Interested in Studying Law? 

Need help with your law studies?



International Law – A Heaven or Hell on Earth?

(Part 5 - Democracy)


by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law


International Law promised a noble world at the end of the Second World War. Was that dream realised -- or was the dream a chimera? In this fifth of a series of articles, The Law Journal UK examines the promise -- and reality -- of Democratic Values in the World.


We love our democracies. We encourage others to adopt this system. Yet we are disappointed and baffled when a democratic system does not become entrenched, or falls backward into dictatorship or feudalism. Why the failure of western democratic principles to take hold in these countries?


International relations have been increasingly transformed from the interaction of national governments, to a set of standards imposed on the world. These standards, to the creators, mean justice in the world; but to the recipients, all too often represent a foreign imposition.


Democratic principles are an example of this type of cultural export. It is immediately assumed that democracy – as we know it – is the best option, and the ultimate wish of the people in a particular country.


It is not the issue of democracy, human rights and justice that is the problem. It is the imposition of a form of democracy that may not always apply, or may work only after an appropriate evolution. The imposers are then shocked when the imposed use the newly created democratic institutions for their own less than altruistic purposes. The reality is that the imposed are simply reflecting the tradition and behaviour of their nation, not imported ideals that have no local history or resonance.


These countries are simply reflecting their national consensus, which is more powerful and influential than any western importation.


And that is the key theme of this article, and the lesson to be learned.


This is not to say that democratic values are not good – but blindly imposing a particular version of democracy may, in fact, be a foreign object in the national body. To carry this analogy further, that foreign object is rejected and attracts antibodies.


An example of this situation is Russia. When Russia gave up Communism (and its identity as the USSR), there was great hope that Russia would become a truly western democratic country. I remember people at the time expressing wonder, saying they ‘could not believe what was happening’.


And they were right about not believing. The creation of capitalism resulting in oligarchs that left the Mafia looking amateurish. Democracy? President Vladimir Putin has eliminated virtually all forms of free speech and democracy. We in the UK know the change in Russia very well – witness Russia’s violation of London. Putin’s crew had no problem eliminating political opponents living here by releasing what was in effect a nuclear dirty bomb in the heart of the city. What is the surprise? Putin is just being a typical Russian leader. He is the same as the Commissars, and the Czars before them.


Afghanistan is another example. There is a democratic structure. But the real power, the real ability to fight the Taliban, belongs to the Warlords. The western nations have only been able to make headway when they incorporated the Warlords as allies. The democratic regime is really only a western implant. President Hamid Karzai, for example, had US corporate connections. Will it take? Democracy may work, but only if the sources of real power in the country – the Warlords – will it to be so.


Countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq have this thin veneer of democracy, but little to support it. We constantly hear justification for supporting these governments, on the basis that without our military support their armies would be defeated. Why are their armies so weak? Moreover, why are their anti-democratic opponents so strong that they do not need outside military support? It comes down to the consensus in the country. As in South Vietnam a generation ago, the national consensus does not support an ostensibly democratic regime.


Even in the traditional democracies, there are tensions which make the democratic ideal a rather questionable reality. In the United States, for example, you have a strained democracy. The 2000 and 2004 elections were controversial to say the least. Moreover, it is interesting to note that both Presidential candidates in the 2000 election – Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore – were distant relatives of the Queen. Hence royalty was running against royalty in 2000. This situation is hardly one of ‘we the people’. Yet that is the reality. Then, there is the issue of religion in the US. I was driving in Atlanta, Georgia in 2005 and saw a billboard as follows: “One Nation. One Religion. One Mind.” What ever happened to freedom of religion? Moreover, are religious agendas trumping democratic values in the US? Please note that this is not an attack on the Republicans or Bush – the 1960 election in which Kennedy defeated Nixon had some questionable activity in Illinois that might have resulted in a very different outcome in that race.


Another reality is that differences can exist between democracies. Excellent examples are the former members of the British Empire, now the Commonwealth of Nations. These countries have, from the Empire, a legacy of Parliamentary government.  Yet, for example, there are differences between the Canadian and Australian Parliamentary systems. Hence even similar nations cannot impose their approach on the other.


Then, there are the issues as to what democracy means. In every western democracy, there is a push for the country – and all countries – to attain a pinnacle of individual or social liberty, with rights for all to express their viewpoints. However, what happens if that viewpoint aims to destroy democracy – witness the democratically elected former Fuhrer of Germany, Adolf Hitler. What if a country is facing enemy nations that wish to destroy that nation – can every viewpoint carry equal weight? Or, if you have extremists of whatever stripe who have a similar goal? What then? Look at the Moslem countries that the Bush administration has encouraged to hold free elections – the will of the people was that Moslem fundamentalists, many of whom espouse terrorism, take power. Look at Gaza, with Hamas. Look at Iraq, which is more fundamentalist after US-sponsored elections than it ever was under the secular (but not a nice guy) Saddam Hussein. What was gained?


Yet we see western nations – who are trying to help defend a democracy – encourage the leadership of that nation to give unreasonably open rights to those people who seek to destroy it. Then, the western nations are shocked that their pleadings fall on deaf ears.


Therein is the problem. Is the push for democratic values an appropriate move in some circumstances, particularly when that country is in no position – whether due to culture, or conflict – to have the luxury for this goal?


I espouse democracy as the best of the myriad of political systems. However – and this goes against the mantra – there are nations that have other traditions and/or threats. While they can improve the situation in their countries, insistence on a type of Western democracy that is more of a threat in some circumstances may not be the optimum route.


What, then, is the approach to be taken by the democracies to these countries?


First, we can stand for democratic values. We are democratic and there is no reason to diminish our values and indeed our virtues. At the same time we should ensure that we come with ‘clean hands’, that we are in fact democratic and truly reflect those values.


Second, we need to realise that just as our particular form of democracy is our national consensus, other countries have their own national consensus – whether democratic or not -- based on their history, values and traditions. We cannot successfully impose our national consensus on others.


Third, we work with these countries on the basis of what has always been the reality – namely, our mutual self-interest. We stand as democracies, we can express our views, but we need to understand that others have their view of reality and we have ours.


We can be democratic, work for democracy, but at the same time understand that other nations have their consensus. Once we understand this reality, our foreign policies will be more realistic – and more successful.



Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law 


Your thoughts? 


Latest News:

Press Release - Balzan Prize 2007 - Rosalyn Higgins, President of the International Court of Justice, The Hague among recipients

SPECIAL FROM UCL: Towards a New Constitutional Settlement: An Agenda for Gordon Brown’s First 100 Days and Beyond - Robert Hazell

Book Review:

The Forensic Logician by Geoffrey Tøye - Starborn Books

Other Current Articles:

The Abuse Excuse -- One Size Fits All? - by James Castagnera - United States

Domestic Violence and the Problems of Poor Policing - by Karen Clark-Stapleton - UK

Freedoms of the Air - Changing the Patterns of International Trade and Commerce - by Aaron M. Daniels - Canada

Foreign Investment in the Russian Federation - Denis Biryukov - Russia

Indian Legal Profession in Transition - by Kamal Wadhwa - India

For previous Articles, please click to visit our Archive.