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Western democracy in imminent peril

By Dr. MoHan Ismael | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-01-10 13:23

People walk on Times Square in New York, the United States, Nov 23, 2021. [PhotoXinhua]

There is something profoundly ironic about President Biden's democracy summit, convened by the US to press the case for Western-style democracy. It took place at a time when democracy in the United States has never been weaker or more threatened, at least not since the Civil War.

There are two fundamental issues with the Western understanding of democracy. The first is a complete absence of historical background. And the second is an inability to recognize and accept cultural diversity.

Let us begin by discussing the historical context. In the Western mentality, democracy was raised from a time- and place-specific political structure to a universal form applicable to all eras and places. By doing so, every sense of historical context is lost. Such a perspective is fundamentally faulty, because no political form is everlasting; all are products of their period and circumstances, including Western democracy. Even in the West, its future is neither clear nor certain. The belief that Western-style democracy is eternal is based on the assumption that the fundamental conditions that have sustained it in the West for the last 70 years, longer in the case of the US and UK, will continue indefinitely. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this cannot be assumed. Democracy is in poor health in a number of Western countries. It is in worse shape than it has been since the 1930s. We should keep in mind that democracy has only been the main form of government in the Western world since 1945. During the interwar period of 1918–1939, democracy was confined to a fairly small number of countries, at least in Europe. As noted by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his book (Age of Empire), the UK, Finland, the Irish free state, Sweden, and Switzerland were the only European countries with functional democratic political institutions that survived the entire era between 1918 and 1939. These countries account for a very small proportion of Europe's population; the vast bulk of the continent's inhabitants lived under various forms of dictatorship for a portion, the majority, or all of that period. There were numerous reasons for democracy's scarcity. However, the biggest tragedy was the Great Depression's disastrous repercussions and consequences, which established the circumstances for fascism and weakened those for democracy. In stark contrast, the primary reason for Western democracy's post-1945 success was the prolonged boom from 1945 to the mid-1970s, after which development continued but at a considerably slower pace, until 2007.

The financial crisis of 2008 was a watershed moment. It resulted in a rising disintegration of the ruling elites and institutions in a number of Western countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Greece. The most striking example was the ascent of Donald Trump, deepening differences, increasing polarization, the development of populism and nationalism, and animosity toward established elites. The Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge University has shown a growing democratic crisis in Anglo-Saxon countries, with those unsatisfied with democracy's performance doubling since 1995. As Western economies continue their relative fall, which they almost probably will, such unhappiness appears quite certain to deepen. Even the survival of the United States of America's democracy, long regarded as the bastion of Western democracy, is far from guaranteed. The United States has been on the rise for nearly its entire existence, which is an astounding truth. This has resulted in a high level of status and authority for its ruling structure. However, what happens if the United States finds itself in an ongoing spiral of relative decline, as the future predicts? Will American democracy survive under significantly less favorable conditions? Indeed, the initial signals are not positive.

To put it another way, whatever type of government exists, it must ultimately deliver on behalf of its citizens; if it is unable to do so, it will be changed sooner or later. This is the critical issue confronting Western democracies today. They have increasingly been unable to deliver. Regardless of how much fancy rhetoric there is about democracy, the litmus test is the ability to improve people's living standards and lives. This is precisely where Western democracies are failing at the moment, while China, in contrast, is succeeding. Over the last 40 years, the Chinese governance system has proved to be far more effective at producing results than the Western-style democratic system.

This takes me to my second broad topic, which is the importance of cultural diversity. The West has long believed that its style of governance is generally applicable, regardless of the country's location, history, or culture (one size fits all). The quintessential example is the 2003 Iraq invasion. The imposition of a wholly foreign system of governance on a society that was deeply, culturally and historically distinct, yet this failed mission was not an accident or isolated incident. In the 19th century and earlier, the colonial empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands, and other European countries were guided by the same fundamental concept. The European countries attempted to impose their will, religion, customs, and power through force on every region they could acquire, including China. Everything in the name of civilizing the barbarians.

The newest example is invasion and interference in the name of democracy. If a state, in the United States' opinion, has an illegitimate form of governance, it feels it has the right to intervene and impose its own brand of democracy. Thus, in the eyes of the US, each country's right to sovereignty and right to choose is conditional on the choice it makes. Additionally, keep in mind that the Western definition of democracy is limited to the nation state; it has no relevance outside the nation state, most notably in the international domain. That is why the West never uses the term "democracy" in reference to the international system, and why the latter is devoid of democracy. The United States designed and maintains the international system. ... it feels it has the unilateral right to intervene whenever and wherever it pleases. Although the West today accounts for fewer than 15 percent of the world's population, it is by far the most powerful actor in the international system. The West believes that any notion of democracy held by other nations is irrelevant and inapplicable to the international system.

The world is vastly diverse in terms of its history, cultures, and modes of governance. Failure to acknowledge and appreciate this concept has wreaked havoc on a number of countries. For example, as Francis Fukuyama correctly noted, China's political system has exhibited an incredible degree of continuity over a span of two millennia far larger than that of any other country. This is one of the reasons the Chinese administration is so extraordinary and susceptible to change. It has much deeper roots than any Western system of governance. Successful governance does not include transplanting an abstract collection of laws and procedures from one country to a completely different environment and set of circumstances in another. I may say that, between the 1990s and the last US election, sentiments about China in the West grew more open, curious, interested, and optimistic. However, the turning point was Trump's election in 2016. Since then, the Western world, beginning with the United States, has become increasingly hostile toward China. Every endeavor has been made to demonize China in a variety of ways; it's been akin to a Cold War attack. Overall, democracy should entail respecting a country's culture and traditions, and allowing governance to flourish within its own indigenous conditions.

The author is Bachelor of Medicine & Bachelor of Surgery of Shandong University & MPH Southeast University. 

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