23 January 2005


I was going to post at length on Eric Hobsbawm's extraordinarily downbeat piece on the global prospects for democracy in yesterday's Guardian (click here), and might yet do so, but in the meantime David Aaronovitch in today's Observer (click here) has pretty much said what I was going to say:
"He dismissed the notion that democracy was applicable everywhere 'in a standardised (western) form', that it could succeed everywhere, or that it could 'bring peace, rather than sow disorder'. The conditions for democracy, he wrote, were rare. Then came the historian's judgment. Spreading democracy 'aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989'. Far better, it was implied, not to do it.

"This is a dismal prospect. Where once socialism could be spread, now not even democracy either can or should be. But would it really have been better, as Eric half implies, had the Habsburg Empire survived the First World War, or had the Ukraine continued to be part of a Russian hegemony after 1989? What are we supposed to do with such an analysis?"
Apart from anything else, Hobsbawm's argument is very bad history. Even the most cursory glance at Europe in the past 30 years shows democracy taking vigorous root in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1970s and most of the former Soviet satellite states of east-central Europe after 1989. Yes, there was a bloody war in former Yugoslavia and the fate of the successor states to the Soviet Union itself has been mixed. Yes, western democracy is neither perfect nor a panacea for every ill. But the balance sheet, as the French Stalinist leader Georges Marchais once said of something else, is overall positive. Like Aaronovitch, I'm sceptical about US presidents spouting about democracy and freedom while denying it in practice. And I don't think that the west should adopt a policy of attempting to impose democracy by force of arms. But I'd rather have an American administration banging on about changing the world for the better than one retreating into Realpolitik weasel words about the complexity of every situation and the impossibility of ever improving anything. Remember Bosnia and Rwanda?

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