« Previous | Main | Next »

On Miliband and democracy

Robin Lustig | 17:07 UK time, Thursday, 14 February 2008

There's a lot of anguished head-scratching these days in the higher echelons of foreign policy wonkery. The question being asked is this: has the Iraq disaster (and an impending Afghanistan disaster?) put paid to any idea that rich, stable democracies can encourage more such paragons of political virtue in parts of the world where they are currently conspicuous by their absence?

Yes, said the foreign secretary David Miliband in a speech in Oxford on Tuesday: "We cannot impose democratic norms. But we can be clear about the desirability of government by the people and clear that without hubris or sanctimony we can play a role in backing demands for democratic governance and all that goes with it."

It's been a supremely appropriate week for him to tackle this - with two of the earliest examples of pro-democracy interventionism back in the headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. He mentioned neither of them, so I will: Kosovo, and East Timor.

Let's take East Timor first. In 2002, it became an independent, sovereign nation after a lengthy UN-sponsored transition from nearly 25 years of Indonesian occupation. It was heralded as a wonderful example of how concerted foreign intervention can end oppression and facilitate self-determination. This week, renegade soldiers shot and seriously injured the president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Jose Ramos Horta, and ambushed the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao. Neither the Australian-led UN peacekeeping force, nor the UN police, were able to prevent the attacks.

The Kosovo story dates from the same period: the NATO intervention in Kosovo was in March-June 1999; the UN-sponsored independence referendum in East Timor was in August of the same year. And in April 1999, Tony Blair made his famous "Chicago doctrine" speech: "The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people's conflicts."

This weekend, Kosovo is expected to declare its independence from Serbia. It will be recognised by the US and much of the European Union, but not, all importantly, by Serbia itself, which regards it as a secessionist province, or by Russia, which will veto any attempt to obtain UN membership for Kosovo. A period of renewed Balkan instability is forecast.

So neither Kosovo, nor East Timor, on the face of it, are good examples of the benefits of foreign intervention - although it may well be argued that in both cases, things might be a good deal worse had outsiders not intervened. Both, in their own ways, can be described as democracies: East Timor is independent because an overwhelming majority of its people voted for independence in a referendum; Kosovo will declare its independence because that is what the overwhelming majority of its people want.

But what we are learning is that the spread of democracy does not in itself necessarily bring with it greater stability. And perhaps we are learning too that democracy which comes as a result of homegrown grass-roots pressure is more likely to prove enduring than when it comes from outside. Mr Miliband, in his speech, cited the examples of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, many countries in Africa, and all of Latin America except for Cuba, as countries where democracy has been successfully introduced or re-introduced over the past three decades. In few, if any of them, it could be argued, has foreign intervention played a major role.

In the case of post-Soviet central and eastern Europe, it was more likely to have been the discreet but well-targeted financial assistance from organisations like the Soros Foundation, which encouraged the formation of political parties, radio stations and independent newspapers and thus helped create the conditions in which a genuine, if imperfect, democracy could begin to grow. It's a lesson not lost on President Putin of Russia, who has cracked down hard on organisations that he suspects may have been trying to do something similar under his own nose.

In the late 1990s, the over-riding foreign policy imperative was: No more Rwandas. Western governments were appalled at the 1994 genocide that had been unleashed in that country - never again, they said, will we stand by while thousands of people are slaughtered.

But after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the imperative shifted. It became: No more Afghanistans, no more failed states in which terrorist groups can organise attacks on the West. But what do we see in Afghanistan today? A weak central government, a resurgent Taliban, and a bigger opium harvest than ever.

So far, say some analysts, it is hard to point to examples of where foreign intervention has successfully led to a stable and lasting democracy. (Japan and Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War are the most often quoted examples, but arguably they were special cases in unique circumstances which have not applied anywhere else since.)

From Cambodia to Afghanistan, from Kosovo to East Timor, it's a lot easier to go in, full of good intentions, than to leave with mission accomplished. The debate continues ...


  1. At 10:05 PM on 14 Feb 2008, Bedd Gelert wrote:

    The key question is what, if anything, can be done in Darfur ? The causes are many, the sources of problems varied, and one imagines that poorly planned, if well meaning, intervention could make things a whole lot worse.

    But weren't people wringing their hands in the same ways when genocide was happening during the Second World War ?

    Complain about this post
    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details
  2. At 01:04 PM on 15 Feb 2008, Jan wrote:

    ...the imperative shifted. Never a truer word!
    We are relying very much on trusted institutions to carry out health checks on many activities or organisations such as banks. Sadly even they seem to fail us as the "Rock case" has shown.

    What health checks are there though on Democracies?

    Take the Czech Republik for instance, there are all the normal institutions but the laws governing them are very weak. Then there is the stark fact that money plays a large role, from promotional (elections) campaigns to the buying of elected members of the various chambers at all levels.
    There are a few idealists who work very hard to get Democracy finally established, they are however facing the reality of the Judiciary not responding even to criminal charges being levied at politicians (I am speaking of many years of personal experience). The media is improving, there are investigative programmes on TV, they even put on your own investigation but at the last moment cut out the item that involves senior politicians (one from each major party!).

    Even the most fervent idealists run out of steam eventually, I have met those as well, worn out, a shadow of their former self, including journalists.

    If it was't for the EU, matters would be so much worse.

    We hope and rely on the EU to play a larger role in the future of our country, we lack the commitment to Democracy on our own.

    Complain about this post
    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details
  3. At 09:47 PM on 25 Feb 2008, Stu wrote:

    "...We can play a role in backing demands for democratic governance and all that goes with it,” says Miliband. But as soon as he and his chums are presented with a perfectly good democratically elected government in Palestine they want to tear it down and replace it with an unrepresentative quisling outfit.

    Complain about this post
    Post a complaint

    Please note Name and E-mail are required.

    Contact details

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.