A Reply to Shimmin

An outline of Shimmin's main arguments appear in boldface, followed by rebuttals interjected throughout the text in ordinary typeface

By R.J. Rummel, With Peace Magazine Editors | 1999-10-01 12:00:00

1. Western democracies would be weak if they did not:

(a) dominate the global markets,

Interjection: The "Democratic Peace" thesis does not focus specifically on Western democracies, but on democracies in general. It is a mistake to equate democracy to Western civilization. Germany, for example, is Western but it did not become a unified democratic country until 1990. Today there are over 100 democracies in the world, the vast majority of which are non-Western. The Democratic Peace propositions are independent of culture, geographic location, religion, economic development, levels of education and technology, the number of borders a nation has, internal diversity, and so on. The major variable is the power of the state. Moreover, when we refer to "Western democracies," we should keep in mind that the term includes not only the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, but also Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Greece, and the Czech Republic - countries which differ in many ways.

In any case, if Western interests had been dominant enough to prevent the collapse of the financial markets in Asia, Russia, and Brazil two years ago they would have done so. A more serious danger is that perhaps no centre of power can prop up the market any longer, so that the next collapse may bring down stock exchanges all around the world. That would be a catastrophe for everyone, not just Western democracies.

(b) dominate the international governing bodies (e.g. the U.N.),

Interjection: It is true that the United States in particular has inordinate international influence. However, two non-Western countries, China and Russia, neither of which is classified as a full democracy, also have veto power in the Security Council. The General Assembly has long comprised more countries than those whose votes any Western democracies can decisively influence (should the Western democracies all happen to find themselves in agreement on some issue). Thus, the United States recently has been unable to block the adoption of treaties banning landmines and creating an International Criminal Court.

(c) have the most powerful militaries,

Interjection: The United States has the strongest military force, but the Western European democracies considered themselves too weak to intervene alone in Yugoslavia. The countries that spend the largest portion of their national budgets on the military are not Western democracies. SIPRI's 1997 Yearbook names Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as spending especially high and increasing portions of their budgets on the military.

(d) perpetuate instability, violence, and dictatorships abroad.

Interjection: In discussing colonialism, genocide, slavery, and mercantilism, Shimmin forgets that these crimes, going back 400 years, were committed by nations that were not democratic. In fact, it was democratic movements in Western societies that reversed those crimes by abolishing the slave trade, enfranchising blacks, accepting colonial independence, and making piracy illegal.

And as for the present, the New York Times Magazine of August 8 features an article by David Rieff that proclaims, "Human rights now drives foreign policy to a degree unimaginable a decade ago." Rieff notes that the United States State Department has an Ambassador at Large for War Crimes and an Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and that "few foreign-aid programs now go forward without 'democracy-building' and human rights stipulations." Human Rights Watch, with a budget of $15 million provided mainly by the Soros Foundation and the Ford Foundation, may be the most influential lobbyist in Washington. Human rights NGOs frequently expose governments' complicity with abusive regimes. For example, they forced George Bush to go to El Salvador to put a stop to the death squads, since Congress would not provide funding otherwise. More recently, an ex-dictator, Pinochet, may be prosecuted as a result of decisions made in democratic Britain and Spain.

It should be noted that most human rights organizations in civil societies around the world favored NATO's bombing of Serbia, whether or not one accepts their rationale. (Violence can find support, not only where Shimmin expects to find it - in Western democratic governments - but sometimes even in civil society.)

2. Western democracies (which are really dictatorships) export war and poverty to others. This happens because:

(a) Multinationals depend for their profit on exploiting others abroad.

Interjection: Criticism of "Western democracies" often really amounts to criticism of American policies. It seems only fair to acknowledge that the United States has helped other nations (including former enemies) to democratize. However, it is certainly true that there have been atrocious actions by the CIA and the American military. We can all name them. Generally they have been carried out with minimum democratic oversight by secret organizations operating as authoritarian enclaves within democratic structures. The answer is not less democracy but more of it, and, especially, public accountability through eliminating the secrecy.

But the critique mainly deals with war, poverty, and exploitation. Evidently Shimmin sees the multinational corporations and the World Bank as the most regressive elements of world society. Let us place the blame where it belongs. Amnesty International lists human rights violations every year, which are perpetrated by the dictatorships of the world - countries ranked as "not free" by Freedom House. They, not the World Bank and the multinationals, run the torture chambers and slave labor camps.

To be sure, it is important to impose more democratic accountability on the great corporations of the world, as well as on the agencies that regulate the international economy. However, almost no economists today believe that poor countries are better off if they steer clear of all multinational corporations. Where economic development does occur, it is generally a result of participating successfully in the world market. The great challenge facing poor countries is to find ways of enticing foreign capital to invest in them, which does not mean exploit them. Indeed, foreign investment has markedly increased the standard of living for about four-fifths of the world's population. Life expectancy in poor countries has generally increased and the proportion of the human population living in conditions of poverty is lower than at any other time in history.

These facts do not warrant complacency. The greatest challenge is to extend these benefits to the poorest one-fifth of humankind. In this, mainly democracies are making progress, even when it comes to opposing multinationals. Human rights activists in Burma, for example, would find Shimmin's article incomprehensible. The world's strong-est democracy, the United States, maintains severe economic sanctions against Burma over the objections of multinational corporations such as UNOCAL, a major oil company, whereas Burma's closest ally is China, the world's strongest dictatorship.

Democracy is not the father of poverty. Indeed, no democracy has suffered from mass famine. The world's worst famines have occurred in dictatorships such as the Soviet Union, China, and Ethiopia. Famine is now ravaging North Korea. Wherever countries have been divided, with one part communist and the other using a free market ( e.g. the Koreas, Vietnams, Chinas, and Germanys) the socialist half has always declined economically, relative to the other half. Overall, the free market has fostered economic development and democracy, while statism and dictatorship have been the greatest killers of all time. Communist regimes alone are responsible for about 110 million murdered in this century, when all domestic and foreign wars have killed in combat about 38 million.

(b) Western democracies supply the weapons to wage the world's wars.

Interjection: Yes, and so do non-democratic or semi-democratic countries such as China and Russia. There is a chance in democratic states for public opinion to mobilize and curtail the arms trade. However, it is not clear what citizens can do about the matter if they live in undemocratic societies.

China sells arms to the worst human rights violators, notably Sudan and Burma, to which the United States prohibits weapon sales. China sold such modern weapons as helicopter gunships to Sudan, which is financed by Iran. This is probably the bloodiest war going on in the world now. In addition to the battlefield conflicts, possibly a million people have died in Sudan from famine since the current dictatorship came to power.

Iran finances four of the five major wars currently going on in the world - the Kurdish rebels in Turkey, the Sudanese government, the Shiite faction in Afghanistan, and the opposition in Algeria. These are all the full-scale wars except the one in Sri Lanka. Iran purchases weapons from North Korea, which has antagonistic relations with every democracy in the world.

The civil war in Afghanistan illustrates a common pattern whereby dictatorships support armed factions against each other, as in the case of fundamentalist Islam versus Arab nationalists such as the Ba'athists. This is true of Iran versus Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Regrettably, "Western democracies" have sometimes supported the wrong side in foreign conflicts, as the United States did initially by supporting the authoritarian Taleban. On the other hand, along with Russia and Iran, it has also tried to secure a democratic peace in Afghanistan through compromise, though these efforts have been undermined by Saudi Arabia, which still supports the Taleban. In June, the United States imposed financial sanctions against the Taleban, while Saudi and Persian businesses contributed $50 million to terrorist Osama Bin Laden, who lives in Afghanistan.

3. Western democracies hold a monopoly on the means of force.

Interjection: On the contrary. There has been a proliferation of weaponry around the world while Western democracies have generally been cutting back. (See SIPRI's reports.) China is a major nuclear power with ICBMs and a veto in the United Nations.

4. It is Western democracies that are keeping other countries from becoming democratic. Examples:

Interjection: Many of the world's dictatorships (e.g. Libya, Iraq, and Iran) have considerable petroleum revenues. They can ignore the pressures of "Western democracies" to democratize.

(a) Yugoslavia. The West kept Milosevic in power until he stopped bowing down to Western dictators.

Interjection: Richard Holbrooke's and Warren Zimmermann's books show that they had long despised Milosevic and regarded him as irrational and beyond their influence. However, as Holbrooke shows, it was Milosevic who did finally break the impasse at Dayton and make an agreement possible. He could not do the same thing with respect to the text of Rambouillet since the Serbians would have ousted him for accepting its terms. There is a real possibility, even now, that the dismissal of Milosevic will result in his being replaced by Vojislav Seselj or some other even more radical nationalist. Milosevic was voted into office in a multi-party election. This does not mean that Serbia is a democracy any more so than the Third Reich was because Hitler came to power through a free election. For one thing, the virtual absence of a free Serbian press has prevented the kind of public discussion that should precede decision-making. It is the poorly-informed Serbs, not the Western democratic countries, who have kept Milosevic in power.

Although Shimmin blames the democratic governments for failing to support the "Together" movement demonstrators who marched in Belgrade a few years ago, those marchers were not all champions of democracy. Some of them opposed Milosevic because he had "betrayed the Serbs" by signing the Dayton accords. And the movement failed, not for lack of Western support but largely because Milosevic coopted one of its leaders, Vuk Draskovic, who favored the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo.

Whether or not one agrees with the NATO countries' eventual bombing of Serbia, it is not true that they had previously condoned Milosevic's human rights violations. Their sanctions had barred Yugoslavia's access to the IMF, the World Bank, and membership in the United Nations. Sanctions might have had an impact if Russia (a semi-democracy) had not sold oil at subsidized prices to Yugoslavia, which was violating human rights in Kosovo.

(b) Iraq is strengthened by democratic governments' refusal to include human rights in foreign policy.

Interjection: Western foreign policies do promote human rights. This is especially apparent in the Canadian emphasis on "human security." Unfortunately, genuine dilemmas may arise over implementing those values in real situations. Though bombing civilians in Serbia and starving children in Iraq hardly qualify as humanitarian interventions, they are considered as such by many policy-makers and citizens who find intolerable the violations by Serbian and Iraqi dictatorships. It is difficult to see promising ways of protecting human rights beyond these tragic, counterproductive approaches.

5. Democracy only comes into existence from civil society.

Interjection: Democracy has frequently been imposed from outside, as when the Western democracies gave new constitutions to Japan and Germany after World War II. Today countries are denied membership in the European Union unless they democratize. Often democracy has taken root in countries where it did not originate in the grass roots.

However, it is perfectly true that a strong civil society is one of the most important factors that foster the development and maintenance of democracy. Freedom of press and a rule of law are also defining characteristics and requisites of democracy.

Peace researcher R.J. Rummel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Hawaii.

Peace Magazine Fall 1999

Peace Magazine Fall 1999, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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