Dictatorships of Virtue? States, NGOs, and the Imposition of Democratic Values. (Democracy)

Article excerpt

With the Cold War now an almost fond memory of a good cause won, democracy should be secure in the world. Almost no political ideology opposes it. Even states in what US President George Bush dubbed the "axis of evil" call themselves republics, leaving those few polities claiming to be emirates almost as quaint as the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas, if better endowed with money. Recent wars have been waged "out of respect for human rights" (as Vaclav Havel justified NATO'S attacks on Yugoslavia) and to liberate women from oppression (as Bush partially justified US attacks on Afghanistan). Protection of minorities is seen as so important that access to international organizations or to International Monetary Fund aid may be denied to countries that do not sufficiently safeguard human rights.

Yet, events since the famous victory provide opportunities to confront basic issues of democracy, sovereignty, and political accountability as well as the relationships of governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to these issues. Furthermore, this new perspective allows a re-evaluation of perceptions of social events in which these issues have been confronted with some less than pleasant realities, such as in post-socialist Europe, for example.

This article casts a skeptical eye on some of the common assumptions underlying these issues and questions what usually goes without saying because it is taken as self-evident. The basic arguments are that, first, far from weakening under globalization, major states are growing stronger. Second, NGOs tend to support strong states rather than "civil society" and also help officials avoid accountability for their actions. Furthermore, international insistence on multiculturalism may obstruct the development of democracy in weak states in the name of human rights, thus denying many peoples the right to live under governments that derive their power from the consent of the governed. Examples are drawn from the Balkans, useful because most US citizens regard interventions there as in the pursuit of democratic ideals. Yet arrogations of power are easiest when the cause is said to be justice.

Privatized States, Statified NGOs

In 1996, a dissident judge in Serbia argued that his country had suffered the worst possible transition from state socialism: the privatization of the state and the statification of the economy. He was certainly right for Serbia, and also for much of the rest of Eastern Europe. As Janine Wedel has shown in her work Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 1989-98, the "privatization" of much of Russia and Eastem Europe often meant the expropriation of massive resources by local state officials, sometimes supported by Western government-sponsored "advisors." Note that this was not a matter of globalization or the weakening of the state; the existence of state structures was the main precondition for the expropriation through privatization.

At the same time that many states have been privatized in Eastern Europe, some traditionally non- or even anti-state actors in the United States and Western Europe have been co-opted by, or have themselves co-opted, other states--or both in some cases. This phenomenon is most apparent in the realm of human rights. Organizations founded to criticize states' use of force have become proponents of the massive application of force by stronger states against weaker ones, since that is what "humanitarian intervention" means, at least when coupled with the realist limitation that it should be done "where we can do it," meaning without suffering losses or risking retaliation. Some human rights organizations are both explicit and triumphant about their change of role from persuasion to prosecution. A 2000 Human Rights Watch (HRW) World Report explicitly describes this shift in strategy: "Until now . …