent (property? quality? I confuse the two). As a common consequence, societies that have been through that process are (for some reason) unlikely to wage war against others.

There is a role – as there is in organisations – for those who have been through the process already to help those yet to go through it. It seems to me, however, that that role is to share experiences, key moments and turning points in the long journey – so that willing people can look for opportunities to hasten their own process, avoid pitfalls and create the conditions from which a contextually-relevant version of the property/quality might emerge.

(I’m reminded of an argument I got into at the family dinner table a couple of years ago, with a visiting friend of my parents. The visitor was commenting on a state that was prospering commercially and financially, but they felt was not yet truly democratic – and that the citizens, having become prosperous, were going to demand “proper democracy” soon – and aggressively. In retrospect, the perceptions of the state were not accurate anyway, but my argument was “Why? We may associate prosperity with individual freedoms and democracy, but why should we assume that of other cultures, particularly those that are significantly different from our own?” My father calmed the argument before it got much further – with both parties laying claim to his implicit agreement…)

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