Prof. David M. Crane (SES, ret.), Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, discusses how liberal democracy is being challenged by strongmen seeking a more controlled nationalistic governance.
“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” – John F. Kennedy
Fukuyama’s “The End of History” paper claimed that the western liberal democracy is the final form of the human-governance evolution. His argument relied on the Democratic Peace Theory, originating from the early 1700s, which states that most democratic countries are reluctant to engage in armed conflict with another republic or democratic country with the key motivator being peace. Countries can be categorically assigned to three states of democratic peace: (1) monadic where democracies are generally more peaceful when interacting with other state actors, (2) dyadic where democracies choose not to go to war with other democracies, and (3) systemic where more democratic states in the international community create the space for the international system to be more peaceful.
After World War Two, the world settled on the third state under the United Nations paradigm. It has lasted for over seventy-five years.
At the turn of the century, after the Cold War and various other events such as 9/11, the United States became more rigid and absolute in its foreign policy and domestic affairs when considering the larger picture of where the world was headed. The “fall of the wall” created an unrealistic, even naive optimism in the late 20th century advocated by Francis Fukuyama, who stated a strong belief that democracy is going to continue to spread and create harmony.
Later on, Fukuyama explains that the growing pessimism of the 21st century is derived from two different ideals: the crisis the world saw in the last century and “the intellectual crisis of Western rationalism.” The latter point of intellectual crisis is because liberal democracy lacked the proper mechanisms to defend itself as a governing mechanism. Sensing this shift, politicians around the world began to turn to nationalism and populism as an alternative to democracy. Today, liberal democracy is being challenged on all fronts by strongmen who seek a more controlled nationalistic governance.
Realism as a political dynamic is the means in which international state actors use to develop and frame their actions in the name of politics. This doctrine, propagated long ago by Machiavelli, has influenced the way the United States interacted with foreign actors during the Cold War. The United States did not rely on a nascent United Nations for protection, but rather on itself – illustrating that “liberalism had no particularly privileged position.” The reality of the Cold War made this a practical and real understanding of the world as it was not as it should be. After 9/11 the United States continued this strategy in its ill-fated “war on terrorism.” As President George Bush boldly declared to a Joint Session of Congress in September of 2001, “you are either with us or against us.” The liberal political concept of a democratic peace went out the window as the towers collapsed.
Alas, this gave way to the Age of the Strongman, which brought in a new wave of authoritarian figures throughout the world who had little to no acceptance for minorities and dissents, pushing aside the ideals of “the new world order” and the hopeful Age of Accountability that began in the early 1990s. Not since the early 1930s has the threat of authoritarianism been more prevalent.
Democracy gives way to authoritarianism in different forms. In one of the forms, political polarization is the first step to whittling away at democracy. This can be seen today in the United States when both sides choose to ignore the other or argue without listening. In the United States, we are facing a major political shift brought upon by circumstances over the past five years. Political polarization continues to weaken and challenge our faltering Republic. With this political radicalization, the uncertainty of the pandemic, and with ever-growing social desperation in this economy, this strain on our democratic ideals continues. In general, this is a phenomenon that all liberal democracies face around the world.
The rule of law is also being challenged. The seventy-five-year long paradigm of the United Nations is faltering. Though it has been able to produce good work, the United Nations’ power and ability to enforce the rule of law is almost non-existent today. The permanent members of the UN Security Council are at loggerheads and have frozen the operative ability of the UN to maintain international peace and security. Two of the five permanent members are ruled by authoritarian leaders, another, the United States, is slipping toward authoritarian rule, the other two, both liberal democracies, are weakened by internal domestic challenges brought upon by populism and pandemic policies. The world is not seeing many great examples of good governance and lacks leadership.
The United States being added to the list of “Backsliding Democracies” for the first time is a further warning sign of this faltering leadership at the international level. Isaac Asimov had it right when he stated: There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
Currently, all of these factors are apparently accelerating a demise of democracy. Despite this, democracy remains a valid and relevant governing principle and should be defended. A way to approach this is to focus on the concept of freedom. All cultures and peoples want to be free from want, to worship in their own tradition, to speak, and to be free from fear. As a governing tool, democracies tend to foster these freedoms. Authoritarianism certainly does not and history shows this to be true. The idea of democratic peace was just that—an idea; yet the decades-old concept of the UN paradigm under the rule of law is still a realistic and relevant framework where the democracies of the world can stand shoulder to shoulder and face down this dark incoming tide of authoritarianism. Ultimately, freedom and democracy are stronger than fear and tyranny.
Prof. David M. Crane (SES, ret.) was the Founding Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is the Founder of the Global Accountability Network and is also a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Syracuse University College of Law. He is the author of Every Living Thing: Facing Down Terrorists, Warlords, and Thugs in West Africa—A Story of Justice. He was assisted by Kanalya Arivalagan.
Suggested citation: David M. Crane, The End of Democratic Peace in the Age of the Strongman, JURIST – Academic Commentary, January 6, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/01/crane-david-democratic-peace-age-of-strongman/.
This article was prepared for publication by Viraj Aditya, a JURIST staff editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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