The story of exporting democracy is like having the Spotify app stuck on repeat. The same songs keep coming back over and over. Sadly, they are not songs that most people would enjoy, but songs made by the likes of Yoko Ono. The solution to the Spotify problem is easy, but how do we stop making the same mistakes in our democracy-exporting efforts?
First, let me introduce a terminus technicus. If you attend some of the wild parties attended by philosophy students, you might hear the term ‘intrinsic value’. Those are values that are good in and of themselves as opposed to ‘instrumental values’ that are good, because they facilitate something good. For instance, some might claim that happiness is an intrinsic value, but justice is instrumental since it only leads to more happiness. Others might just justice over happiness.
Now, what am I babbling about? Whenever we, as the western civilizations, approach a new country or a region in the world, we bring our values with us and implementation of these values is supposed to take care of whatever mess is in place at the moment of our arrival. We tend to think that if places as China were just a tiny bit more democratic, its citizens would be much better off. Surely, that sounds like a reasonable statement. Why have we then failed at creating true and functioning democracies around the world?
Perhaps you live under the delusion that we have created such countries, but let me dispel that mirage. We have managed to create regimes that seem stable like South Korea or Japan, however, they are far from the democratic ideal. In both those countries the powers lie within a very powerful elite class that is radically conservative. Electoral power is concentrated in specific regions, party strongholds, and due the low demographic growth and low net migration into these countries, it creates a situation of absolute conservation of conservatives at the top. That hardly sounds like a true and functioning democracy.
At the heart of the problem are the values that we see as pillars of Euro-American type of democracy. Among the things that we consider indispensable to modern liberal democracy are the freedom of expression, justice and equal opportunity. Undoubtedly, these are values worth worshipping, but our mistake is in the fact that we think that these values are intrinsic and therefore universal. By that I mean the fact that whenever we gallop into somebody else’s country we expect that these values will be immediately understood and endorsed. It is beyond our imagination that some might not see justice, for example, as an intrinsic value. At that point we self-righteously declare them wrong and impose that what we consider the best.
These values, albeit indispensable to liberal democracy, are hardly intrinsic. They are simply just instrumental. We know that having a fair justice system and freedom of expression ultimately leads to a better society, but our failure to export democracy is rooted precisely in the failure to comprehend that what we understand as universal logic is not universal at all. In most of Asia, the most important value stemming from history is the happiness of the people as a whole. Hence the heavy focus on the well-being of the community. If you assume that as your first intrinsic value, can you also hold up freedom of expression and justice in equal measure? I think not. It is simply because sometimes it so happens that a stable society is a happy society and stability is best achieved by a strong figure at the center, so the logic goes in Asia. Under such circumstances, freedom of expression is simply redundant and may even seem harmful.
We often ponder what did we do wrong in the Middle East. We tried our best to improve the conditions of the people there, but nearly two decades on, all we have on our hands is enough blood to fill up the lake Como and a string of endless wars. We used the same strategy in the Middle East as we did in Asia decades prior and it is heading towards the same results. Let’s not forget what western ideology based regimes did in Asia. Massacres and famines in the communist-inspired countries and military dictatorships in most of the rest. In the future, we can expect more of the same in the Middle East, but much worse, because this time we are not only conflating values of the society, but also of religions. Until we recognize that our beliefs and values are not universal and that people have the right to organize their own country according to their own values, without being moralized, there will be no peace.