Democracy is not New Labour’s to command

The UK foreign secretary’s big speech, ‘The Democracy Imperative’, restates the case for intervention post-Iraq. So much for change…

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics UK

One of the many fantasies about Gordon Brown’s government, put about by his groupies when he became prime minister last year, was that its foreign policy would mark a radical break with the Blairite interventionism that led to Iraq.

spiked pointed out at the time that this was more self-delusion from the rump of the Labour left. Brown might well wish to extricate himself and Britain from the Iraqi mess. After all, who wouldn’t? But that should not be mistaken for anything approaching non-interventionism. The new New Labour government would be at least as ‘new colonialist’ as the old New Labour government. And the worse things became in political battles at home, the more assiduously Brown and his ministers would be likely to search for opportunities to strike moral poses on foreign fields. (See 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister, by Brendan O’Neill.)

It was always clear that, after Iraq, it would be harder for the government to mobilise public support for intervention. But we at spiked were certain that it would not be for the want of trying.

Now, the truth about Brown’s foreign policy is out. And not via some dubious leak or revelation, but from the mouth of David Miliband, UK foreign secretary, in a speech delivered at Oxford University this week. Miliband used the Aung San Suu Kyi Lecture, named for the Burmese opposition leader at the Oxford college where she studied, to update the case for intervening around the world in the cause of spreading democracy. He called it ‘The Democracy Imperative’, implying that for Britain exporting democracy is an obligation not an option, a command not a choice.

Unfortunately for Mr Imperative Miliband, however, democracy around the world is not his to command.

The foreign secretary’s speech marked the return of the interventionists to the scene of the crime, to cover their tracks and prepare for future adventures. He began by saying that he understood ‘the doubts about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deep concerns at the mistakes made’, but immediately insisted that these should not be allowed to ‘cloud’ the urgent need to promote democracy around the world:

‘My plea is that we do not let divisions over those conflicts obscure our national interest, never mind our moral impulse, in supporting movements for democracy… We cannot be self-satisfied about the state of our own democracy. We cannot impose democratic norms. But we can be clear about the desirability of government by the people and clear that without hubris or sanctimony we can play a role in backing demands for democratic governance and all that goes with it.’ (1)

Miliband went on to outline various ways in which the British authorities plan to play that role, using both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power. These ranged from encouraging the ‘more literate, better educated people’ campaigning for democracy, like the bloggers in Burma (New Labour is of course rather less keen on democratic movements of the unsophisticated masses), through applying economic and diplomatic pressure via the UN, EU and other international institutions, to the ultimate use of the ‘hard power of targeted sanctions, international criminal proceedings, security guarantees and military intervention’.

We need not detain ourselves dealing with Miliband’s detailed response to what he claims are the main arguments offered against intervention – for example, the suggestion that democracy is a Western idea not suited to Asia, or that it may not be in the national interest of the country concerned. Because these are not, of course, the real problems with intervention at all.

The overriding objection to intervening for democracy is that it does not work, either as a principle or in practice. Yet Miliband and New Labour are so blindly assured of their role as global saviours that this does not appear to have occurred to him, even after Iraq.

Intervening to bring democracy is wrong in principle, because it cannot be introduced into a society from without. If democracy is to mean, as Miliband says, ‘government by the people’, then the people must build it. They have to take power, not wait for it to be granted by some benevolent interfering giant. History suggests that Chairman Mao was right to say that democracy can come from the barrel of a gun; but history also suggests that it does not come to the developing world from the guns of invading armies.

Miliband cited several historic struggles for democracy to support his case. He seemed almost wilfully unaware that none of these was the result of outside intervention. Trotting out the old nonsense about apartheid in South Africa supposedly being brought down by British and Western sanctions (‘Wot, no cricket? We give up!’) is still the insult to the black masses who fought for freedom that it always was.

Whether economic, political or military in form, foreign intervention is inherently anti-democratic to the extent that it takes the destiny of those on the receiving end out of their own hands. It can only be a denial of self-determination. Such straightforward facts of political life are, it seems, beyond the scope of New Labour’s self-righteous worldview. Thus no sooner has Miliband paid passing lip service to the notion that ‘we cannot impose democratic norms’ than he is planning to do just that, proposing that the international community should offer a ‘security guarantee’ to ‘a new but fragile government, conditional on them abiding by democratic rules’ – rules that would naturally be laid down in the corridors of international power.

International interventions for democracy are not only anti-democratic in principle, they are also worse than useless in practice, regardless of how good the intentions of those intervening might be.

Although Miliband banged on about the positive example of the recent Burmese protests, those events showed the strict limitations of ‘soft power’ support for democracy movements. The bloggers who were focused on winning the ear of the international media rather than building a popular movement in Burma found expressions of international sympathy of little use when the regime sent in the troops and tanks.

But ‘hard power’ interventions for democracy do not work, either. Take the obvious example of Iraq. Leave aside all of the arguments about what the real motives of the invasion might have been, take the Bush-Blair argument for liberating Iraq at face value, and still it could not succeed. Because without a genuine Iraqi liberation movement to take power and build democracy, the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s state could only create a power vacuum and invite chaos. This is not the wisdom of hindsight – many of us argued it long before the invasion. Yet five years later the real lesson of Iraq appears lost on Brown, Miliband and co. It is not about the problem of Britain’s misplaced close relationship with American power. It is about the problem of the British elite’s misguided faith in its own power to save the world from itself.

In his Oxford speech (let’s not massage his already well-oiled ego by calling such thin stuff the Miliband doctrine), the foreign secretary concedes that there might be a problem with exporting democracy to societies torn by conflicts between warlords, the military and the like, but only because they might not yet be ready to be enlightened by the FCO, the UN and the EU. ‘We need, of course, to be cautious about our capacity to change the world’, he said. ‘But while we have less influence than we might hope, we have more than we might fear.’ Indeed they do – but not for good. The record shows that international intervention in local conflicts tends only to exacerbate and perpetuate the problems, as the protagonists become actors vying for global recognition.

Yet here is Miliband, trying to pave the way for a further extension of interventionist foreign policy from Darfur to China. He can of course forget about the Chinese taking any notice of a word that he says. But the peoples of the developing world can expect to have their ears bent in earnest.

His concession about the ‘mistakes’ made in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan should not be mistaken for a backtracking from more of the same. It is part of the attempt to accept that the implementation of the plan has gone awry in Iraq, while insisting that the principle was sound. But the reason interventions for democracy fail to work is not simply because mistakes are inevitably made. Even the recent interventions of which New Labour and its allies are most proud, from Bosnia to Kosovo and East Timor, have turned out to be disastrous for the cause of democracy and universal values that they claim to champion.

So why do they remain so wedded to the idea of intervention and blind to its deficiencies? Because they are motivated, as Miliband hinted in his speech, less by the pursuit of national interests than the pursuit of moral values. That might sound like a grand and altruistic thing. But in reality it is more like a self-centred attempt to give governments that are lost at home a clear sense of moral purpose and mission in the international sphere. It is always far easier to strike poses against Evil and make gestures for Good abroad than it is in the messy affairs of domestic politics.

Some of us who write for spiked have been arguing against this new moral crusade for intervention since it first came to prominence in the 1990s. Miliband referred to that key post-Cold War period in his speech, but – sounding like the overgrown schoolboy he resembles – he seemed to have no memory or understanding of what happened. It may be worth quoting his assessment in full here:

‘Yet in the 1990s, something strange happened. The neoconservative movement seemed to be most sure about spreading democracy around the world. The left seemed conflicted between the desirability of the goal and its qualms about the use of military means. In fact, the goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project; the means need to combine soft and hard power. We should not let the genuine debate about the “how” of foreign policy obscure the clarity about the “what”.’

Contrary to Miliband’s claim, it was the left that led the Nineties moral crusade for intervention, focused first on the Balkans, and the neoconservatives who followed in their footsteps. At a time when the traditional left was lost and as down as the Berlin Wall, the ‘laptop bombardiers’ of the liberal intelligentsia found a new moral mission for themselves by demanding that Britain and the West must intervene in the civil wars in the Former Yugoslavia, and celebrating when NATO launched its war against the Serbs. Some openly dreamed that they were following in their fathers’ noble footsteps by taking a stand against fascism and genocide. New Labour became the party of this new, narcissistic school of global interventionism.

When the old right found itself equally adrift in a changing world, the neocon crusaders in America follow the path blazed by the European left in seeking salvation overseas. The war in Iraq was essentially their Kosovo – not primarily about finding WMDs or securing oilfields, but about finding themselves and securing a sense of their place in the world. Many on the left might have opposed the Iraq war as a neo-con trick – but that does not alter the way that their moralism paved the way for it. The Blair government’s leading role in both the Kosovo and Iraq wars was at least consistent.

The fallout from Iraq in the West should have demonstrated that the new interventionism cannot even succeed in its own terms; far from giving the governments concerned a clear sense of purpose or uniting the nation behind them, Iraq only exposed the lack of consensus and common values in our societies. Yet the absence of anything else in British politics to re-energise New Labour means that Brown and Miliband are drawn back to international intervention like moths to a flame. (And don’t imagine that David Cameron’s Conservatives would be much different.) They have learnt nothing, and forgotten nothing.

‘The Democracy Imperative’ confirms that the political elite feels commanded to try to restate the moral case for intervention. Which makes it imperative for others to raise the alternative principles of international solidarity with those struggling for freedom, and anti-interventionism.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler explained why Afghans were right to reject Paddy Ashdown as their UN ‘super-envoy’ and described how Kosovo’s ‘independence’ meant dependence on the UN. Philip Cunliffe reviewed David Chandler’s book Empire in Denial, and looked at the atrophy of foreign policy today. Frank Furedi said politics without sovereignty is not politics at all. Or read more at spiked issues Asia and British politics.

(1) The Democracy Imperative, David Miliband, Speech in Oxford, 12 February 2008

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Topics Politics UK


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