News: Exporting Democracy

Exporting Democracy

Exporting DemocracyBob Rae's book, Exporting Democracy - The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea, is a good read, however, I found its title misleading. The title and description on the jacket would lead you to believe that it's about efforts over the years to spread democracy, but only a small portion, namely involving Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, is really about that. And I don't think I was alone in thinking this. In the acknowledgements at the end it's stated that a comment on an earlier draft was "There's a book in there somewhere, but it's not there yet." Perhaps the reviewer felt differently about the final draft, but I didn't. Nevertheless, it is a good read and resulted in much learned and much food for thought.

The book starts out around the 1700s and involves the events of two emerging nations during pivotal times in their development: France and its French Revolution, and the United States of America and its American Revolution. At the same time it introduces two philosophers of the time, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Burke felt that institutions were more important than individual rights since it was the institutions that supported the people and lived on. Burke therefore was against the French Revolution. This revolution lead to the rule of Emperor Napoleon but the war that he subsequently forged ended feudalism in Europe and began the age of nation states and ultimately democracy and better institutions.  Paine was more what today is called the political right, pro small government, and warned Britain of what would happen if they continued to tax the American colonies without representation, which ultimately lead to the Revolution. It's interesting to read of their involvement and their stances of the two revolutions at the time - and given that their lives spanned the long period of the revolutions, their stances sometimes seem to switch sides.

Next the book talks of the period before, during and after World War I. During that period, though Britain itself had a parliamentary democracy, it also ruled over a globe-spanning empire of colonies where those colonies had no democratic representation. Similarly, the US was involved in some empire building, a notable case being the Philippine's which the US took over from the Spanish in 1998 and granted independence to only after World War II. It points out the well known fact that the Treaty of Versailles, that made Germany pay for reparations for its involvement in World War I, lead in part to World War II. Then US President, Woodrow Wilson, had good intentions at the war's end but the European leaders wanted revenge on the German nation and paid for with the second war twenty years later.

Fortunately, as we see in the next chapter, the lesson was learned and not repeated after World War II when only the German leaders who lead the war were put to trial and made to pay, while the nation and the European continent was rebuilt. Of significance to the future of democracy, as a stipulation for aiding Britain in the war, US President Franklin Roosevelt required of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that after the war the then world-spanning British empire must allow its colonies to choose their own path. This lead to the formation of many new countries in the decades after the war, some to democracy and many to tyrannical rule.

At this point in the book, Rae starts to mention federalism more - that being a nation of states or provinces with a central government and where the states/provinces have responsibility for local matters and the central government has responsibility for more general and common matters. The result is the opportunity for culturally, historically and economically diverse groups to get along as a single nation.

World War II was followed by the Cold War during which the USSR spread communism to many nations. The USSR considered itself a federation but Rae argues that the central control over annexed nations was so extreme that this was not the case.

The book next talks about the Vietnam, Korean, Iraq and Afghanistan wars and it's at this point that we start to see some intention to spread democracy, though in none of the cases was that the initial purpose. These are current enough that I won't go into details of what Rae writes.

Rae then goes into the history of Israel and gives a good account of the issues and players there. Though Israel is a democracy, none of what goes on there is derived from the desire to spread democracy but it makes for an interesting chapter nevertheless.

That is followed by the conflict in Sri Lanka, the only topic which I had next to no familiarity with. As part of Rae's extensive repertoire, including being Premier of a Canadian province and later a Member of Parliament in the Canadian federal government, during 2002 and 2003 he was  chair for the Forum of Federations. Through the Forum he worked with all sides in Sri Lanka in efforts to create peace and so his knowledge of the issues, at times first hand, makes for a revealing account. The chapter ends with the 2009 end of conflict from the violent defeat of one side. Sri Lanka is now a stable democratic, socialist republic.

The final chapter is divided between summarizing the issues of the book and talking about democracy and federalism in Canada, a nation that strives to make multiculturalism work as opposed to the melting pot approach of the US, and about federalism throughout the rest of the world.

As you can see, this book tries to cover a lot. At times I had trouble understanding how topics fit into the book's purpose but with the good writing and constant flow of interesting information, that didn't stop me. Rae's talk of federalism made me think of the struggle in another book I'd recently read, The Armageddon Factor, about the rise of the religious right in Canada which has everything to do with different cultures and belief systems trying to get along in a single nation.

So as I said, this book is a good read and provides much food for thought. I'd recommend it.

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