• S. Peou

Why Democracy Matters: Because it makes a big difference in the lives of ordinary citizens

Updated: Apr 26

April 26, 2020

I will attempt to make the case for democracy on this site, although now it's not a great time to be too optimistic about its short-term future. Reason? Democracy appears to be running out of steam. The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that this form of government is on the retreat around the world, when measured in terms of political rights and civil liberties. So does democracy still matter? I don't know about you, but it matters a great deal to me. Here are some of the reasons:

In one of my research projects, I am trying to make the case that democracy is better than dictatorship in terms of achieving peace and security on various levels: international, regional, national, and human. Democracies have a proven track record of avoiding war against each other, building regional peace or security communities, ensuring national stability, and enhancing human security.

There are those who still insist that democracies are more aggressive than dictatorships. They would point to the way the United States and its allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have waged war in several parts of the world, such as in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. Some think that the European Union and the United States were to blame when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. The United States is still the world hegemon that maintains close to 1,000 military bases around the world. All this is true, and I would not make a counter-argument.

What I would say, however, is that this observation is far from complete. It doesn't give us the big picture of what democratic liberals (better known as neo-Kantian internationalists) say about the behavior of democratic states. Liberal scholars like Michael Doyle have advanced the thesis that democracies have almost never gone to war against each other but have a history of going to war against undemocratic states or repressive regimes, for various reasons. From ancient history to the world in which we live today, democratic and undemocratic states have often fought war against each other. Athens (an increasingly powerful and democratic Greek city-state) and Sparta (another powerful but less democratic Greek city state) engaged in the Peloponnesian War (431 BC-4-4 BC). The Cold War (1947-1989) was fought between the United States (the world's most powerful democracy) and the Soviet Union (the world's most powerful dictatorship). It is likely that the next big Cold War will be fought between China (referred to by some scholars as a dictatorship) and the United States.

The point being made is here is that democracies are not necessarily peaceful in the way they relate to dictatorships and repressive regimes, but they are the best candidates to build regional peace or security communities among themselves. In my work, I show that there are only two mature regional peace communities in the world since the end of World War II: Western Europe and North America. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the African Union (AU) still aspire to turn their regions into peace communities, but neither has been successful in moving toward this political destination. The ASEAN members are far from united. What's the problem then?

Evidence points to the reality that states within Western Europe and North America are consolidated democratic states with high degrees of economic development. Very few of the states in ASEAN and Africa, if any, can be judged as democratic and respectful of human rights. ASEAN used to be characterized as a "club of dictators," but the organization has been unable to transform the region into a land of democracies. In fact, with the exception of two unconsolidated democracies (Indonesia and Timor-Leste), Southeast Asia is still ruled by autocratic and military elites who prefer to err on the side of relying on too much force rather than too little to ensure their party or personal security.

I will say more about how democracies have been more successful than dictatorships when it comes to economic performance, regime stability, and human security. Critics of liberal democracy point to the fact that this system of government is oppressive and exploitive because of its capitalist nature, but this is only true up to a point. Ask people who live under repressive rule, and they would share their preference to migrate to democratic states like Canada and the United States, if they could. Oppressive regimes don't attract the majority of people who don't benefit from living under their yoke.

One can, of course, contend that democracies as they exist today are far from self-sacrificial. After all, they still don't give much foreign aid to assist poor countries in the developing world. But to expect democracies to be as self-sacrificial as Mother Teresa of Calcutta is to set oneself up for disappointment. What democracy means is that this system of government is designed to look after its own citizens.

We still live in a world of self-help, a world in which global anarchy still persists. States and their leaders would do well to expect less from others and to do more for their countries and people. Unfortunately, most state leaders in various parts of the world are still dictatorial and dumb at the same time.

Stay tuned for more of my reflections!

2020 Sorpong Peou

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Ryerson University

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