Democracy is the key

April 23, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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THE route to a possible solution in the Middle East may lie with the lessons of a rather stern and egotistical son of Scotland, in Asia a few years before Israel was founded in 1948: US General Douglas C McArthur.

In August 1945, McArthur went to Tokyo as effective military dictator of the defeated but still surly Japanese empire. Remember this was an alien land where some 3,000 young volunteer suicide pilots had just crashed their planes into Allied ships. And where Western ideas of democracy and human rights were virtually non-existent.

What did McArthur do to ensure future peace in Asia? Send in foreign peace-keepers from the new United Nations? Arrest the Japanese war criminals and take them to Cuba? Announce he had no intentions of imposing American values on another culture?

Answer: McArthur immediately set about a spot of “nation building”, not least the imposition of democracy on Japan. And it is just such a solution imposed from without that America must now contemplate in the Middle East.

Of course, Japanese history helped McArthur a bit. The country had a tradition of military warlords running things behind the Emperor_s silk robes. And that is precisely what the dour McArthur did. He respected Japanese dignity to the extent of retaining the war criminal Hirohito as puppet emperor, in a land where forms were of paramount importance. But McArthur did not confuse form with substance: he imposed an elected democratic constitution, including giving women the vote in what is still a deeply misogynistic culture.

I know, of course, that that Japanese democracy is flawed – whose is not? That_s not the point. In the aftermath of the Second World War, America created a lasting peace by undercutting with mass democracy the oligarchies and interest groups that had caused the war. By empowering ordinary men and women in Japan, and also in the former fascist enemies in Europe, and then giving them substantial economic aid, America changed the rules of the game.

This was not white, Western arrogance on behalf of Coca-Cola. It was basic common sense. The nascent Japanese (and German) middle classes, who had no interest in more war or festering enmities, were given a stake in their country_s civil and political institutions as a result of democracy imposed by the US. That middle-class self-interest has given us half a century without world war.

Fast forward to the Middle East today. I have no great sympathy with Ariel Sharon_s excesses on the West Bank, which have merely fostered a new generation of Palestinian hatred. But I do understand the missing element in the Middle East equation: a settlement requires two sides to negotiate and with whom is there to negotiate in faith on the Palestinian side? No-one elected Yasser Arafat, which is why he could play such a duplicitous game tacitly supporting the suicide bombers. There is no Palestinian democracy and therefore no way the educated Palestinian middle classes can exert political influence. The same is true of much of the rest of the Arab world: a democratic Syria would not be funding and arming the fanatics of the Hezbollah.

This asymmetry explains the collapse of the Oslo Accords and the Palestine peace process. Oslo was premised on leaving the difficult-to-resolve issues open-ended; ie the fate of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and the right of return to Israel for the 1949 Arab refugees. But you can only postpone the hard bits if both sides trust each other enough to broker an eventual deal based on self-interest. No democracy: no self-interest: no deal possible.

Yes, I know Sharon played a provocative role in starting the Palestinian uprising by going to the Wailing Wall and supporting the West Bank settlements. But I trust Israeli democracy to take care of Sharon. The problem is that there was no corresponding democratic anchor on the Palestinian side to steer round Sharon and the hawks.

Result: a peace process will now have to be imposed, McArthur-style, from without by America. It will have to start by specifying the final outcome and not hoping the loose ends will take care of themselves – for example, the fate of the West Bank settlements, which will either have to be removed or (better) traded for land for returning 1948 refugees in Israel proper.

And this process must include democratic elections on the Palestinian side.

But America first needs to rediscover the success of Douglas McArthur. Back In 1991, at the fag-end of his presidency, the advisers to George Bush, sen, including the current vice president, Dick Cheney, sat down to contemplate American foreign policy in the new millennium where the US was suddenly the only superpower. The outcome: America would contrive to stop the emergence of any new superpower but otherwise withdraw and mind its own business.

So to the year 2000 and the election of Bush, jun. The old Cheney plan was immediately dusted down and put into play. But it soon revealed a serious defect. The way Cheney and Co had seen things working was that America would not police the world. There were even early noises about regional allies looking after their own patches – the EU in the Balkans, and so on. However, things did not turn out that way. A uni-polar Pax Americana cannot, by definition, be a hands-off affair.

While the rest of the world first denounced Bush for isolationism, the mice started to party as soon as the American cat tried to turn its back: endemic civil war in Africa, economic catastrophe in Latin America, the nuclear stand-off between India and Pakistan, Chinese sabre-rattling over Taiwan, and finally the disappearance of the Twin Towers in a cloud of dust as the Middle East went crazy.

A reluctant Bush has, one global crisis after another, returned to trying to hold the international ring while the rest of the world has returned to blaming it all on the US.

Unfortunately, this US volte-face is still only a piecemeal affair. America needs to theorise its engagement with global security as once it sent McArthur to impose, unselfconsciously, democratic norms on Asia. We need a Bush Doctrine that extends democracy to the world.

The present doctrine of the sovereignty of nations assumes a regime is pretty much free to do what it wants internally as long as it does not invade a neighbour. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, it proved a good rule that discouraged mutual suspicion. But it no longer works in a globalised world where economic, political and cultural sovereignties cannot be constrained inside domestic boundaries. Where mass population movements; involuntary interdependence in oil, trade and environmental degradation; competing ideologies and religious cults; and the internet swamp lines drawn on maps. And where a shoot-out in Bethlehem plays on prime time television.

In the 21st century, respect for national sovereignty will be increasingly dependent on the existence of democratic norms of behaviour. Otherwise, the democratic nations will have to impose such norms on unruly states (eg Iraq). A good place to begin is Palestine. Give them the vote in the refugee camps and see how long they remain in existence.