Should the International Community Really Defend Overseas Democracy?

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

China’s ‘Two Sessions’, a set of annual coinciding meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, ended on March 11th 2021. This event lays out China’s aims for the next year and the finale of this year’s conference was a resolution that would reduce democratic participation and introduce a pro-Beijing panel to vet electoral candidates in Hong Kong. [1] This decision was made just after the large majority of pro-democracy officials in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council were expelled. Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, said that Britain would continue to support democracy in Hong Kong. However, Yang Xiaoguang, the chargé d’affaires in the UK’s Chinese embassy said that China had a, “Different definition,” of democracy.[2] The disregard for the ‘One Country Two Systems’ plan that was agreed for Hong Kong in 1997 between China and the UK, which would have blended Chinese and British forms of government, was met with international outcry but little else. Whilst Britain has attempted to introduce a special passport for Hong Kong residents which would allow them to work in the UK, China has not been met with much opposition to its erosion of democracy. Two questions arise from this – what does the international community mean when it talks about democracy and how much power does it actually have to support it? Despite being an entry to a blog for international public policy, this article is about the lack of said policy in upholding democracy and whether that should even be the international community’s job. 

What is democracy? 

Democracy is an ancient concept, finding its origin in ancient Greece from the words demos which means common/regular people and kratos which means strength. It is generally agreed that the first democracy was established in c.508 BC in Athens. Athenian democracy was Direct Democracy as each citizen voted on every law that was passed.[3] However, suffrage excluded women, immigrants, slaves and those under twenty years old. 

Since then, democracy has evolved into many different forms and today, the most common system is variations of Representative Democracy in which people vote to elect representatives, usually for their area, to vote on their behalf in government. This is very different to Athenian democracy; citizens now do not have a direct say in the laws passed and instead have to hope that their preferred representative is elected. Therefore, is this really democracy? The type of democracy in each country is also very different- the US and, to an extent, the UK, operating on more of a two-party basis, whilst Europe often elects rainbow governments. On top of this, most countries today give suffrage to women and people over 18 or even over 16 such as Austria and Brazil. But despite differing from Athenian democracy, we assume this to be more democratic. Clearly, contemporary democracy doesn’t just have one definition and is also more progressive when compared to ancient democracy. In this way, it is difficult to analyse public policy in democracies because there is not one definition of it and this can be seen in changes in suffrage. Democracy is an evolving concept. We should not treat contemporary democracy as the final and perfect system of government, which is an assumption that international bodies often fall into. 

How can the international community support democracy? 

The most successful account of an international effort to preserve democracy was World War II. The international community came together to end Nazi domination that swallowed Europe and infected parts of Asia. However, this was unique to what we face today as it was a defensive war against Nazi aggression on countries that were already well acquainted with democracy. Despite this, it still stands as the most successful defence of democracy but was only achieved through armed conflict and the deaths of more than 70 million people.[4] 

How can the international community diplomatically preserve democracy then? The efforts to save Hong Kong sadly show that statements of condemnation and disappointment are as far as the international community can go. There is of course economic protectionism. Economic protectionism involves putting in place tariffs and embargoes against certain countries to force them to capitulate on certain issues. Democracy could be one of these issues, threatening countries which have undermined democracy with financial repercussions. However, if a crisis of democracy abroad doesn’t threaten a country, they will likely prioritise their domestic economy and not intervene. The continued use of economic protectionism could also be abused by richer countries bullying smaller ones. Sanctions, however, can have an effect on a country’s assets held abroad such as the US blocking access to one billion dollars of Myanmar’s money held in the US after the military overthrew the democratically elected Aung San Suu Kyi.[5] 

What about international bodies like the United Nations? The United Nations is an organisation aiming to preserve world peace, not necessarily to expand democracy. However, it stands on the same values of democracy. The UN Security Council planned to issue a statement condemning the Myanmar coup. However, China and Russia vetoed this statement.[6] Due to widely different interpretations of democracy across the world, international bodies are not able to uphold democracy. Perhaps this calls for a more singular approach like American and British sanctions on Myanmar, singular countries able to make quicker decisions than international bodies which painstakingly waits for drastically different countries to compromise. But at the same time, few countries would be willing to plough their money and resources into preserving another country’s democracy. 

Should the international community even try to uphold democracy? 

In addressing this question, the American and British ‘Wars on Terror’ cannot be avoided. The post 9/11 war in Afghanistan was originally supposed to oust the Taliban and weaken Al-Qaeda.[7] The second Gulf War in Iraq sought to depose Saddam Hussein on the imagined basis that he was working on weapons of mass destruction that could potentially be used on the West. However, both of these wars turned into attempts to establish Western-sympathetic democracies by force, something which defeated the ethos of democracy in the first place. Both countries have become much more unstable since this intervention and it can be argued that this produced the terrorist group- Islamic State. This effort to put in place democracy was a massive failure. 

What about countries like North Korea whose people are not even allowed to leave and suffer severe censorship and dictatorial rule? Are they not morally entitled to aid from the international community? Unfortunately, no one country is the arbitrator of perfect democracy. Shown by the US and the UK’s disastrous actions in the Middle East, one country’s democracy cannot be forcibly put in another and neither country could be trusted to be impartial in their actions. International bodies prioritise different countries, such as the permanent members on the UN Security Council. Consequently, international bodies cannot be tasked with instating or defending democracy and should instead reorientate themselves fully to welfare projects. The plurality of the term ‘democracy’ means that democracies tend to be culturally significant to the country they are in. Therefore, one country cannot assume the responsibility of another country’s democracy. This article has not been written to dash hope for democracy, but to show that it is a very broad, imperfect and varied ideology that therefore prohibits international public policy in intervening. 

Bibliography 

[1] T. Ng, ‘’Two Sessions’ Recap’, South China Morning Post, (2021). https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3124744/two-sessions-2021-bite-sized-recap nuclear-waste-veterans 

[2]‘Hong Kong: China Approves ‘Patriotic’ Plan to Control Elections’, BBC News (2021). https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-56356046 ;

[3] M. Cartwright, ‘Athenian Democracy’ World History Encyclopaedia, (2018). https://www.ancient.eu/Athenian_Democracy/ ;

[4] B. Weber, ‘These Staggering Graphics put the WWII Death Toll in Perspective, Upworthy, (2015). https://www.upworthy.com/these-staggering-graphics-put-the-wwii-death-toll-in-perspective [5] R. Goodman, ‘Myanmar Protests, Explained’, New York Times, (2021). 

[6] B. Bostock, ‘China and Russia Blocked the UN from Condemning Myanmar’s Military Coup’, Insider, (2021). https://www.businessinsider.com/china-russia-block-un-security-council-condemn-myanmar-cou p-2021-2?r=US&IR=T 

[7] A. Tellis, ‘Assessing America’s War on Terror’, NBR Analysis, 15:4, (2004). https://carnegieendowment.org/files/NBRAnalysis-Tellis_December2004.pdf ;

By Ryan Ratnam

Ryan is a first year BA History student at University College London from London. His interests include post-Capitalist ideologies, sustainable development and how historical education impacts social identities.

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