'The US Is Suffering a Chronic Deficit of Legitimacy': The International Spread of Democracy Began in the 1970s but Came to an End in the 1990s. Why? Because with the Cold War over, America's Moral Mission Is No Longer So Clear

By Page, James | New Statesman (1996), December 13, 2004 | Go to article overview

'The US Is Suffering a Chronic Deficit of Legitimacy': The International Spread of Democracy Began in the 1970s but Came to an End in the 1990s. Why? Because with the Cold War over, America's Moral Mission Is No Longer So Clear


Page, James, New Statesman (1996)


In 1940, faced with the threat of Hitler's Germany, Franklin D Roosevelt called on the United States to be "the great arsenal of democracy". The context has changed, but the evangelical spirit remains. Indeed, the agenda has been widened, particularly under the aegis of the neoconservative movement, to encompass the aggressive promotion and protection of democracy.

The philosophy is boldly optimistic. It asserts that democracy is a universal value that the west should use its position of power to spread. George W Bush and Tony Blair are both believers and they have linked the war on terror directly to the wider case for democratising the Middle East. As Blair asserted in his address to the US Congress last year: "We promised Iraq democratic government. We will deliver it." Critics argue that democracy cannot simply be "delivered" and that such declarations smack of imperial hubris. While the optimists are right that democracy can be exported, they fail to grasp that the task is more complex now than in previous eras as force becomes increasingly inadequate.

There is much to support Bush and Blair's passionately held optimism. Democracy can and has been exported in the past, beginning with its spread from Athens to other city states around the Aegean basin--"like frogs around a pond", as Plato eloquently described them. More recently, Freedom House, a non-partisan organisation that evaluates the state of liberty within nations, has praised the 20th century as the "century of democracy" due to democracy's unprecedented expansion across the planet. The Freedom House figures show that, at the turn of the millennium, more than half the world's population, living in 120 states, enjoyed regular access to the ballot box.

The end of the cold war is frequently identified as the most significant turning point yet. Two major consequences are commonly cited. The first is summed up in Francis Fukuyama's now infamous 1989 article "The End of History?": the belief that the real victory of the cold war was ideological and that democracy finally stands peerless on the world stage after despatching the last of its rivals. He writes: "What we are witnessing is ... the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

The second consequence relates explicitly to power. The fall of the Soviet bloc left a world with just one economic and military superpower. As Blair and others have put it, a "unipolar world" emerged. Indeed, many commentators have suggested that the US is so dominant that it deserves the new title of "hyperpower". Far from hyperbole, the term is an expression of the unique historical position that America holds as the first truly global hegemon. As the neo-con Robert Kagan argues, now that the "lingering mirage of European global power" appears to be fading, there is no remaining counterbalance to the United States. In the Pentagon's own words, from the 2002 US National Security Strategy: "Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States."

Thus, the events of 1989 led to a conjunction of power and ideological imperative that many see as irresistible. Recent works such as Niall Ferguson's Colossus illustrate the point. Ferguson notes the successful democratisation of Germany and Japan after the Second World War as a simple prelude to his main argument. He claims the US should now look to carve a world wide democratic empire from rogue regimes and failed states. Optimists and neo-cons are more confident than ever that democracy can be spread and that the process can be galvanised with an even greater application of force.

Ironically, however, this has become more contentious since 1989. The long-term strategic challenges thrown up by the conclusion of the cold war have been obscured by the sheer number of democracies established during and immediately after it. …

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